In 1979, stories started to circulate in newspapers and television about the death of Mikey -- the lovable child who appeared on Life Cereal commercials for years. Reports indicated that John Gilchrist, who played the child who hated to eat anything (but loved the cereal as the commercial indicated), died after he ate a combination of soda pop and a type of candy that fizzled and popped in people's mouths.
Word of the child's death spread like wildfire across the nation. Eventually, the candy was pulled from store shelves with people convinced that it was horribly unsafe.
But here's the twist. It turns out the story on Gilchrist's demise were grossly exaggerated. The incident never happened, and the Life Cereal pitchman was very much alive.
When the first stories of his alleged death started to surface, members of the press immediately jumped into high gear. The problem was that no one had bothered to check their facts first.
Like many Americans, the press was completely enveloped in what's known as the "fog of war." In the news-gathering business, it's one of the most frustrating aspects of collecting and reporting accurate information.
When breaking news happens, a reporter's first duty is to gather what's referred to as the "five Ws" -- who, what, where, when and why. In most cases, it's the "why" that remains the unanswered question for what seems like a tremendously long time. Ultimately, it's also the one element of news gathering that puts the story into the proper context and makes it complete.
When the fog of war enters the picture, all bets are off on getting answers to that one question. And the bigger the incident and the more variables that get added into it, the more likely that fog of war will delay efforts to get the "why" correctly answered.
In the meantime, the fog of war generates plenty of speculation on what actually happened by members of the public. An overheard nugget of information leads to speculation. The speculation leads to rumors. The rumors start to spread.
And with the advent of online resources and social media, rumors can go viral with a click of a button from a computer or cell phone.
This is exactly what happened last week following the stabbing of five individuals at Charlie's Place in Mountain Home. In less than 48 hours, a member of the Republic of Singapore air force was falsely implicated in the case. At the time, police were still in the beginning phase of their investigation and were still collecting witness statements.
What people don't understand is the consequences this one rumor -- based on speculation -- generated. In this case, it extended well outside this community and ended up at the doorstep of our military leaders in Washington, D.C.
Late last week, Mountain Home Police Chief Nick Schilz and Mayor Tom Rist sat down with the Mountain Home News to outline exactly what happened.
While there was a member of the Singapore air force present at the bar that night, he wasn't even there when the fight began, the police chief said. It seems that he left his credit card at the bar counter and forgot to collect it before he left, Schilz added.
"What's frustrating is that someone did the right thing (getting a safe ride home) but got blamed instead," the mayor said. "The rumor mill turned him into a suspect, which is a shame."
The fog of war simply got out of hand, the police chief added. But by then, the damage was already done, and all the apologies in the world couldn't undo what was already done.
It's understandable that people in Mountain Home were riveted by this crime. Something of this magnitude is extremely rare in our small town.
But here's the bottom line: It's important for the members of this community to wait for the facts before they pass judgement. When someone decides to "shoot from the hip" and spreads a rumor -- especially through e-mail, the Internet or other online outlets -- it can actually make things worse.
Just ask John Gilchrist. We're sure he'd probably agree.
-- Brian S. Orban