The recent news stories about a roach in a toilet in Tel Aviv show once again how readily some people believe urban legends, and how rapidly such stories spread.
The legend involved is "The Exploding Toilet," and the suckers who fell for it this time were no less than two major news services and dozens of newspapers and broadcasters around the world.I've often written about "The Exploding Toilet" as an example of the "hilarious accident" legend, which centers on a bizarre succession of mishaps. Versions of it are common both in this country and internationally.
The latest one appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Aug. 25, in a report of an event that supposedly had occurred in Tel Aviv a week earlier.
According to the Post, the chain of accidents began when an unidentified Israeli housewife stomped on a cockroach, threw it into the toilet and sprayed in a full can of insecticide, neglecting to flush afterward.
The next person to use the toilet was her husband. As he sat down he dropped a smoldering cigarette butt into the bowl, causing an explosion that seriously burned what the Post referred to as "his sensitive parts." Paramedics came, wrapped him up on a stretcher and started to take him away.
Any fan of urban legends can complete the story: When the paramedics heard how the man had become injured, they laughed so hard that they lost their grip on the stretcher and dropped him down the steps of his house, causing two broken ribs and a cracked pelvis.
Legend fans also will remember that in other variations, it is hair spray, paint thinner or gasoline that is dumped into a toilet and ignited.
Unfortunately, there were no fans of urban legends at United Press International or Reuters. Both agencies distributed the story as fact on their news wires.
Newspapers around the world wasted no time printing it. The Seattle Times even got it into its late Thursday edition. Among the many papers running the story Friday were the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union ("Roach gets fiery revenge"), the Houston Post ("Husband pays for wife's war with roach") and the Los Angeles Times ("Next time, dear, why not just flush the toilet?").
I enjoy this sort of punning headline. But I think the Detroit News went too far in their Friday edition: The newspaper ran the bogus story, with the headline, "Victim is butt of bad joke," on page one - right next to a story about the anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington.
Readers and listeners flooded newspapers and radio stations with calls identifying the Tel Aviv roach story as a familiar legend. Evidently reporters checked their sources, because on Saturday both news services issued statements saying the incident was unverified - a hoax.
First prize for astute reporting goes to Rex Springston of the Richmond (Va.) News Leader, who knew the story was a legend when he heard it told on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" on Friday.
Springston located both wire service reports, then telephoned me to say he was challenging UPI and Reuters on the stories. He debunked them in his paper's Sunday edition under the headline "Old exploding toilet story has news faces flushed."
Richard Cheney of Los Angeles made his own rapid response to the roach story. Hearing it on a local radio station, he called them to say that he knew from my writings that "The Exploding Toilet" was a legend.
Then Cheney called me, holding the receiver near his radio. While we chatted, a reporter for the L.A. station came on the air and retracted the story, quoting both of us.
I could have told them in the first place.
C) 1988 United Feature Syndicate Inc.
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