“The United States of Conspiracy”
PBS Frontline – July 28, 2020
A Hit Job On Conspiracy Theories and Theorists & Alternatives to One Narrative Today
The PBS program “The United States of Conspiracy” was outwardly about Alex Jones, the super star of conspiracy theorists today. It offered that rare, trusted media real estate piece between conservative and liberal views. Outside the scope of the more controlled networks. Here, much more of a populist network for the common person in America. For the American public. It is their public broadcasting system.
Its brand is hard to beat in the current media world. One of the few independent observers of events today and reporting on them in something other than fake news. A wise and intelligent looking group of reporters, journalists assembled for the assignments. A serious sounding narrator of the program. The solid PBS logo lettering before the programs. It is a trusted source of modern investigative journalism or at least what’s left of it. This is the outward perception of the Pubic Broadcasting System.
Being outside the major networks battles allows it a certain amount of independence from the daily political labels and the battles across the nation. The major difference is that the networks are funded by advertising, and PBS by contributions from viewers. Like you, as they say. Yet in reality, the major funding for programming on the network comes from just a few individuals or foundations today.
Such as the recent program on PBS’s program “The United States of Conspiracy.” We’re not going to make any comment on the major funders of this program. They are listed on the PBS Frontline website as “John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, The John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.” There you have the people behind this program.
Our readers are invited to Google the above and make your decisions about them. Whether Frontline is slanted to one political POV is always a background question for me. About ten minutes into the PBS programs, I sense that I’m being fed a type of propaganda, and my mind starts wondering about the purpose of the propaganda.
Alex Jones – Super Star Of Modern Conspiracy Theorists
This happened tonight on the PBS Frontline special “The United States of Conspiracy.” Outwardly, it was a documentary on the growing super star of modern-day conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones. There is little doubt that Alex Jones has been the poster child of the modern conspiracy theory movement and conspiracy theorists. And, he has at times been a crazy poster child and impossible to understand. Such as his conspiracy positions on emotional memories like SandyHook and 9/11. He has made a lot of money, sold products, divorced his wife, broke down on his show. And still he continues with his empire of conspiracy theory.
The tactic is not really to take out Alex Jones but the entire belief in conspiracy theory as an alternative narrative to the official daily narrative from government media. The attempt is to place a certain label on these theories that are counter to government narratives. The fight with counter narratives has taken many forms. Some rise with whistleblowers. Others, by conspiracy theorists. All question current authority in the nation and those keepers of this authority. The focus is on Alex Jones, the crazy super star of this industry. Hopefully, much of conspiracy theory in America will disappear if Alex Jones disappears.
The program has its sharpshooters for character assassination all over the place. This woman from the NY Times. Some author. A few authors. And on-and-on. You be the judge as to the type of questions and people on the program. I watch reporters with interest sometimes. When they are good, they are the best on television.
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But there is that alternative narrative I look for again. The program is more than anything an attempt to lessen the growing power of conspiracy theory in America. This is the purpose below the apparent purpose. But in killing the apparent purpose, they kill the purpose underneath. That growing group of conspiracy theorists in America. Really, anyone that begins questioning the news they feed us each day.
Yes, it has been associated with Alex Jones who experienced growing questions of the standard narrative of life. But so did millions of others also feel a questioning of things. The things we are fed each day versus what we think outside these things. Is there some story behind the news today? Some description of what is really happening? Or is the PBS story on conspiracy a grand and subtle attempt to slow down (and finally mute) the rise of the conspiracy theorist group of Americans? In these times, when it is getting more difficult to choose between the fake and real, why make one even want a choice rather just getting the standard version of reality provided by a central source?
Origin of The Conspiracy Theory Meme – The Kennedy Assassination
Frontline focuses on the star of a modern movement and associates the star with crazy ideas over the years that continually increased his following. If they could just join the collective belief at this point in time to a common narrative: this whole idea of conspiracy theorists and theories today is a lie and most of it is related to Alex Jones. Whose ideas are close to those of Donald Trump. This is where we are left from the documentary.
It was not really about Alex Jones but the growing power of conspiracy theory in America. The idea of offering a different view of the common narrative. You can berate its leading star today in Alex Jones. But can you squash the conspiracy movement with old money from powerful foundations? Another swing in the symbolic battle in progress today between the two grand symbols of Freedom and Equality. Freedom always favors the conspiracy theorist or those who offer a different view from the common narrative.
