“Conspiracy Theories” and Media Coverage of the Sandy Hook School Massacre: In Search of the Last Liberal Intellectual
In the wake of the Sandy Hook School shooting public incredulity with the official version of events led to numerous speculations on what really happened. In short order corporate media marshaled pundits to disparage such alternative interpretations as “conspiracy theories” and the work of deranged and even malevolent Sandy Hook “truthers.”
The now-prevalent phenomenon where only the narratives authorized by law enforcement and government authorities are worthy of serious consideration suggests the unmistakable extent to which public discourse has declined. In such an ideational system journalists and academics are expected to either fall silent or perform the rearguard action of deflecting criticism from the state.
Events such as Aurora or Sandy Hook have profuse informational gaps and a multitude of questions authorities have not begun to adequately address. Regardless of political stripe journalists and academics especially should be instinctively distrustful of such momentous incidents. Unfortunately many put short term interests of preserving reputation and livelihood above the obligatory search for truth.
Today’s project of policing the public sphere for unorthodox thoughts is a form of stealth authoritarianism that combines the weight of academic or journalistic expertise with a phony liberalism (or conservatism) to confirm the often unexamined perspectives of a specific political constituency. Such a technique is most readily employed against the apparently irrational ideas, beliefs and practices of a foreign other. In this regard “conspiracy theorists” and “truthers” typically play the “straw man” role.
For example, a recent piece by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan exhibits anxiety over major media’s attention toward individuals critical of what authorities have told them to believe about Sandy Hook. Nyhan is fearful that research into the Newtown massacre contradicting the government’s official narrative—what he emphatically terms “conspiracy mongering” and “obscure myths”–may be given a platform by more “prominent advocates” from the political realm. From here the dangerous notions could gain the support of the unenlightened–“credulous believers” and “new adherents who would not otherwise have been exposed to or persuaded by false claims.” Such verboten ideas, Nyhan argues, should instead be allowed to “wither and die.”
The problem with this stance is that it consciously paves the way for the official false claims and myths that powerful political entities and corporate news and entertainment media are capable of forcing upon the public mind and collective memory, be they Osama bin Laden masterminding the 9/11 attacks, babies being thrown from incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals, or North Vietnamese forces firing the first shots in the Vietnam War. Such a position is not unusual from a palace court intellectual; whether it is morally sound and faithful to the liberal tenet of speaking truth to power is a matter for another day.
In reviewing other articles of those using this form of defamatory innuendo toward the Sandy Hook truth community I encountered numerous poorly reasoned arguments and claims that could not withstand serious scrutiny and amounted to a bulwark for the official narrative–indeed, arguments most appealing to those with a dangerously unexamined faith in state power and lacking the inclination to consider alternative perspectives or investigate the event for themselves.
This prompted me to contact several notable “conspiracy theory” decriers and request an interview with each of them. Instead of mere name-calling, I remain sincerely interested in better understanding why such apparently intelligent individuals have come to arrive at their conclusions and become the self-appointed guardians of legitimate public exchange. I thus set about assembling a set of questions on a wide array of “conspiracy”-related issues and phenomena.
I figured I would begin by reaching out in a collegial manner to Professor Nyhan himself. “Sorry, not interested,” he replied, rather tersely. I next contacted Ben Smith and C J Lotz, staff writers at the popular liberal website Buzzfeed.com, who wrote a piece remarkably similar to Dr. Nyhan’s titled, “Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories Edge Toward the Mainstream.” Smith and Lotz never responded to my emails.
Undeterred, I contacted the operators of the well-known liberal “fact check” website Snopes.com. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid we just can’t,” Barbara Mikkelson replied. “I fear this is the downside of having a small operation.”
Next I dropped Salon.com political writer and ThinkProgress assistant editor Alex Seitz-Wald a line. The youthful Seitz-Wald prides himself as being one of today’s foremost “truth” skeptics. Since early January he has written a series of articles generally disparaging Sandy Hook researchers. “I’m writing one more story on this,” he said, “but really not interested in getting back into this subject or enduring more hate mail.”
I moved on to career anti-conspiracist and former High Times editor John Foster “Chip” Berlet. Calling himself a progressive and champion of liberal democracy, Mr. Berlet wrote profusely on the resurgence of the so-called “new right” throughout the 1990s. “I do not spend time with people promoting crackpot conspiracy theories,” he replied, somewhat peevishly. “It is annoying, counterproductive, and gives me a headache. Nevertheless, I support your First Amendment right to waste bandwidth and electricity.”
Just when I was about to give up hope Jonathan Kay, editor at Canada’s National Post and author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Conspiracist Underground  responded favorably to my interview request. “Sure,” he said, much to my delight. Yet when I provided Kay with the questions he balked. “Just about all the answers to these questions are in my book,” he replied. I countered that very few of the questions were actually addressed in the book. “I get the sense that my perspective wouldn’t really be that meaningful to you. I’m going to pass on this.”
In the end while skilled at defending the varied machinations of our out-of-control police state by helping to confirm their immediate audiences’ prejudices, none of the foremost conspiracy cynics and debunkers opted to have a dialogue–one where they would likely be compelled to interrogate their own claims and assumptions.
