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Manufacturing Tales: A conversaion with Gary Alan Fine

by Brian Boling | Issue #19

Sociologist Gary Fine has been writing about rumors for over twenty-five years. His work Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends (University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1992) is one of few books that focuses on business legends–and perhaps the only one not written from a corporate PR standpoint. I was excited to discover that he had recently coauthored a book with Patricia Turner (who has also written about business legends), Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America (University of California, 2001). I spoke with Dr. Fine by telephone on New Year’s Eve.

Stay Free!: What was the idea behind Whispers on the Color Line?

Fine: We believed that blacks and whites in the United States were not adequately talking to each other–that their conversations, while more tolerant, were not completely honest. There are many things that blacks and whites feel they can’t discuss with each other. Whites are afraid of seeming racist. African-Americans don’t want to sound paranoid. The situation of blacks and whites is not totally equivalent, but in our book we try to show some parallels. In the case of African-Americans, many rumors deal with what whites would consider paranoid fantasies. For example, Church’s Chicken is owned by the Ku Klux Klan and is putting chemicals in its food to sterilize blacks. [See p. 35] Whites would say "Oh, come on. That’s crazy." Yet, from the standpoint of African-Americans, the story is wrong, but it’s not crazy in the context of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. Also, Church’s is not owned by the KKK, but it is owned, for the most part, by white investors. On the other hand, whites will often talk about their fears of gang violence, that a gang will have an initiation in which a new member has to rape a white girl. Blacks will look at that and say, "Oh here are the old racist lynching stories." But for whites, it may be wrong, just as the other belief is wrong, but it’s not crazy given relatively higher rates of crime in the African-American community. So the point we’re making is that blacks and whites need to come together and lay their fears on the table and then come to some understanding.

You’ve written that business legends are politically impotent. Could you explain that a little?

It is very easy for people to be critical of business in the context of these stories. But at the end of the day, they are no better off. These myths do not lead to large-scale social changes.

Big business has attempted to do a number of things in response to the stories, some of which are good, some not so good. On the positive side, several chains have established programs to encourage African-Americans to be franchise owners. If you compare the year 2001 to 1961, the change is really quite remarkable. On the other hand, it’s not reflecting the proportion of the population.

If companies consistently attack rumors as unfair, do you think that might affect how the public responds to true stories, like sweatshop labor? Are consumers less likely to act on negative information because they’ve encountered so many stories that turn out to be false?

The issue of truth and belief is always difficult. How do I know, sitting here in Chicago, if a particular claim about a company is true or false? It becomes particularly difficult if the person making the claim is seen as having an interest in the claim. I have to make a decision. We usually judge things by plausibility. And our notion of what is plausible is sort of a moving target. It changes. In the aftermath of September 11th, things that had once seemed implausible were no longer so. If, on September 10th, we’d been told that people at the airport should take off their shoes so they can be checked for explosives, people would say "You’re nuts." Now in 2002, many people are saying that it needs to be done. So the structure of plausibility keeps changing. And that allows us to determine whether to believe a particular claim, whether it’s about chemicals in fried chicken or having six-year-olds work twelve hours a day.

When there’s a lack of reliable information on something, rumors appear to fill those gaps–the September 11th rumor about CNN’s faked footage, for instance.

Whenever something ambiguous and important happens, you want to make sense of it as quickly as possible. If you go back and listen to the 9/11 news footage, there were some claims made by perfectly respectable reporters about bombs at the State Department, fires at the mall, and another plane going down in Ohio.

There have been a number of new business legends since September 11th. For instance, Snapple is supposedly owned by Osama Bin Laden.

Snapple has a long history of these rumors. It is one of the businesses rumored to be owned by the KKK or to have funded Operation Rescue. Unlike other products, Snapple hasn’t been associated with sterilizing people, but I think that has more to do with the products themselves. Snapple is aimed at both black and white markets, and I think you’d be more likely to find the sterilization themes in stories about products that are targeted to African-Americans.

Do you feel that e-mail forwards remove the folk somewhat from folklore? Unlike oral stories, forwards are in a set form and passed along in an identical way.

What these forwards do is kind of freeze claims. People have to go out of their way to retype it rather than simply passing it on. This technology allows for rumors to be spread fast but also to fade or be denied more quickly.

I wondered if the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe [see p. 37] stayed frozen because it wasn’t something people felt strongly about. Then again, the forwards always ended with the statement "Ride Free, Citizens!!!" as if we were battling the big guys by passing on this recipe.

Having that kind of theme in there speaks to that political impotence. People don’t trust big business. On the other hand, when the day is over, people are going to go back and shop at Neiman-Marcus.