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A story ‘too good to check’

WASHINGTON — Shortly after the cooling of the earth, when I was working for The Washington Post, I more than once heard a grizzled editor skeptically caution a younger reporter who was sure that he, alone, had gotten a stop-the-presses exclusive scoop that was going to lead the paper and, quite possibly, change the world: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

Another sage warning for reporters was to always question “the story too good to check out” — of which there has never been a shortage. See the conservative Breitbart’s certifiably bogus report that Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for personal bankruptcy. That was totally untrue, and in time, Breitbart so acknowledged.

On a personal note: My personal favorite in the story “too good to check” category comes from the student body of the University of Colorado, which in 1968, voted imaginatively to name their new campus student grill in honor of Alferd Packer, the only American ever tried and convicted for cannibalism.

Here are the facts as I learned them: Alferd Packer, born in Pennsylvania in 1842, served honorably in the Union Army during the Civil War before heading west in search of gold. By the winter of 1873, he had sold his services to be a guide for a group prospecting in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Ignoring friends’ advice to postpone the trip until spring because of the onset of brutal winter storms, Packer and a party of five set off for Gunnison, Colorado, to seek their fortunes.

The Packer-led group was assumed to have succumbed to the arctic winter. But in the spring, Packer appeared and said that the others had deserted him after he had fallen ill. His story was contradicted by an investigation that concluded Packer had almost certainly slain and eaten his party of five. Charged with five murders, Packer eventually signed a confession and — here’s the “too good to check” part — was sentenced by Judge M.B. Gerry with these words: “Stand up, you voracious, man-eating son of a bitch. When you came to Hinsdale County, there were seven Democrats, but you ate five of them.”

More recently, I succumbed, unintentionally, to an oft-repeated nugget about the political clumsiness of President Jimmy Carter’s White House involving then-Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., the first Japanese American member of Congress ever elected from the continental United States. Mineta was left off the invitation list to a state dinner for the prime minister of Japan because the Carter political folks mistakenly thought Mineta was Italian American.

The truth, I learned this week, was that when the Carter White House belatedly learned that Mineta had been inadvertently uninvited to the next night’s dinner, Les Francis, who had been a top aide to Mineta, remained a close friend of his and was then working in White House congressional relations, offered an explanation for why the invitation was so tardy: “Let’s tell him everyone thought he was Italian.” Unfortunately, after the laughter subsided, someone passed the anecdote on to House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill. From there — long before there was internet — the “too good to check” story went the 1970s version of viral. You will find it in books by respected authors and columns even today. But now, thanks to Francis — and with a nod to Al Kamen of The Washington Post, who, almost alone, corrected the fable in 2001 — we know the real rest of the story.

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To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.