Free speech requires fact checking

Just when black women from rapper Mary J. Blige to tennis champ Serena Williams to some women twice their age felt comfortable going blond came word that blondness is facing extinction.

Naturally occurring blondness, that is.

Then came the strangest news of all: The reports were not just exaggerated, but completely fabricated. According to the report, natural blonds would become extinct within the next 200 years because their hair color derives from a recessive gene; the last blonds to survive, the “study” supposedly concluded, would be Finns.

Aha! We’d been had again, courtesy of the Internet and our increasing gullibility to cyberspace information.

This time, the World Health Organization was forced to interrupt its globe-spanning fights against HIV/AIDS, suicide, meningitis and tuberculosis to state: “WHO wishes to clarify that it has never conducted research on this subject. … WHO has no knowledge of how these news reports originated but would like to stress that we have no opinion on the future existence of blondes.”

The story that had spread across the networks and cable was easily debunked and could have been nipped in the bud if reporters had done what we used to do automatically: check the facts.

Not just members of the press, mind you, find themselves stung by a rash reliance on Internet information. That, plus his own possible animus toward Israel, is what accounts for poet laureate Amiri Baraka’s troubles in New Jersey.

He faces the loss of his position because of a poem he wrote based on information he said he got from the Internet after Sept. 11.

One passage goes: “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the twin towers/to stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?”

Provocative is one thing; irresponsible is another even if one allows for poetic license.

Baraka counters efforts to oust him by saying that critics want to “suppress and stigmatize independent thinkers everywhere.”

Well, even “independent thinkers” ought to check their facts.

The real lesson here, though, is that when you’re tempted to pass along something that’s come your way from the Internet, do what I did.

I asked: “Is this for real?” and then started doing some fact checking.