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Below the Beltway

Extra! Extra!

All the news that's unfit to print

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page W40

A fast-food restaurant chain in the rural South is being sued by a waitress who claims she was unjustly fired her very first day on the job. The company is aggressively defending the suit, on the grounds of misrepresentation:

At her job interview, the woman had seemed competent and personable, if a bit rough around the edges. But the position did not require extraordinary sophistication, so the woman was hired. On her first day, she showed up on time and nicely dressed, but, to everyone's surprise, did not have a tooth in her head. When her new employers asked about this, she said:

(Eric Shansby)

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"It'th becauf in the interview, I wore my huthband'th teef."

I was tipped off to this fabulous case recently by a lawyer who heard it from another lawyer who knew the actual lawyer who is defending the case for the restaurant chain. There was only one thing wrong with this story: Like the teeth, it turned out to be false. Never happened.

Journalists have a term for this sort of thing -- "Stories Too Good to Check." (Tragically, the conventions of journalism require that we try.)

My first STGTC came in 1973, when I was a cub reporter for a small newspaper in Upstate New York. Looking for an unusual Thanksgiving story, I interviewed an American history professor who told me something I'd never read anywhere, a fact so wonderful that it would have put me and my story into half the newspapers in America. I alerted my editors, who began jumping up and down and backslapping each other. They cleared space on Page One. Unfortunately, during the next two days I could find not a single other expert who would confirm that at the first Thanksgiving, back in 1621, when the Pilgrims sat down to sup with the Indians, the menu was not corn and peas and turkey, but corn and peas and . . . dog.

An STGTC is invariably a crushing disappointment to the poor reporter who gets it. He winds up with raised hopes, a lot of work and, ultimately, no story. When I surveyed my colleagues at The Washington Post, many solemnly responded that they'd had plenty of STGTCs in their careers but that they'd managed to erase them from their memories, like the pain of childbirth. For others, the wounds are still raw.

Reporter T.R. Reid remembers how, when he was writing about excessive regulation by the European Union bureaucrats, he got a tip that the Eurocrats had gone so far as to issue regulations governing the minimum and maximum size of condoms. This actually turned out to be true. The part that couldn't survive checking, unfortunately, was that the Italians had asked that the minimum be made smaller.

Personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary gives out an annual Penny Pincher of the Year award, looking for heroic examples of personal stinginess. These tips often pan out, but, alas, Michelle couldn't confirm the one about a guy who was so cheap that he refused to buy a required-by-law automotive headset for his cell phone, instead strapping the phone to his ear with the waistband from his underpants.

It also wasn't true -- despite a solid-sounding tip to columnist John Kelly -- that real estate agents in Montgomery County were going to be prohibited from using the phrase "x-block walk to Metro" in their listings because it was insensitive to people in wheelchairs. (Also, "master" bedroom, because it carried connotations of slavery.)

When Post reporter Fern Shen was working at a Connecticut newspaper, she got a terrific STGTC shipped to her from the city desk. An immigrant Italian American cobbler was on the line, claiming, in heavily accented English, that the astronauts in the space shuttle kept telephoning his shoe-repair shop to ask for his help repairing a hatch that was stuck.

The guy was beside himself, but he seemed completely earnest. And, as it happened, there was a stuck hatch in the space shuttle. It was all over the news.

The cobbler said he was calling in desperation. He had tried NASA first, he said, but they no-wanna listen.

Fern checked it out. It turned out that there was a 900-number people could telephone to listen to live transmissions between the space center in Houston and the shuttle, and that somehow wires had gotten crossed. The 900-number kept telephoning that shoe repair shop, and on the other end of the line would be urgent space chatter.

And, lastly, there was the preposterous tip I got when I was a reporter in Michigan in 1977. Someone told me that there was an old state statute, long forgotten but still very much in effect, that made it legal to hunt house cats for sport. No penalty at all for killing cats, anywhere, any way, anytime.

That one proved true.

Page One, baby.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

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