Conspiracy theories: Why we love ’em

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In the upcoming film Kill The Messenger, journalist Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner) is asked if he believes in conspiracy theories.

“I don’t believe in conspiracy theories,” Webb replies. “Conspiracies, yes. If I believe it, there’s nothing theory about it.”

Kill The Messenger is the true story of the late Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who in 1996 connected the rise of crack cocaine in America to the CIA and its ties with the contras in Nicaragua. Perhaps angry at being scooped, the establishment media — papers like the L.A. Times, New York Times and Washington Post — attacked his reporting (in some cases aided by unnamed government sources) and ultimately hounded him out of journalism.

Conspiracy theories have always been part of American politics, and they always will be, says University of Miami Professor Joseph E. Uscinski, who, along with his UM colleague Joseph M. Parent, has written the new book, American Conspiracy Theories.

And even though you may think only those on the wacko margins believe in such ideas, the numbers indicate otherwise.

For example, one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in American political culture is the belief that the Warren Commission’s report on President John F. Kennedy’s murder was rigged. 

On September 26, 1964, that 888-page report concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in the shooting of JFK. The Commission’s findings have become the touchstone for most research into the Kennedy assassination, but almost from its release it has been questioned, criticized and even denounced as a government cover-up.

As recently as last November, a Gallup Poll found that 61 percent of Americans still believe others besides Lee Harvey Oswald were involved. That’s down from 1976, when 81 percent believed the Warren Report was flawed — back when there were more people who lived through the JFK assassination.

Two conspiracy theories of more recent vintage have won smaller but still significant buy-ins.

The suspicion that the Bush/Cheney administration was in some way involved with the 9/11 attacks reached a high-water mark in 2006 of about 46 percent, while a Fox News poll showed that in April 2011 approximately 24 percent of Americans refused to accept that President Obama was born in the U.S.

“Given that those two groups probably don’t overlap that much — I mean just those two conspiracy theories alone, you’re looking at nearly 60 percent of the country — these are widely held beliefs,” Professor Uscinksi says.

To review and quantify such theories, the Miami poli-sci profs used three main sources: more than 100,000 letters to the editors of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune from 1890 to 2010; surveys from before and after the 2012 election; and a Google News Alert to capture stories having anything to do with conspiracies for a year from 2012-2013, gathering about 10 a day for a total of 3,000 to 4,000.

They then took those stories and coded them based on whether they treated such theories positively, took a neutral stance, or painted them as outright kooky. The research revealed that more than two-thirds of the reports cast conspiracy theories in a very negative light, with only about 10 percent granting them credence. “So that tells us that the media likes to report on conspiracy theories, but the media does not treat conspiracy theories well. Overall, it’s anti-conspiracy,” says Professor Uscinski.

That statement could reveal one reason why both liberals and conservatives consistently say that they don’t trust the media. On the political right, for example, there has been a consistent drumbeat that the press has been hiding facts about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September of 2012.

“You can think of conspiracy theorists as the Fifth Estate,” says Uscinski. “I mean, they’re that extra check on power… [T]he media is independent and are supposed to be watching what leaders are doing, what powerful people are doing, so they’re supposed to be that watchdog.

“But,” he adds, “conspiracy theories add an additional check on the media… so they push that dialogue, they push that uber-skepticism, a fear of power, in a way that mainstream media doesn’t.”

A particularly outlandish conspiracy theory arose in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut shootings of 20 small children and six others in December of 2012.

In a blog post written three weeks after the tragedy, Florida Atlantic University Professor James Tracy said that something appeared wrong to him about “wandering family members” in video footage in Newtown, leading him to speculate that “a possible reason is that they are trained actors working under the direction of state and federal authorities and in coordination with cable and broadcast network talent to provide tailor-made crisis acting that realistically drives home the event’s tragic features.” In that same post he asked, “Is it possible that such actors were utilized in Newtown to control the event’s depiction and magnify its effect on public opinion?”