Could it be that what these commentators desire in lieu of dialogue is a one-way transmission of their ideas devoid of critique or interpretation–one where the pursuit of “truth” itself is caricatured as a fool’s errand? If liberalism is based in part on a free and open exchange perhaps some of the foremost figures and media outlets touting themselves as progressive and liberal, and purporting to preserve and defend rational discourse, really aren’t so open-minded after all.
The following are the questions I was hoping my would-be interlocutors would address.
- The main thrust of John Milton’s Areopagetica is that in a fair exchange an argument based on the truth will triumph over lies and deception. Do you think that the major media’s use of terms such as “truther” or “conspiracy theorist” to designate individuals or groups with ideas and theories that differ from government and/or corporate entities is a productive part of the journey toward truth and enlightenment Milton envisioned?
- To what degree do you think citizens and the press should hold government officials accountable for momentous events such as the terror attacks of September 11, 2001?
- What characterizes a conspiracy theory? How can we distinguish between a conspiracy theory and a valid assessment of a specific phenomenon, issue, or event?
- US political leaders uniformly maintain that Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda network were the sole agents behind the 9/11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission’s report attributed this set of events to “a lack of imagination” in terms of government agencies’ preparation. In your view, what are the most compelling pieces of evidence to support this official explanation of the 9/11 events?
- Historian Richard Hofstadter argues in his well-known essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” that regardless of how much evidence the conspiratorially-minded gather and present on a topic or phenomenon they are not worthy of a hearing as their views may endanger rational political discourse and consensus. Does such a position potentially jeopardize effective and honest journalistic practice?
- In your estimation, is the tendency to entertain or proffer conspiracy theories a sign of a potential psychiatric condition? Along these lines, are at least some conspiracy theorists inherently dangerous?
- In 1977 Carl Bernstein reported that through “Operation Mockingbird” and related activities many major news organizations were infiltrated by CIA operatives or consciously aided the CIA in intelligence gathering activities and “planting” stories in the press. CIA document 1035-960 suggests how the agency went about thwarting criticism of the Warren Commission’s examination of President Kennedy’s assassination by utilizing intelligence assets in news outlets to bolster the Warren Commission’s legitimacy and labeling critics “conspiracy theorists.” In your estimation, is the intelligence community’s penetration of the press an ongoing phenomenon? Is it more widespread today or has it subsided to any significant degree?
- Political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith cites The Declaration of Independence as a conspiratorial document and asserts that the ideology of America’s founders was in many ways motivated by paranoia toward British rule. In fact, the notion of conspiracy has been a consistent theme in American politics. With this in mind, what is it about modern forms of governance that render such impulses and worldviews irrational, obsolete, and perhaps even dangerous?
- The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City brought into public consciousness the notion of “homegrown terrorism.” At the same time the event provided the pretext for laws compromising Americans’ civil liberties and paved the way for the PATRIOT Act that was enacted in the wake of 9/11. Is it reasonable for the public to conclude that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the sole or principal agents in the bombing? Have you examined the Oklahoma Bombing Investigation Committee’s 2001 report on the incident? If so, would you consider its findings to be sound and cause for a new judicial interrogation of the event?
- The official theory of what transpired at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 involves 20-year-old Adam Lanza going on a murderous rampage that resulted in the deaths of 20 children and 7 adults. Major media outlets appear to have unquestioningly gone forward with this scenario. In your estimation, have law enforcement and medical authorities produced evidence sufficient to support this theory of events?
- There are a variety of public figures and websites that deem themselves as “alternative” sources of political news and analysis, such as Alex Jones and Infowars.com, and Dr. Webster Tarpley of Tarpley.net. Why do you believe such individuals are frequently held up as promoters of conspiracy theories? In your view, what is it that makes these commentators and sources of analysis less reliable than, say, CNN’s Piers Morgan, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, or the editorial and op-ed pages of a regional or national newspaper?
- Philanthropic foundations contribute large sums to a wide array of non-governmental organizations and media outlets in the United States. What role, if any, do you believe such entities play in shaping public discourse and opinion around controversial issues and events?
 Brendan Nyhan, “Boosting the Sandy Hook Truther Myth,” Columbia Journalism Review, January 22, 2013. Dr. Nyhan speaks dismissively of this author yet it is difficult to find a conventional article addressing independent Sandy Hook analysis that does not. I chose this piece to aid in analyzing its argument and a specific sociocultural tendency rather than its author. CJR seeks “to encourage excellence in journalism in the service of a free society” and its “major funders” include George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Rockefeller Family Fund.
 Ben Smith and C J Lotz, “Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories Edge Toward the Mainstream,” Buzzfeed.com, January 22, 2013.
 For example, see the barely concealed political tracts Chip Berlet (editor), Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, Boston and Somerville MA: Political Research Associates and South End Press, 1995, and the quasi-academic Too Close for Comfort: Right Wing Populism in America, New York: Guilford Press, 2000.
 Jonathan Kay, Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Conspiracist Underground, New York: Harper Collins, 2011.