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In an important PhD thesis entitled “The Conspiracy Theory Meme as a Tool of Cultural Hegemony,” James Rankin, Jr. notes the label is a method the government uses to dismiss ideas and theories that question operations or statements of the government. As Rankin notes, “Being labeled a conspiracy theorist implies one is delusional or otherwise unable to accurately perceive reality, among other things. Indeed, often conspiracy suspicions are not dismissed at the level of evidence, but simply by applying the label “conspiracy theory.” The Abstract of Rankin’s PhD is important and reproduced in full below:
“Those rejecting the official accounts of significant suspicious and impactful events are often labeled conspiracy theorists and the alternative explanations they propose are often referred to as conspiracy theories. These labels are often used to dismiss the beliefs of those individuals who question potentially hegemonic control of what people believe. The conspiracy theory concept functions as an impediment to legitimate discursive examination of conspiracy suspicions. The effect of the label appears to constrain even the most respected thinkers. This impediment is particularly problematic in academia, where thorough, objective analysis of information is critical to uncovering truth, and where members of the academy are typically considered among the most important of epistemic authorities. This dissertation tracked the development and use of such terms as pejoratives used to shut down critical thinking, analysis, and challenges to authority. This was accomplished using critical discourse analysis as a research methodology. Evidence suggesting government agents were instrumental in creating the pejorative meme conspiracy theorist was found in contemporary media. Tracing the evolution of the conspiracy theory meme and its use as a pejorative silencer may heighten awareness of its use in this manner and diminish its impact.”
Rankin locates the beginning of conspiracy theory in the CIA with theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. Ever since the Warren Commission concluded that a lone gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy, people who doubt that finding have been widely dismissed as conspiracy theorists, despite credible evidence that right-wing elements in the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service (and possibly even senior government officials) were also involved. Rankin gives great credit to the ideas and brilliant book Conspiracy Theory in America by Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor at Florida State University.
Since this time, suspicion of criminal wrongdoing at the highest levels of government has been rejected out-of-hand as paranoid thinking akin to delusional and superstitious. Certainly, the pandemic has brought forth a golden age of conspiracy theories that have surfaced like electric rodents in the carnival whac-a-mole games. (A list of the 35 most popular ones are posted at the end of this article.)
This is what Rankin means conspiracy theory being a meme being really a tool for cultural hegemony or the dominance of one view. The tool has been used long before Alex Jones came on the scene and will be used long after he is gone.
The Official Narrative of the Kennedy Assassination
Towards the end of the program “The United States of Conspiracy,” PBS hints at the importance of the conspiracy movement today. They might berate Jones but they are aware of the power of the movment. It is a voice to be heard. And stopped? As co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying, Nancy Rosenblum says, “Conspiracism has become a recognized and accepted way of exercising political power.” In other words, PBS suspects it could be a major breeding area for alternative sources of news. “It’s a polarization about what it means to know something,” says Rosenblum.
Perhaps someone will create another documentary focusing on the history of a rising “meme” of conspiracy in popular culture rather than a current personality in it. How it might really be a reaction to believing just one narrative. The documentary would be more about what it is in modern government that provides fertile soil for alternative views of reality.
In this sense, conspiracy theory is a type of grand symbol of the modern condition. An alternative to the standard view of things. Sold to us, told to us, sung to us, Tweeted to, Friended, LinkedIn to us. Each day and night. 24/7. This is the real meaning of conspiracy. Not the ideas of some crazy lunatic. But simply the basic idea that one can present alternative ideas to the standard version of the world. For acceptance or rejection by collective culture and its connection to the symbolism of conspiracy theories.
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Like much today, it comes down to a battle between the grand symbols of Equality and Freedom. These symbols are part of all of us at certain times in our lives. This is what makes them so difficult to understand.
The freedom of individuals to create their own narratives, their own conspiracy theories of the world. Or, the equality of a group to have one narrative created for them.
In focusing on Alex Jones as the symbol of modern conspiracy theories, PBS intends to banish not just Alex Jones but also the symbol of all individual freedom to create alternative narratives. Whatever your view on Alex Jones, there is little doubt that Nancy Rosenblum’s observation is correct: the new “conspiracism has become a recognized and accepted way of exercising political power.” And those that provide the one standard view of the world are aware of this.
In viewing this new power as a creation of one person, PBS looks away from the organic rise of alternative views in American history. In attempting to destroy the character of Jones (as well as a president connected to him) PBS throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. But even tossed out by PBS, this baby is going to grow.