In a recent interview, Professor Tracy maintains that he never actually alleged anything, but just asked hard questions. “We have to make sure that this event actually takes place, and as someone who looks at the media and media texts, there’s more here than meets the eye, and that’s essentially what I was doing with that article,” he tells CL.

That was the third of four posts that Tracy would write on his blog about Newtown, but it caught the eye of producers for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 program. According to Tracy, Cooper was “kind of quoting me out of context, taking some lines and saying that this guy is crazy… it was fairly easy to pigeonhole me as being someone who was completely off the wall.”

Tracy said that the subsequent publicity after the Cooper broadcast was “somewhat unsettling” for him and his employer, and he worried about his job security.

American Conspiracy Theories co-author Joseph E. Uscinski says the Tracy case was an example of the media making a conspiracy theory a much bigger story than it should have been.

Uscinski adds that conspiracy theories are generally about power, which is why they’ll always part of our political mix. One can look at the ascent of Glenn Beck to see how the longtime radio host’s conspiracy theories about the Obama White House led to his becoming a voice for the Tea Party generation in 2009.

One of Beck’s pet paranoia theories regarded United Nations Agenda 21, a 1992 plan to encourage countries to consider the environmental impacts of human development. He wrote a novel entitled Agenda 21, and concerns that the program was a UN plot to commandeer local development policies became a mantra for Tea Party activists, both nationally and in particular in Pinellas County, led by some of the same conservatives who pushed for the Board of County Commissioners to remove fluoride from the drinking water supply.

Such paranoia has led some liberals to question whether the American public is growing less educated. But Uscinski says that, while there have been some major spikes over the last 120 years, the overall number of conspiracy theories has remained relatively stable, and even gone down slightly in recent years.

A big spike came in the 1950s with the Red Scare, when the country was dealing with nuclear weapons as well as a fear of Communist infiltration into the States.

“The problem with conspiracy theories is that we don’t know if [they’re] true or not,” he says. “So what ends up happening is that people choose to believe based on their own personal experiences.”

He cites Watergate as an example. When the news broke about a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the venerable Washington hotel, very few people anywhere — especially in the media — thought it was that big of a deal. But as the legendary shoe-leather reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein continued to build over the next year, the break-in and subsequent cover-up triggered a constitutional crisis, though some Republican partisans to this day believe that it was a left-wing plot to bring down the presidency.

Conversely, Hillary Clinton was mocked in early 1998 when she told The Today Show that the Monica Lewinsky rumors were an example of a great “right-wing conspiracy” playing out against the Clintons. Though the First Lady was wrong to assert that Lewinsky hadn’t had an affair with the president, subsequent reporting in books like The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton and Jeffrey Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President revealed that the machinery was in place to try to bring Bill Clinton down, though he ultimately had to take responsibility the moment he dropped his pants for a White House intern.

Although the Gary Webb biopic focuses on a story that some dismiss as a conspiracy theory, his original series did document ties between drug traffickers in Los Angeles and the contras (the CIA-backed rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan socialist Sandinista government). Webb never wrote that it was a CIA operational plot, but that the CIA had sanctioned the contras and failed to block the illegally gotten gains.
Webb’s own story had a tragic ending. His life took a downward spiral, and he ultimately killed himself in 2004.

Another Hollywood product depicting a major conspiracy theory was 1978’s Capricorn One, whose premise was that a landing on Mars had been faked — produced on a soundstage. Tapping into the paranoia of the post-Watergate ’70s, it was an obvious nod toward suspicions about the 1969 moon landing, even positing a government attempt to murder the surviving astronauts to maintain the façade.

The authors say that there are just as many conspiracy theories on the left as there are on the right, but they’ve been less documented on the left.

They say that as long as politics exist, so will conspiracy theories.

“As long as we have politics, we have power, and as long as we have power, we’ll have conspiracy theories,” says Professor Uscinski. “You never hear conspiracies about the weak and the destitute coming together,” he says. “There’s no conspiracy about them. No one’s in fear of them.” Instead, he says these conspiracy theories act as a balance against the powerful, or at least the perceived powerful groups in America. 

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