Heard the one about the e-mail tax bill that’s now before Congress?

As the story goes, the proliferation of e-mail is costing the U.S. Postal Service an estimated $230 million in lost revenues. So Congress has introduced a bill to let it tax such messages.

The legislation would help recoup post office losses by charging 5 cents for every e-mail delivered. That means the typical e-mail user, who receives an average 10 e-mails a day, would pay 50 cents a day – or more than $180 a year.

It’s a bold new attempt by Washington to reach into Americans’ pockets – if it were true. Fortunately, it’s just another Internet hoax, and one of the longest-running.

But don’t tell that to the news pros at CBS. They fell for it – big time.

CBS news producers in New York were so convinced the phony bill was legitimate that they elected to raise the issue during one of the highest-profile political debates of 2000.

The moderator of the New York debate between U.S. Senate candidates Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton asked a question based on the cybermyth. Both candidates went along, responding as if the bill actually existed, which says something about the savvy of people we send to Congress.

But the bigger dupe was CBS. In asking the question, WCBS-TV reporter Marcia Kramer repeated whole sections of the text of the hoax, which had been e-mailed to scores of news organizations, including WorldNetDaily.com, which has disabused concerned readers over and over about the authenticity of the bill. In fact, WorldNetDaily.com was the first news organization to report on the bogus New York debate question, soon after the debate ended on Oct. 7, 2000.

“I’d like to ask you how you stand on federal bill 602P,” Kramer plied Clinton and Lazio. “Under the bill that’s now before Congress, the U.S. Postal Service would be able to bill e-mail users 5 cents for every e-mail they send, even though the post office provides no service.”

“I’m wondering if you would vote for this bill,” Kramer said without a hint of skepticism in her voice.

Yet the hoax was easy to dispel. For starters, U.S. bill numbers begin with either “HR,” for House of Representatives, or “S,” for Senate. And “Congressman Tony Schnell,” listed as one of the bogus bill’s sponsors, is not even a member of Congress.

It’s not the first time the Old Media – those “serious and credible” journalists we’re all supposed to trust, the ones who don’t think cybernewsies are experienced enough to play with the same sharp instruments – have been taken in by Netlore readily debunked by cybernewsies like WorldNetDaily.com.

Last year, for example, former NBC News correspondent Diane Dimond swallowed hard on the Ollie-Osama e-mail whopper.

The cyber-fable goes like this: Retired Marine Col. Oliver North, while testifying in the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, called Osama bin Laden the world’s most dangerous terrorist and said he was targeting him and possibly his family. North cited the terrorist, so the story goes, to justify spending tax money to beef up his home security.

Everything but the name of the terrorist is true.

In fact, North named Beirut terrorist Abu Nidal, not bin Laden. The fictitious e-mail bouncing around the Internet merely substitutes bin Laden for Nidal in telling the tale.

By offering a kernel of truth, the story appeared credible to establishment media types like Dimond, now with Fox News, who claimed to recall the Ollie-Osama testimony in a Dec. 3 interview with a defense expert (who nodded in agreement, remarkably enough).

It was the Old Media, in fact, who gave credibility to a black urban legend that’s still being bandied about on the Internet.

In an October 1992 interview, Esquire magazine published, uncritically, conspiracy-happy movie producer Spike Lee’s vicious rumor that Liz Claiborne is a racist who told Oprah Winfrey that she won’t design clothes for blacks.

“Claiborne got on [Oprah’s TV show] and said she didn’t make her clothes for black people to wear,” Esquire quoted Lee saying. “Oprah stopped the show and told her to get her ass off the set.”

“It definitely happened. Get the tape,” Lee assured Esquire. “Every black woman in America needs to go to her closet, throw that [expletive] out and never buy another stitch of clothes from Liz Claiborne.”

Lee’s word was good enough for Esquire, even though the story was pure fiction. Claiborne never even appeared on Oprah.

Yet Claiborne company spokespeople are still knocking down the rumor, which pops up periodically in e-mail boxes around the country.

The rumor has spawned a variation involving menswear designer Tommy Hilfiger, also supposedly on Oprah, describing blacks with racial slurs – which is another tall tale.

Hilfiger was never a guest on Oprah, either.

Esquire, which gave the rumor legs, never bothered to check with Winfrey or Claiborne before running with Lee’s story – despite a team of fact-checkers and a monthly deadline.

And the Old Media warned us that the New Media would be gullible and unreliable? Please.

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