Liz Claiborne, World's First Internet Hoax Victim?

07/02/2007 11:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I didn't see in last week's obituaries of clothing designer Liz Claiborne was much about the odd and creepy Internet-based crusade against her in the late 1990s, as a purported racist and Satanist.

And the reliable sources for these charges? The Internet.

First, the racist rumor: that sometime in 1990 or 1991, Claiborne had been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show, where she announced -- and here's the first moment that should have switched on the ''now wait a minute here'' light -- that she doesn't design for black women, either because their hips are too big, or because they make her clothes look bad, or because she doesn't need the money, depending on the e-mail you read.

In the second "now wait a minute here'' point, Oprah is described in these e-mails as wearing a Liz Claiborne dress -- hard to believe even in Oprah's pre-billionaire days. Oprah then supposedly stormed off the set, declaring that she will ''never'' wear another Liz Claiborne dress, and returned wearing a bathrobe -- a nice touch that, as ``The Mikado'' says, added verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

This urban legend was given voice by director Spike Lee: ''it definitely happened,'' he was quoted as saying in the October 1992 ''Esquire,'' [a piece written by my late friend Barbara Grizzuti Harrison] and he was quoted as urging every black woman in America to throw out any Liz Claiborne items in her closet and never buy another Claiborne garment again.

Other emails assured me that on Oprah's show -- unclear whether this was a different appearance or the same one -- Claiborne said she gave 30 percent of her dough to the Church of Satan, and that I should boycott her clothes for that reason.

Some very important ''duh'' moments here: Claiborne had already retired from her company in 1989, and she never did appear on Oprah. She had never been on Oprah's show at all. And if she had said either or both of these things, her stockholders would have stormed the courts and the feds to have her publicly hanged, drawn and quartered on Wall Street for ruining the value of their stock with such remarks.

But who bothers to check when the story is so juicy and the ''send'' button is so easy?

Anyone who's opened an e-mail in the last decade has received some of these Internet urban legends. Perfectly sensible people [including some of my relatives] who would never give a moment's credence to a poison pen letter, or to the ''hook on the car door'' or ''black widows in the beehive'' tales, have no qualms about swallowing and forwarding, eagerly and gullibly, any curious rumor that lands in their in-basket, whether it's political or cultural -- alarming messages about gas boycotts and fast food telemarketing and tainted tampons and gang initiation rituals and dying children trying to set a world record for receiving greeting cards.

Almost all of these can be easily checked out and knocked down by using the same tool that spread them: the Internet, at debunking sites like and Sometimes I look them up and send the facts back to the sender. Sometimes ... well, some people are beyond help. Our tendency to kowtow to both ''authority'' voices and to technology combines for the worst of both: if it's on the Internet, it must be true.

It won't really matter, I suppose -- until the Internet cries wolf once too often.