Journalism of verification runs smack into gullibility run amok … more on the Reid uncle hoax


skep·ti·cism (skpt-szm) n.
1. A doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind; dubiety.
2. An exceedingly rare trait among users of the World Web Wide.

When the e-mail claiming some genealogist had discovered Nevada Sen. Harry Reid had a great-uncle named Remus who was hanged in Montana in 1889 as a horse thief and train robber came in over the electronic transom on Monday, I checked it out on the usual hoax-busting Web sites, fired off what I hoped was a humorous blog posting, and went back to my day job of saving mankind from its customary predilection to gullibility and assorted tomfoolery.

The best of the e-mail, the part that made it truly funny and simultaneously unbelievable, was the claim that Reid's office had confirmed the relationship and recounted a slightly different account of his demise: "In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed."

Then today, while cleaning out the effluvia from my incoming e-mail, out of the corner of my eye I spied a fleeting reference to our affable senior senator as a particular message was being trashed. So I went scrounging in the refuse bin and fetched it back.

The hanging of Remus Reid
"The hanging of Remus Reid"

With it was a link to a Friday blog posting at a Washington state newspaper called “Ask the Editors.” It seems that paper too had been the recipient of the aforementioned.

Ken Robertson, executive editor of the Tri-City Herald and a self-confessed native of Montana, was asked about the potential veracity of said missive and, having never before heard of an Uncle Remus venturing so far from the briar patch, proceeded to practice the journalism of verification. It did not take him long to bump up against my Monday posting and its link to Snopes.com, where the horse thief was said to have been the ancestor of a number of high-profile politicians. (Which would you rather find swinging from your family tree? A horse thief or a politician?)

Robertson, too, used the situation for amusement value. He quoted a couple of duly attributed paragraphs from my posting and then ended on this note, “What Mitchell didn’t point out is that horse theft was likely to be a capital crime in the Old West, but stealing from the railroads was considered rather sporting, unless some upstanding citizen got killed.”

Robertson also provided links to a couple of different Web sites where variations on this hoax could be found. This got me to wondering just how widespread this thing had been. So I started searching.

Uncle Remus has gone viral.

On Tuesday, someone pasted the whole thing in the online comment section beneath one of Review-Journal Publisher Sherman Frederick’s columns.

On Thursday, Lee S. Gliddon Jr. posted the whole e-mail at desertconservative.com. In the comments below someone pasted my previous blog posting, and then below that Gliddon replied, “If you are reliant on SNOPES for your stance, save yuour time. SNOPES is a PROVEN Liberal organization and bends truth to FIT THEIR NEEDS! SHEESH!”

Then the hits just kept on coming. Some regurgitated it as fact, others were slightly skeptical and a few outed it as a bunkum:

(Hint: Some of the references are buried a bit now, so search for Reid, uncle or Remus and you'll find it.)

More Than Sew

Political Crossfire

Anti-Mullah

Urbangrounds

Tall Cotton

Gather

Idle

Kiowapilots

Enter the Fray on Slate

Fourwinds10

San Diego Union-Tribune

Dennis Myers’ blog on Reno News and Review

Comment on a Las Vegas Sun story

SSRfanatic

Gold Wing Road Riders Association

Adventure Rider

Gumtree

Freerepulic.com

Blogcritics.org

Scrogginsnoggin2

The earliest reference I could find to this was at novus.liber in November of 2007 and it was linked to George Bush, both of them presumably. Then I gave up searching and went back to reading the comics page.