Perhaps it all began in 1963 when a crazed young man pulled a trigger on the President of the United States and a shocked nation struggled to process what had happened. It was a CIA conspiracy that caused it, a backlash for the debacle that was the Bay of Pigs. Or else there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. We did not seem to be able to accept the fact that a skinny nobody who had been dishonorably discharged from the military could be capable of gunning down the most powerful man in the free world.
Conspiracies are harmless when they are generally dismissed by the public at large as crazy talk. Moon landing deniers, for example, are hardly the kinds of people who could potentially inflict real damage. But what about when vaccine deniers start not vaccinating their children and we see increased outbreaks in diseases? What happens when a nominee for president peddles a lie for five years regarding the birthplace of the first black man ever elected to the Presidency? When he is finally confronted, he pushes the blame for the lie onto somebody else. Another lie. What happens when more people see validity in the conspiracy than in the truth?
Conspiracies operate in a precise way. Truth and fact become irrelevant details clouding the way to the inner truth, the visceral truth you feel in your gut. Conspiracies feed on themselves because speculation becomes fact, minute and irrelevant details become overly scrutinized and turn into evidence, and any attempt to argue against the conspiracy only shows them that you’re in on it, too.
The internet can be a great platform for sharing ideas but it can also be an incubator for these thoughts. Everybody seems to have a strong opinion. With the world at your fingertips, it can be easy to over-analyze and pick and choose the “evidence” that supports your claim.
It’s time to face the fact that we are living in two different political realities. When we can turn on the television and be subjected to wild speculation that the President is a secret muslim or a frame-by-frame analysis of Hillary Clinton’s face for signs of a deathly illness, we can choose to avoid fact and truth all together. There is no standard anymore for what happened, just the facts. Journalists are supposed to present us with the facts so that we can then make up our own minds in an informed way. Of course it is naive to think of any news report as truly free of bias but why is it that nobody even tries to achieve that anymore? Punditry has become news. Everybody seems to think that they know better than the experts. Like the patient that goes to a doctor convinced that she has a deadly disease because her symptoms matched those on WebMD, we are all experts on everything. This insidious reality becomes as American as apple pie. I don’t think, I feel and that should be good enough.
It is easier to believe a lie when the truth is complicated or confusing.
But the news media desperately needs to step up and do its part. Don’t speculate: report the news, the facts, and the truth. Give all Americans a reasonably balanced context around which we can begin to have important debates.