35 of the Leading Conspiracy Theories in the Nation (2020)
Thanks much to my old friend Caroline Douglas for comments on this article.
Below is the content from the PBS Frontline webpage for the “The United States of Conspiracy.”
Tues., July 28, 2020
Streaming at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline & in the PBS Video App
Airing at 10/9c on PBS and on YouTube
http://www.facebook.com/frontline | Twitter: @frontlinepbs
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How did trafficking in conspiracy theories move from the fringes of U.S. politics into the White House?
In United States of Conspiracy, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, America reckons with racism and the 2020 election looms, FRONTLINE’s acclaimed political team investigates the alliance among conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, longtime Trump associate Roger Stone and the president — and their role in the deepening battle over truth and lies.
“Our new documentary reveals how conspiracy theories have come to play an outsize role in American politics, and what that means for our democracy in this critical moment,” says FRONTLINE filmmaker and veteran chronicler of U.S. politics Michael Kirk (The Choice 2016, America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump).
United States of Conspiracy premieres Tues., July 28 on PBS, at PBS.org/frontline, on the PBS Video App and on YouTube. Drawing on interviews with Stone, former staffers from Jones’ InfoWars site, political insiders, people who have been victimized by conspiracy theories, and experts in how misinformation spreads, the documentary examines how once-fringe conspiracy theories came to be wielded as a tool at the highest levels of American politics.
A key player in that trend is Jones — who for years had been pushing a message that “elites” and “globalists” are part of a secret conspiracy that controls the world. The documentary pinpoints a pivotal moment in the mainstreaming of conspiracy theorist thought: then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance on Jones’ InfoWars show during the 2016 campaign, a move that was brokered by frequent InfoWars guest and longtime GOP operative Stone.
“It was a signal to Jones’ literally millions of followers that Trump was the man to support in the Republican primary,” Stone tells FRONTLINE.
The calculation paid off for all three men: “Roger delivers legitimacy to Alex Jones, and Alex Jones delivers to Trump disaffected voters that Trump needed to bring to the polls, in order to win,” says Morgan Pehme, co-director of Get Me Roger Stone. “And that is what I think is the difference maker.”
As United States of Conspiracy reports, the three men built a template for American politics relying on chaos, conflict and conspiracy. Jones’ messages and methods came to be echoed by Trump in campaign speeches and interviews: “I mean, sometimes it was, like, verbatim — like, really Trump, really? You’re taking his word for it?” says former InfoWars staffer Rob Jacobson.
The film explores the role of the internet and social media in fanning the flames: “We all know of conspiracy theorists from the days before Twitter or Facebook. And those people were sort of isolated and shunned. And everybody felt like they had their number,” says Elizabeth Williamson of The New York Times. “But with social media and the internet, they find each other. And they push that message to millions of people.”
As the film reports, the popularity of false claims among large audiences can produce serious real-world consequences. Lenny Pozner, father of a child, Noah, killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, today lives in hiding due to harassment from Jones’ supporters who claim the massacre was staged. In another disturbing instance, a man brought an assault rifle to a D.C. pizza shop where Jones claimed that Hillary Clinton and other “elites” were running a Satanic pedophile ring.
“These conspiracies, some may think, ‘Well, they’re harmless.’ But then we have somebody who shows up at a pizza establishment with a weapon,” says Daniel J. Jones, a former Congressional investigator. “I mean, people will act on these things. We will see violence from this sort of stirring up of hatred and division.”
And now, with the country in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theories have spread like the virus itself — causing people to disregard the warnings of public health experts even as the death toll grows.
Gripping and revealing, United States of Conspiracy is the story of how three men helped to lay the foundation for conspiracy theories to take center stage in America’s national conversation, how the idea of truth itself became part of America’s divide, and what it means for the future of our democracy.
“Conspiracism has become a recognized and accepted way of exercising political power. It creates a polarization in the population that’s much deeper than partisan polarization — it’s a polarization about what it means to know something,” says Nancy Rosenblum, co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying. “I think it’s likely to spread across the political spectrum. And whether it returns to the fringes or not I think will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.”
United States of Conspiracy premieres Tues., July 28. It will be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube at 10/9c.
United States of Conspiracy is a FRONTLINE Production with Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Philip Bennett. The producer & reporter is Jim Gilmore. The writers are Michael Kirk & Mike Wiser. The director is Michael Kirk. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 93 Emmy Awards and 24 Peabody Awards. Visit pbs.org/frontlineand follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, The John and Helen Glessner Family Trust and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.
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