I'm not often accused of being on the payroll of the CIA or the Los Angeles Police Department, but it's bound to happen with stories like my recent Mother Jones article about blogger Kim Dvorak—the so-called "investigative journalist" who's used a credulous San Diego television station to spread conspiracy theories about the death of journalist Michael Hastings.
Trying to convince conspiracy theorists of anything is often pointless, as a quick look at the comments on my article shows. They believe the government and media are engaged in a vague but elaborate scheme to control them, reality be damned, and I'm not interested in buying pencils from their cups, as Christopher Hitchens would say. What concerns me is the extent to which intelligent, engaged people also fall for this stuff, and how journalists and prominent news outlets reinforce their mistaken thinking when they fail to recognize the difference between serious reporting and conspiratorial claptrap.
Most journalists don't do this, but it is fairly pervasive. After my article published, John Stauber, the retired founder of the great Madison-based watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy, took to Twitter and used my article to suggest to Hastings' widow that her husband's death "appears a murder or suicide." He later used the coroner's report, which explicitly stated there was no evidence of suicide or driving under the influence, to offensively tell her the opposite was true.
Ed Krayewski, the associate editor of Reason 24/7, wrote that I was "uncomfortable with Kim Dvorak’s exercise of her free speech rights." Never mind that he had promoted a Dvorak story that falsely presented two-month-old news as original reporting and implied, without evidence, that Hastings may have been assassinated. The same story falsely quoted a university professor (whom she deceptively interviewed) saying that Hastings' speeding Mercedes had been traveling the speed limit—something I learned after my article, which points out about a half-dozen other myths of Dvorak's, published.
A lengthy LA Weekly story describing Hastings' recent drug-fueled paranoia later provided a level-headed explanation of what most likely led to the journalist's death. But it doesn't help that he died in Hollywood, a hotbed of conspiratorial thinking amplified by gullible actors and filmmakers. Ed Asner, for example, narrated a long video for Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth that has led several progressives I know in Iowa to take seriously the implausible and exhaustively debunked theory that the World Trade Center towers collapsed because of controlled demolitions.
Or take John Steppling, a renowned playwright whose decades of accomplishments include writing the screenplay adaptation of 52 Pick-Up, a novel by the recently deceased crime writer Elmore Leonard. "Gavin Aronsen, the erstwhile editor of MJ, penned this bit of strange character assasination (in support of the LAPD)," he wrote in response to a second story of mine about the coroner's report. "One can only assume either Aronsen was paid off, or is scared," he added, before calling my three-paragraph summary of the report a "paid propaganda piece."
I don't know why Steppling thinks I used to edit Mother Jones, but I was once an intern. Shortly after I arrived in 2010 with the other new interns, an editor asked us in an orientation meeting to name the publication we'd most like to be published in, present employer's excluded. I was counterintuitive and went with Cityview, Iowa's premiere alt-weekly, which I grew up reading and where I'd long wanted to pen a cover story.
A couple years later, I caught wind of a would-be scandal involving an Iowa official, but was never able to make much headway on it from out of state. I figured a good alternative publication could craft it into a good story, so I drafted an email to Cityview managing editor Amber Williams, who's listed as the paper's news contact. Before I hit send, I decided to check out her work, found a cover story she'd recently written promoting myths about the dangers of vaccines, and instead wrote a three-part series for the Ames Progressive looking at the other theories Williams flirted with in a way no legitimate journalist ever would.
The Cityview conspiracy-mongering never caught on like, or went as far as, Dvorak's reporting, but it resembled the way she, Stauber, Steppling, and other conspiracy theorists process information. Instead of reaching rational, evidence-based conclusions, they speculate freely under the guise of "just asking questions," tossing around non sequiturs about past government misdeeds or President Obama's drone-strike program to suggest that it's likely a journalist might be assassinated simply for embarrassing an official in Rolling Stone or writing a profile about the head of the CIA, or that the government might be capable of covering up an impossibly and needlessly elaborate terrorist attack against its own people.
I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as much as the next person—I have a friend who owns a box full of VHS tapes about UFOs, the X-Files is one of my favorite TV shows, I live in fear of lizard people—but it stops being amusing when it's used to insult the families of the dead and erode the credibility of real journalism.