Years ago, although I lived and worked on the west coast, I spent a good deal of time near Washington, D.C. on some temporary work assignments. On these extended trips with my technical team, I had some time to explore the various museums and monuments on the weekends after some very long work weeks. Little did I know that one such outing would blossom into a vivid lesson on how easily people can be swayed by exaggeration or even completely false information presented as fact, eclipsing reality in dramatic fashion.
One Saturday, my officemate Tom stopped by to say hello while I was in the hotel dining room eating breakfast. He mentioned that he planned to do a little sight-seeing that day. Not having any plans, I asked if I could join him, and off we went. It was a lovely spring day, and while I’d spent some time exploring the Washington and Lincoln Memorials before, I had never seen the Jefferson Memorial up close or sans scaffolding. Adding the sight of the Tidal Basin’s cherry blossoms made the trip that day irresistible.
It took a while to get there, but eventually we arrived at the Jefferson Memorial. Being such a gorgeous day, there was a large crowd milling in and around the monument. As we climbed the stairs, I was pleased to see that the scaffolding was gone. The monument was bigger than life with the statue of Jefferson standing in the center of the marble structure amid alternating walls and open archways showcasing gorgeous views of the Tidal Basin and the surrounding cherry blossoms. Inscriptions covered the inner walls, and I was enthralled. I wanted to read them all, but being short in stature, I needed to find a good vantage point to see through, around, or over the crowd. I focused on the inscription I was reading, oblivious to anything else around me as I backed into the open area near the Jefferson statue. Tom roused me from my reverie as he called my name in a hurried whisper, stopping me from bumping into the people behind me – Charlton Heston and his bodyguard. Although I was nonplussed about the fact that a celebrity was behind me, I was a bit embarrassed that I had almost bumped into him. When I later asked Tom how close I got, he said that I came within about a foot before he was able to stop me. He also said that it looked like the bodyguard was getting slightly nervous adding urgency to the situation, although I couldn’t attest to the validity of this assertion given Tom was a master of deadpan delivery.
Unbeknownst to me as I readied myself for work on the Monday morning following our weekend adventures, Tom, who had a rather vivid imagination, had composed a greatly exaggerated version of our outing (humorously presented as fact). He sent it out to our workmates on both coasts via email, but he didn’t copy me on the missive. Instead, shortly after I arrived at work, people stopped me in the hall asking why I knocked Charlton Heston to the ground and how I escaped capture at the Jefferson Memorial over the weekend. I was rather shocked. I hadn’t done any such thing, but apparently Tom had convinced them that I had. He had sent his email on Sunday, and it had bounced back and forth across the country several times, growing in infamy before I heard about it. All morning, I kept getting accosted by colleagues who claimed to know what had happened the previous weekend. Finally one of my colleagues forwarded me the email, as I desperately needed to read what Tom had written for myself.
I read Tom’s story with fascination. There were a few kernels of truth in his version of the tale, but most bore no resemblance to reality in any way. In his version of the events, he tried in vain to get my attention. Rather than being oblivious to my surroundings, he claimed I raced to the open area at the center of the monument, intentionally backed into Mr. Heston because he was in my way, knocked him down, took off running, and disappeared into the crowd. According to Tom’s story, this understandably created a serious, embarrassing incident involving not only Mr. Heston and his bodyguard, but also the Park Service and local law enforcement. Various colleagues added further embellishments as they forwarded the email detailing fictitious lawsuits banning me from all public places in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Later, as I was included in the distribution of further iterations, even my manager got into the act. He warned me that I needed to be more careful given Heston’s connection to God having portrayed Moses and all, and he also reminded me of Heston’s affiliation with the NRA.
Although the later embellishments were obvious, what was surprising to me at the time was how much of the original fantasy version of the story my colleagues believed. They didn’t buy into the ludicrous lawsuits or the other imaginative elements added as the emailed story grew, but many of them latched on to Tom’s fictional account of my causing Mr. Heston, who stood a good foot taller than me, bodily harm and then escaping into the crowd creating a sizeable incident at the site. People seemed genuinely disappointed by the banality of the real events when they confronted me, most of them dismissing my explanation out of hand. I had a reputation for being honest to a fault, so having my version dismissed this way was more than a little frustrating, but it was also rather curious. I wondered why the lurid, fantasy tale seemed more plausible than reality to so many of them. While I suspect a few who knew me well were taunting me (and I never have enjoyed teasing), others were dead serious in their dismissal of the truth, especially in light of how committed Tom was to his ruse.
Experiences like having my unexpected near-miss with Charlton Heston blown into something completely different have taught me to view even plausible stories with a healthy dose of skepticism. As a result, following a standard of verifying a claim through multiple independent sources is a good practice that I try to employ whenever possible. Of course, were my colleagues interested in independently verifying the veracity of Tom’s and my accounts at that time, finding multiple independent sources in the case of determining what really happened at the Jefferson Memorial that day would have been problematic given it came down to my word vs. Tom’s. Tom, no matter how exaggerated his claim, had gone to the trouble of documenting it in that email; whereas, I had no such documentation. Further, although we both had our cameras that day, neither of us had any photographic evidence of this particular incident to back up our claims. Then again, at least from my perspective at the time, I wasn’t aware that such documentation would be advisable.
While this incident happened in the mid-1990s, it sticks in my mind these days as a humorous and harmless example of the difficulty that can arise in sorting fact from fiction. It shows how easily a fictional narrative can take hold even among an intelligent, well-educated, and technically savvy audience. Although people were having fun with it, this kind of jump from a kernel of truth to fantasy-disguised-as-fact can often be much more consequential.
Email for both personal and business communication was becoming more common in the 1990s, but our reliance on the internet for general information and news wasn’t yet as ubiquitous as it would later become. As technological advances have leapt ahead, mounds of information have become available instantaneously on myriad subjects and events, and with that convenience, comes the challenge and responsibility for us all to fact check the information we consume. The advent of social media has compounded that challenge as dangerous, fictional narratives can sometimes supplant or skew real events allowing wild conspiracy theories to blossom and create chaos if we permit them to take hold. In fact, when a patently false narrative is used to sway a receptive audience, it can sometimes even become deadly. In 2020, in the midst of a dangerous pandemic where science has to compete with reckless denials and harmful misinformation, we need look no further than current events to see how damaging some false narratives can be as they eclipse reality and drive decisions and actions away from the truth.