A permeable membrane between fact . . . and fiction

Jan. 25, 2014

Case Study in Urban Legends

An urban legend reported in Snopes — “Marine Layer” — has several fascinating aspects in its mixture of true and false elements.

First off, the basic story is true: in Nov. 2010, a shoplifter in Augusta, GA on “Black Friday” bolts out the door from a Best Buy store. A group of 11 Toys for Tots volunteers, including four U.S. marines, see him and hear someone shout “Stop him!” So one of the Marines clotheslines him and in the ensuing struggle the shoplifter pulls a knife and stabs the Marine in the back while the others eventually subdue him. The valiant stabbed Marine gets three stitches at the hospital and is released.  (He later says with some gentle modesty, “I really can’t believe he messed up my uniform.”)

But what happens as the chain letter-mongerers get into action is the interesting part. Someone…or ones…inserts a new “factoid” into the otherwise legit AP news account. The new graf says the shoplifter was transported to the hospital with:

“two broken arms, a broken ankle, a broken leg, several missing teeth, possible broken ribs, multiple contusions, assorted lacerations, a broken nose and a broken jaw… injuries he sustained when he slipped and fell off of the curb after stabbing the Marine.

The implication, as Snopes points out, is that we’re supposed to read this as “don’t mess with the Marines.”

Now, it’s an interesting enough story as it is but someone…or ones…felt that it wasn’t quite good enough and had to insert their own agenda. It’s like the someone thinks that news is no different really than a teleplay — anything that happens in real life can be improved to make a point, and never mind that it’s being presented as news. Like…you ask me how I sprained my wrist and I tell you that I tripped on the tennis court…and then go on, in all seriousness, to state that I was running over to shake hands with my doubles opponent after a victory and my disgruntled opponent’s partner tripped me and walked away laughing.

This might make a good movie plot but what happens when you really want a semblance of truthfulness?

The idea seems to be that for these fakers all of life is simply a narrative presented for us to re-manufacture in order to make particular ideological points.

No matter your feelings about the credibility of any news outlet — be it Fox, CNN or The Arizona Republic, there’s at least a pretense of not making shit up. In the case of the someone “fixing” this story, the perp truly, actually and literally knows he’s making shit up.

But it gets worse. The someone…or ones…who urban-legendized this news item went on to photoshop the new (faux) paragraph into the actual AP story (which you can see at the Snopes site).

And worse: The same exact story, nearly word for word, shows up three months later datelined Perth, Australia with the details localized (“Marines” changed to “SAS troopers,” “Best Buy” changed to “Toys R Us,” and The Augusta Chronicle changed to The West Australian).

Who are these legendizers?

I’d really like to sit down over a friendly cup of coffee with someone — and there are many — who has done this and pick his brain (somehow I’m pretty sure they are hims) to see what their thought process is. I’ve seen numerous instances of legendizers changing details of a legit story to localize it…and passing it off as an actuality. (See the notorious “Dammed Beavers!” which was transported from Michigan to Pennsylvania.) And of course there are lamebrained putative humorous anecdotalists who insist on adding unnecessary “closers” to their motivational stories (“the audience broke into applause…”).

But the whole cloth invention of “facts” calls for a mind with a very permeable membrane between truth and story.

Anybody game for a little session at the Fess Up Table?

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