The real truth about Rumor Control Hot line: The city agency that was useful in the bad old days is still hanging on, but the great rumors just aren't coming in.

March 09, 1998|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

After 30 years of public service, Ext. 1188 hangs on by a fiber in a downtown office cubicle. Nothing is red or hot anymore about Baltimore's Rumor Control hot line, which has been reduced to a fifth-place extension on a city phone.

But if this once high-flying hot line could talk -- oh, the rumors it could spread!

Blue Star LSD stamps! Satanic messages in Procter & Gamble's man-in-the-moon trademark! Johns Hopkins offers reward for blue-eyed cicadas! Underwater mall at Inner Harbor! The Colts are moving! (OK, that was true.) The Great Norwegian Rat Rumor! (More on that later.) Soap star gets sex-change operation!

Then there's that oldie but goodie from the wild 1980s: Customers being ripped off at Old Court Savings and Loan!

"We said everything was fine," recalls Thomas Saunders, the "Rumor Control Guy" who helped field hundreds of daily calls from panicky Old Court investors. It was not Rumor Control's finest phone work.

"I had a friend who lost about $150,000," he says. "Better say 'ex-friend.' "

The fact is that Jeffrey Levitt, the former president of Old Court Savings and Loan, went to prison for stealing $14.6 million from his own thrift. Depositors staged a run on the institution, and Levitt became one seriously unpopular businessman.

Years later, Saunders confirms a rumor that this was the same Jeffrey Levitt he'd run into riding in city elevators.

"That's what he told me -- that your money is secure," says Saunders. "I took a lot of flak for that one."

Saunders learned his lesson, but what good is that now? Scandalous rumors rarely cross his transom anymore. Once tagged "the blood-pressure gauge of the city," today Baltimore's Rumor Control is on life support. Sure, people still call 396-1188 -- still listed in the Blue Pages. They ask about downtown sink holes (Was it a bomb?!) or Memorial Stadium's future (Heard they're putting a hotel there!). But mostly, the rumor business is running dry.

"We get about a dozen calls a day. But half of those are from people asking about the service itself," Saunders says. The other half? Well, "a lot of people call who want to know the rumors about them."

"People," Saunders suggests, "are more paranoid than normal."

A mere intern when he started in 1980, Saunders now heads the Community Relations Division. But he's always been a rumor magnate. At one point, he conducted rumor control workshops, and he even co-wrote a model "Rumor Control Operations Manual." All calls must be taken seriously, even when they appear trivial, is still one maxim.

In the 1970s and '80s, Rumor Control bustled. Rumors -- what Shakespeare called "the blunt monsters with uncounted heads" -- had become pop-culture staples. Rumors sold. Philip Caputo's "A Rumor of War" was a best-selling novel about Vietnam. Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" went ballistic on the pop charts. Tabloid journalism begot tabloid television.

Baltimore advertised its rumor hot line in area media: "Call if you have heard rumors which threaten the peace and safety of your community." Each council district had its own Rumor Control line. Rumor Control even entered a float in the annual Preakness parade: a red Mustang decorated as Rumor Control's red hot-line phone.

"We won honorable mention one year," Saunders says, with waning pride.

Concerned, confused residents routinely turned to Rumor Control for the straight dope, he says.

"People want an explanation in life," Saunders says. "When people don't have answers, fear grows."

The Baltimore Rumor Control Center was born from fear. It was established in 1968 amid the rioting that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. City staff worked around the clock handling hundreds of calls from frightened residents.

The notion for such an agency had come from the U.S. Department of Justice. It recommended the creation of rumor control operations "in recognition of the potential danger inherent in every inflammatory rumor," says the city manual.

Chicago, Philadelphia and other major cities also started rumor control centers. Many have since shut down. Saunders says Baltimore's is considered the oldest, and still a "model" operation, according to the Justice Department.

"They still call," Saunders says, "and we send them our manual."

Setting the tone

Despite the dried-up rumor business in Baltimore, the manual still sets the tone for handling calls. When skepticism is low and gullibility is high, hearsay or rumors can provoke people to do and believe incredible things, it warns.

Among his operating procedures, Saunders maintains a strict "According to" rule. That means whoever picks up Ext. 1188 these days makes sure they attribute their information to a source, namely the newspaper.

"That's how we cover ourselves," he says. No more of this quoting some guy in the elevator.

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