Pseudo-Skepticism and Media Failure: How the Concept of “Conspiracy Theories” is Killing Journalism
I’ve recently begun writing for Byline News, a London-based outlet with a partial focus on media failure and information issues. My first piece is now available at the link. A preview:
In 2019, just a few years after comparing the idea to Elvis sightings, The Atlantic dedicated an entire issue to the prospect of a second civil war. But by that time, the notion had been elevated from “conspiracy theory” to a primary concern of the American establishment (and remains so today, as evidenced by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich’s 2022 Guardian op-ed headlined “The second American civil war is already happening”). The contributor who dismissed the same notion out of hand in 2015, Adrienne LaFrance, has since been elevated to the position of executive editor — and not only continues to write about why people believe in conspiracies, but also gives talks on the subject.
I’m a former columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer and contributor to Skeptic; my first book was an examination of pseudoscience and Evangelical politics as viewed through the turn-of-the-century Creationism trojan horse known as “intelligent design”. Yet I’ve also been denounced by at least one major outlet, Der Spiegel, for distributing “conspiracy theories” (at least until I reached out to ask for an example, at which point both the article and subheadline were quietly changed to remove this odd accusation).
This sort of outcome is typical of the slapdash manner in which the 21st-century press tends to assign expertise and credibility on fundamental subjects — and thus happily relevant to our inquiry into whether we may safely rely on it to define the parameters by which these subjects should be approached.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2001 columns wherein he praised Vladimir Putin as an admirable democratic reformer (“So keep rootin’ for Putin,” ran the majestic conclusion) and proclaimed in December of that same year that the war in Afghanistan had already been won, assuring us that “the Taliban are gone.” He would go on to advise the public that China would not seek to censor its people’s access to the internet not long before it did just that to an extent without precedent.
In 2013 he assured Americans that they had nothing to fear from mass surveillance programs overseen by agencies like the National Security Agency (NSA) in conjunction with the array of global private sector intelligence firms that were now coming into public view. He would go on to hail the incoming crown prince of Saudi Arabia as another promising reformer a few years before the monarch had Friedman’s friend Jamal Khashoggi dismembered with a bone saw; it later turned out that the kingdom’s agents tracked his cell phone with the help of a private-sector surveillance firm. Friedman was appointed to the Pulitzer Prize Committee in 2004. By the establishment’s own implicit accounting, he represents the best it has to offer.
Again, the full 3,500 word essay is available for free via Byline, where I expect to publishing more articles. You can also follow me on Twitter for more digs at the basic media.