August 19th, 2009
12:58 PM ET
When John Hughes passed away recently, my colleague Rachel Wells posted a great blog entry describing our verification and reporting process when a celebrity dies. What she didn't add, as it wasn't relevant at the time, was that we follow the same steps when a celeb doesn't die - that is, when it's just a stupid rumor.
The latest not-dead celeb is Robert Pattinson, of Twilight fame. Overnight, someone apparently edited his Wikipedia entry to say he had died, and almost immediately, CNN was inundated with emails asking if it was true. So we dutifully put in calls to his manager and his agent, as well as Twilight's distribution company. A couple of days ago, we were contacting Eminem's reps, after the rapper had supposedly died in a car crash.
Sometimes it seems you haven't made it in Hollywood unless someone says you're dead. Recent non-dead celebs include Harrison Ford (supposedly disappeared on a boat in the French Riviera), Natalie Portman, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, and Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum, who was said to have fallen off a cliff while making a movie in New Zealand - he was in L.A. at the time – even gave his own comedic eulogy on The Colbert Report. (I happened to be the one to call Goldblum's publicist, and before I could even ask, the rep said "No, he's not dead.") Going a bit further back, everyone from Tom Hanks to Tom Cruise has been targeted.
Such rumors are nothing new: Leave It To Beaver star Jerry Mathers was supposed to have died in Vietnam, and I remember friends swearing that Mikey from the Life Cereal ads had eaten Pop Rocks, drank a Coke, and his stomach had exploded. Rumor-debunking websites such as Snopes have flourished investigating and knocking down such bogus claims.
My first thought on hearing one of these rumors is the same as when I read about a new computer virus: what dolt did this? Who thinks this is funny? At least creating a computer virus takes a bit of cleverness and skill; whipping up a fake Wikipedia entry - or a faux wire article or a phony tweet - just takes having more spare time than sense, or class.
At least it points out something positive about the MSM, the mainstream media it's so fashionable to hate. Sure, independent blogs and other websites often break stories on which the MSM moves more slowly, or not at all. But part of the reason is that we check and double-check our facts. Unlike many websites, CNN has an established process that demands we confirm things like births, weddings, divorces, arrests... and especially deaths. It's why we got so many calls overnight about Pattinson: our reputation for getting it right, even if we're not first.
Sure, we make mistakes - we're human. And some people will always care more about rumor than fact. But for those who'd rather know if the email they're forwarding or the news they're linking to on Facebook is actually true, we'll keep doing what we're doing.
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