Friday, June 16, 2000

It's a hoax, folks

When most people talk about Internet junk mail, they're talking about spam--unsolicited solicitations from businesses, lone entrepreneurs, or porn peddlers that pop up unbidden in your inbox. There are ways to control your spam intake--employing filters, for example, or dumping AOL. But there's not much to be done about that other form of Web refuse, the Internet Hoax, because it's usually sent to you by somebody you know, for your own good. Seems some story or other turns up on one of my e-mail lists on a daily basis, always submitted by a goodhearted member, always about some horrific hot-button issue, always suggesting the recipient e-mail it like crazy. They may not officially be viruses--in fact, more often than not they're about viruses--but they sure replicate like one.

Mostly, I disregard and delete. Sometimes, if the subject is particularly inflammatory and I've got some time on my hands, I'll hop on over to the Urban Legends Reference Page and check it out. This site is a treasurechest of bunk, and you're likely to see things you never thought to question disproved in forthright fashion. HIV-filled hypodermic needles lurking in theater seats, pay-phone coin slots, and gas pumps? False. Virus-soaked sponges being sent through the mail? False. Cockroach eggs in envelope glue? False, though CBS is probably thinking of planting some on envelopes given to letter-writing contestants on "Survivor." Bill Gates giving people $1,000 for forwarding an e-mail? Alas, false. Asbestos in crayons? Well, that one's true, but only in miniscule amounts, and manufacturers are currently changing the formula.

Then there's the one about atheist poster-girl Madalyn Murray O'Hair trying to get "Touched by an Angel" taken off the air. That one turned up in my household today in rare hard-copy form: a handout my mother-in-law brought back from her church meeting. "Stand up and be counted!!!" it read. "CBS will be forced to discontinue 'Touched by an Angel' for using the word 'God' in every program." (Well, hey, I'll bet "NYPD Blue" uses the word God in every program, too, though admittedly not in a religious context.) It goes on to inform us about petition No. 2493, currently before the Federal Communication Commission, that seeks to ban all religious programming on TV. No more Christmas specials! No more televised church services! No more televangelists! Wait, why are we supposed to be upset about this? Oh, yes, because that O'Hair woman, having single-handedly banned prayer from schools, is now trying to ban it from the airwaves and Must Be Stopped! We're asked to fill out a form indicating our desire, as God-fearing people, to keep TV safe for has-been pop stars with yuletide albums.

Now, if you ask me, anyone who's trying to get "Touched by an Angel" off the air is doing us a tremendous favor. That show offends my deeply held faith that angels wouldn't be caught immortal in hair like Della Reese's. In fact, all these angel shows, on the air and on the movie screen, are mixed blessings indeed. I caught part of "City of Angels" on a movie channel the other day, and an angelic being was willing to fall to earth just to have sex with Meg Ryan, who was promptly hit by a truck. (Those of you who would like to see Meg Ryan hit by a truck in all her movies...well, that's a different petition.) Surely we Christians would like to believe that God's messengers have better judgment than that. Entertainment that glues on religious themes just to seem deep winds up trivializing religion more than Madalyn Murray O'Hair could ever have hoped to. I imagine her someplace watching this stuff and having a good old laugh.

That someplace would be well hidden, because the woman disappeared in 1995 with her son, granddaughter, and a heck of a lot of her organization's money. She's not been seen since, which will make it difficult for her to argue her alleged case before the FCC. But as the Urban Legend folks explain, petition No. 2493 has already been before the FCC, and rejected by that body--in 1975. It had nothing to do with O'Hair, or with banning the mention of God on TV. It merely asked that religious groups affiliated with universities not be granted licenses to broadcast as educators when in fact they mean to broadcast as religious groups. The FCC said, and I'll paraphrase here, "We wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole." For their defense of religious tolerance, the FCC has been rewarded with about 30 million missives in the last 25 years asking them to just say no to something they were never asked. They wish you'd cut it out, by the way.

Sadly, it seems that people will believe and act on anything. Even more sadly, it seems that nobody is trying to get "Touched by an Angel" off the air after all. Can we appeal to the FCC on the basis of taste? It's time to stand up and be counted!

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