Journalists have a problem with “conspiracy theories”.
I put the sentence in quotation marks because writers, editors and headlines have a problem with these consecutive words – “conspiracy theories” – in their writing. It’s not because they’re tricked into believing outlandish truths about the world.
Journalists bucket all kinds of gaslighting, misinformation, misinformation, and lies into a bucket with an innocuous and playful label: conspiracy theories. In the process, they excuse the deception of presidents and quacks (as well as presidents who are quacks).
Alex Jones, the sinister Infowars radio host, seems linked to conspiracy theories. This week, a Texas jury awarded the family of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim $45 million in a lawsuit against Jones. Parents suffered from Jones’ lies for years, as he falsely accused the survivors of being complicit in the staged deaths of their children. The judgment came after Jones’ legal team accidentally spilled the contents of his cellphone to the opposition legal team.
These awkward events sparked countless news stories, in which reporters and commentators called Jones a “conspiracy theorist and radio host,” a “fiery conspiracy theory peddler,” and a “conspiracy theorist who sells supplements.” “..”
If so many journalists have chosen the phrase, what’s my problem with using it that way, especially when it comes to Jones?
As someone who has spent decades grading high school and college student essays, I hate to do this to you, but let’s refer to a definition. I can’t count how many times I’ve sighed and rolled my eyes reading an essay that relied on definition like I’m about to. But bear with me.
Let’s consult Merriam Webster.
Noun “conspiracy theory”: a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.
Do you notice anything there? Because I do.
The definition ignores the vital element of Jones’ speech: it is false.
By allowing Jones’s speech to be a “theory,” we reporters are telling our readers, “Judge for yourself whether this radio host’s words are true. We don’t feel fully qualified to adjudicate what Jones said. This September 11 was an inside job. This Sandy Hook was a fake schoolboy massacre. That the army uses perfumes to prevent men from becoming fathers.
In writing about Jones, these reporters referred to the menu of available words and hit upon the “conspiracy theory”. They left behind much better options that I’ve used here before: lies, deceit, misinformation, misinformation, gaslighting, and words like lie, untruth, and many more.
We as journalists are equally weak when we write about others who are publicly and ostensibly lying for their own gain or advancement. A headline slammed a military coup after President Joe Biden was sworn in by saying there was “no evidence to back up” misinformation on social media.
The notorious news media navel questioning what to call President Donald Trump’s disinformation from the presidential desk during his first days in office has led only a handful of outlets to describe with precision his words: like lies. (Note that the previous link is published in The New York Times’ opinion section.)
Why is the press ready to check the picayune details of the tax plans in real time during the debates, when we label blatant fictions with direct consequences on real people as “theories”?
Many journalism classrooms and newsrooms confuse “objectivity” with “observation.” We teach young journalists to avoid being descriptive when observations of truth and fiction are needed to serve the reader.
Journalists have a duty to bring to light deceptions, especially elaborate, public and persuasive lies. These are not conspiracy theories.
It would be convenient here to supercharge my argument by saying that the traffic in so-called conspiracy theories is worse than ever right now. However, it seems likely that we constantly perceive ourselves in a cloud of misinformation, breathing in harmful stories about the great cabal of mind-controlling lords, politicians and military. Grand projects depicting such conspiracies were more common, studies show, decades ago.
There are useful elements in the phrase “conspiracy theories”. There are many elaborate fictions in the world, and they are worth remembering. These lies are based on our skepticism of institutions, be it government, religion or political parties. It is plausible – if not seductive – to believe that powerful forces are arrayed against us. These stories surround us.
Even so, it’s clear that we need something more specific to call this modern strain of damaging false narratives.
A column this week in Politico by media writer Jack Shafer highlights Jones’ financial incentive to lie. “Alex Jones and the Lie Economy,” reads the headline, a phrase that also scores points for pointing out that Jones is lying.
Weave together all the strands of misleading speech like this, and it’s clear we need a new word or phrase to communicate this: false tales of how powerful conspirators plot against the common man told by deceitful peddlers who have a personal, and often financial, incentive to lie.
Our English vocabulary may not contain a word or phrase with these particular, albeit familiar, contours. If we have such words, I cannot conjure them.
What is clear to me is that the words we have don’t ring true.
A version of this commentary was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, an affiliate of the United States Newsroom.