Spreading Rumors, or Why Gossip Counts

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday April 08, 2010 - 08:48:00 AM

A reader writes: “for once I don't like what I hear of the Planet. Especially with Citizens United passing the Supremes, I think truth-telling is going to be as rare as hens' teeth, and our media megachurch shoul not encourage rumor & gossip.” She was complaining about the inclusion this week of a rumor that someone’s hoping to start a new Berkeley paper in the informal “Editor’s Back Fence” column. She has a point, but sometimes rumors are the leading edge of real information.  

The Latin poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses describes the House of Rumor thus: “Crowds fill the entryway, a fickle mob that comes and goes; and rumors everywhere, thousands of fabrications mixed with fact, wander the premises, while false reports flit all about. Some fill their idle ears with others’ words, and some go bearing tales elsewhere, while everywhere the fictions grow, as everyone adds on to what he’s heard.” (Charles Martin translation). 

That could be a description of much of what passes for news on the internet these days—and what has always passed for news in some quarters. Certainly rumors and gossip need to be clearly identified as what they are and no more. Where there’s a serious subject under discussion it’s better to investigate fully before publishing.  

But no one’s harmed by spotlighting a rumor (gleaned from a forwarded email sent out under the name of a reliable person) that discussions of starting a new Berkeley paper seem to be taking place. Perhaps since the idea is out in the open it will be easier to get factual information about actual plans, which our readers would like to know about. 

On the other hand, the report in a local news source that recent accident victims might have been speeding made me uncomfortable. This opinion was attributed to a police officer, true, but from the report it appeared that the only way the officer knew how fast the driver was going was that “witnesses said” so. Given that grieving families are involved, it might have been better if police could have said that they clocked the speed of the vehicle. If they didn’t really measure the speed, it might have been wiser to omit speculation which cast aspersions on a victim from a funeral report. But that’s a judgment call which could be argued either way. 

Another case in point: a rumor has reached my ears that a fellow councilmember blew the whistle on Councilmember Darryl Moore for his aide Ryan Lau’s unpermitted construction.  

That’s one I know is completely false, because the original call to the Planet which started it all off came from an acquaintance who’s in the construction business himself. He happened to have passed by Lau’s house and concluded that rules which he follows on his own jobs were being ignored. I got two different citizen activists who know their stuff to check out the permits for the address before I asked Fred Dodsworth to write the story up.  

Two lessons here: it would have been wrong to print a passerby’s gossipy report that the project was illegal without checking, and it would also be wrong to let the rumor that one councilmember was out to “get” a colleague go uncontradicted. 

In a small town (and Berkeley is a small town, or more properly a collection of small towns) news and gossip are hard to sort out. Inept reporters often object to being told about rumors, preferring to write stories from “clean” contacts with official spokespersons and tidy press releases, but they miss a lot that way. People with an axe to grind sometimes try to plant false rumors, of course, so as my grandmother used to say, it’s wise to “consider the source.” It’s just that official sources often have a bigger stake in the game. 

This is particularly true where planning and building departments are concerned, since in both Berkeley and Oakland project fees pay salaries, and when the projects dry up budgets do too. It’s not called the “Planning and Development Department” for nothing. It’s not in a planning department’s best interest to nix any ongoing project. 

When there’s a public perception of unfairness, rumors grow and spread. That’s why the persistent rumors that the same city building officials who ignore transgressions by well-connected city officials can be persuaded to harass smalltime owners of buildings on sites coveted by big builders have been taken seriously, even though proof is very hard to find.  

A few examples, widely talked about but hard to confirm: The Drayage, which passed inspection after inspection for years, and then suddenly was out of compliance and rapidly demolished; Iceland, whose cooling system had functioned just fine for years before a developer got an option on the property; the Bengal Basin Institute, one of whose tenants has a letter in this issue complaining of unfair enforcement.  

In a small town it’s not hard to notice when some citizens are treated more equally than others, and it makes citizens like Fred Dodsworth mad. Because his son had a bad experience with city enforcers, Fred asked to tell the story about the Lau property in a non-traditional personal voice, even though he’s an experienced professional journalist. Remembering the 60s mantra that the personal is political I approved his concept.  

If it’s institutions which are viewed as getting special favors, the public gets even madder. Suspicion that the University of California used heavy-handed manipulation of the political process in Sacramento to wiggle out from under the Alquist Priolo earthquake safety law has many stadium-area residents seething.  

Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. Inevitably as rumor mixes with fact cynicism about the way the political process works increases. 

The reserved parking spaces for councilmembers in the park behind city hall are a typical bone of contention. It’s petty, sure, but when drivers have an increasingly hard time parking downtown they ask why councilmembers can’t just park in a downtown garage like everyone else, and then they start inventing conspiracies.  

Small encounters where those who should know better seem to be flouting the law produce big resentments. I was crossing at College and Durant yesterday with a friend who was pushing her new baby in a stroller. She was in the crosswalk, with a green light, when a little parking enforcement vehicle whipped around the corner, almost running her down.  

Many fellow pedestrians observed this. “I saw that,” one commented.  

You can be sure that the cynicism quotient among the observers increased by many percentage points, even though no one was actually injured by the parking officer’s reckless driving. If you asked, witnesses would probably say that they thought complaining about the driver was pointless. As it might be. 

All in all, facts are still facts, but perception counts too. When it’s widely believed that something might be going on, it’s just possible that it is, which is why sometimes reporting rumors is a way to approach the truth.