There is no such thing as a government conspiracy; the government says so. Despite such assurances—or maybe because of them—some people will fall for anything (if you need proof, look at the Macarena).
Abraham Lincoln may have said that you can’;t fool all of the people all of the time, but the way some things keep popping up, even the most harebrained rumors start to sound real. In more sinister times, the Nazis called this technique “the big lie”—repeat something often enough and it takes on the power of Truth. Of course, it’;s silly to apply their motives to UFOs, Elvis sightings, the Cardiff Giant, Piltdown Man, Bigfoot, or other persistent legends. Nevertheless, the longer a fabrication persists, and the less credible its denials, the harder it is to debunk (just ask the cheerful folks at Disney if Walt is really frozen). Call it human nature or mass hysteria, but the result is the same thing.
Sometimes the mere existence of a myth can mean more than the myth itself. Why do people believe that JFK, Elvis, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe are comatose in a secret hospital? Do we share a need to believe in the permanence of our cultural icons beyond all reason? Nurturing such rumors is a tabloid press industry that has grown up not only around Elvis and his imaginary ilk but around such tragedies as JFK Jr., Princess Diana, and JonBenet Ramsey. And, when you stop to think about it, we know these people only through their publicity.
What is publicity? It is information that has been created, shaped, and distributed by the people who can benefit the most from it. Publicity isn’;t necessarily false, it just ain’;t necessarily so. But it is necessarily deliberate. There must always be a kernel of truth behind publicity, yet only in the past few decades have people begun to question that truth. Was Ricky Martin really that good, or was he just booked on so many TV shows, magazines, and radio playlists that the public couldn’;t avoid him? How did the media hear about him before the public did? Or did he become famous because he was famous?
Publicity eventually becomes reality; and in seeking both, the media have rewritten the rules of privacy. A century ago, “decent” folks were in the paper only four times: at birth, at debut, at marriage, and at death. Nowadays—Andy Warhol’;s 15-minute quota notwithstanding—it’;s hard to get a city newspaper to run a wedding notice unless you pay for it. And fame? Legacies are now measured not by what people do for others but by how often they are bleeped on a TV talk show. In other words, some seek greatness, others achieve greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them. But if you really want to make it in Mudville, go on Jerry Springer and slug somebody.
Fame used to require something special. A guy had to dig up a petrified giant in the back forty to make a tidy living showing it off in circus sideshows. Or he had to claim he found the crash site of a UFO, or the “missing link” connecting humans to the apes. Then people would come for miles around to gawk. Was it true? Was it entertainment? Was it worth two bits? This chapter features some of the classic all-time great hokums, cons, myths, and disinformation conspiracies. Lincoln was right. You can’;t fool all of the people all of the time. But if you can do it once in a while, you can make a pretty good living.