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THOSE OF YOU NOT already skeptical of the ability of the press to report the facts without error or bias might turn to Brian Steinberg’s story about Carol Vaughn, the tap dancer who claims to have tapped her way down the 897 steps in the Washington Monument while a tour of the obelisk was being conducted (Artifacts,10/29).
Because Vaughn chose to remain anonymous until after her stunt, her appearance occasioned neither drama nor much reaction beyond a few rolled eyes. But in Steinberg’s story, the National Park Service interpretive rangers who conduct tours are called “guards” and “troopers,” implying she was confronted by armed men prepared to arrest her. Instead, she encountered rangers, who have neither the right to nor interest in arresting visitors, but simply share their knowledge of American and Monument history with all comers. Instead of displaying interest in that history, Vaughn mimicked the attitude of the Fourth of July celebrant who ignored directions to the bathroom, snuck into the Monument, and shit on the lobby floor.
Any reporter who assumes the perspective of an omniscient third person narrator should be immediately suspect—it’s a sure sign the reporter did not go to the trouble of searching for the facts. Steinberg also adopted a technique familiar to readers of fiction. He read the mind of the characters—especially the ranger giving the tour. According to the story, the ranger “adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy” since “[h]e can hear scrapes and thumps in the dark, but keeps on lecturing.” Apparently, “by the time the tour was halfway done, everybody knows what’s going on,” including the ranger. Since that was my mind being read, I thought I would compare my real thoughts with those assigned me by the all-knowing Steinberg.
Far from adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, I told the tour group that there would be no tap dancing down the stairs, though characteristically I made a wisecrack about the stunt, which we had been alerted to after Vaughn gave a radio interview. Had Steinberg read my mind correctly, he would have learned what I actually thought of the stunt—that it was a lame joke.
As for what I heard and didn’t hear, knew and didn’t know, Steinberg is way off-base. So absorbed was I in the tour, and so uninterested in the threatened stunt, that I had utterly forgotten the prospect of Vaughn’s “guerrilla action.” During the tour I heard nothing in the way of scrapes and thumps, and I certainly did not know what was going on. Perhaps Vaughn’s conspirators were indeed successful at running interference; I was convinced that the questions and comments I was receiving from visitors were genuine. Guess they made an ass out of me.
As for what else went on, well, I would take Vaughn’s story of tap dancing the 897 steps with a large dose of salt. When I saw Vaughn in the paper, it was for the first time. And apparently their “considerable advance preparations” did not include the camcorder carried by nearly every other tourist in Washington. In the absence of such video evidence, you only have her word. Having watched and counted the tour group filing in, I can affirm that there was no tap dancing on the first approximately 68 steps. As for the remaining 829 steps, perhaps she did linger behind. You have to wonder, though, about a tap dancer who dances without taps and “scrapes and thumps” her way through a performance. Couldn’t have been pretty.
There are many persistent myths about the Washington Monument and I have enjoyed studying and debunking them. Vaughn and Steinberg have tried to foist another upon us. I hope I have encouraged those of a skeptical nature to think twice about the nonsense presented as news.