VIDEO: The Undead: Lightfoot and lazy journalism
When I joined the Great Lakes Echo reporting staff as a recent Michigan transplant, my coworkers commonly derided me for a number of regional faux pas that were a product of my casual Great Plains parlance. They ranged from adding an “ACK” to Mackinac Island to pronouncing “Sault Ste. Marie” as something you may eat for dinner.
But my ignorance of Gordon Lightfoot’s classic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” — a song about the actual shipwreck in 1975 that left 29 bodies missing in Lake Superior — just made these natives angry.
So after having listened to the song enough to inject some of Lightfoot’s drawl into my bone marrow, I’m sure I’m not the only one whose heart sunk like the Big Fitz last Thursday when social networking sites became abuzz with reports of the singer’s sudden death. Canwest News Service carried the news. So did the Vancouver Sun, Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald Web sites.
What a loss, I thought.
That is, of course, until I learned that Lightfoot’s death was a hoax apparently started by someone with a cruel sense of humor and a Twitter account.
The undead Lightfoot, 71, called into a Toronto news station to report that, indeed, there was blood running through his veins.
“It seems like a bit of a hoax,” he told Toronto’s CP24 news station. “I was quite surprised to hear it myself.” Lightfoot said he felt fine.
It was a good example of the journalistic dangers that exist when we combine instant information dissemination with news organizations’ desire to be first to report. It shows why the fundamentals of journalism — including fact checking — have never been more important. It also made me wonder what other influential people are living zombies.
It turns out Wikipedia maintains a list of this sort of thing. Here are some premature obits involving Great Lakes staters. (Note: The source is Wikipedia. We have not independently verified the accuracy of the following items.)
- Melody Maker magazine published a satirical concert review of Michigan-born nightmare Alice Cooper in the form of a mock obituary in the early 1970s. So many fans believed it that Cooper issued this statement: “I’m alive, and drunk as usual.”
- Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard was reported dead by CTV in September 2005, but stopped short a live tribute with a sheepish confirmation that the politician actually lived.
- New York Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio watched his own death notice run on a NBC news ticker in January 1999. The pre-prepared obit ran when a technician pressed the wrong button. Joltin’ Joe died that March.
- A hoax e-mail purporting to be from Reuters led numerous radio stations to report Brooklyn-born Velvet Underground vocalist Lou Reed had died via overdose in 2001. He continues to walk on the wild side.
- Newspapers errantly reported in 1954 that journalist and author Ernest Hemingway had died in an African plane crash. But Hemingway, who learned to hunt, fish and camp in the woods and lakes of Northern Michigan, survived. After the incident, he allegedly read a scrapbook of his obituaries every morning with a glass of champagne.