Gossip Run Amuck

The South loves its gossip.

But the best-known form of Southern gossip -- word of mouth, barbershop banter -- is being usurped by a more insidious brand of rumor-mongering.

Like kudzu in Dixie, the Internet is taking over much of our dialogue, and its grapevine has longer, sharper tendrils than anything ol' Snuffy Smith passed along at the split-rail fence.

The evil behind this techno-babble is anonymity.

Make up a computer handle, make up a plausible tall tale, spin it on a forum to your heart's delight and watch havoc ensue.

Cyberspace rumors can take on lives of their own. To borrow from a recent David Rader expression on a different topic, they can grow "multitudinally, or even exponentially" in a matter of hours.

Hot hearsay can speed from germination to full-blown, bilateral belief in no time when it's riding the broadband.

If you have children or grandbabies up to age 13 or so, you may be acquainted with the Veggiestales videos. One episode called Larry Boy and the Rumor Weed shows the damage that can be done by out-of-control gossip.

Of course the problems evoked in this video fiction pale in comparison to the real-life dilemmas that can be drummed up by one false piece of information floated on the Internet.

Alabama fans know the drill.

If you believed the chatter, quarterback Brodie Croyle was wounded, gravely injured or perhaps even bumped off altogether during a hunting trip to Argentina this summer.

There's an inherent danger in spawning rumors on Internet boards that creeps well beyond the moral ramifications.

Lives can be affected as the malicious gossip somehow morphs into what people believe to be the truth.

Can you imagine the panic in Tee Croyle when she caught wind of the Argentina blather? Unable to reach her husband John and son Brodie, who were out of cell range and had to travel into town once a day to call home, surely she was nearly frantic before finding out for certain her son was alive and well in South America.

There's always the possibility a reporter will get wind of a story, get sloppy and plop it further into the public domain.

Alabama linebacker Freddie Roach recently settled out of court with a Huntsville television station that rushed to the air in the summer of 2004.

You probably recall the situation.

The story claimed Sheffield police were searching for an Alabama football player, believed to be Roach, for a gun charge and resisting arrest for an incident at a nightclub. The story was accurate; the player's identity wasn't.

The TV station paid the price for jumping the gun.

Just this week, Alabama-based fan Websites were ablaze with speculation over which Crimson Tide player or players had failed to maintain their academic eligibility for the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.

In typical Internet fashion, the rumors were partially on the mark.

Cornerback Simeon Castille had not made the necessary grades, as Crimson Tide coach Mike Shula confirmed on Thursday. Receiver DJ Hall and Chris Keys, a linebacker or safety next season, also had their names dragged through the mire on the 'Net, and some ``legitimate'' media played the fool and ran with stories of their ineligibility without fully vetting them. As of Thursday, Hall and Keys were both eligible to play in the bowl.

Television journalism has gotten a well-deserved black eye of late, and it has no chance of redeeming itself by slopping through Internet chit-chat to feed its telecast.

Editor's Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register, he writes a weekly column for BamaMag.com

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