“Frontline” episode (July 28, 2020): “United States of Conspiracy”
It’s jarring enough to discover at any time the bombastic theatrics of Alex Jones, whom Wikipedia describes as “an American far-right radio show host, political extremist, and conspiracy theorist.” But it’s even more unsettling to realize that perhaps a half hour of Jones’ emotion-driven, antagonistic, and hardly journalistic hyperbole has been compiled to be broadcast (albeit with context and narrative) on one’s usually sedate local PBS channel. A political reporting team from PBS’s “Frontline” documentary series presented those segments, along with context and narrative, in the July 28, 2020, “Frontline” episode assessing President Trump’s collaboration in the social trend called “conspiracism.”
I decided to watch this perspective on social polarization—titled “United States of Conspiracy”—partly because this nation’s raucous intersection of politics, journalism, and public discourse impresses me as desperate for spiritual “field hospitals,” as Pope Francis would put it. The need for healing has prompted me to write a book and an ongoing blog in search of Catholic values capable of renewing communication and community. I’m always on the prowl for resources from Frontline and other respected media; I had tapped into the program’s two-part episode on polarization released about six months ago. That investigation looked back over Trump’s and President Obama’s efforts to manage what PBS called “A Nation Divided.” My reflections at that time, drawing as usual upon Pope Francis’s relatively unknown but inspiring guidance for building peace through better cultural conversations, bore good fruit. They yielded ideas I used for the class I teach on Writing and Rhetoric at Holy Cross College, and they prompted Catholic radio’s distinguished interviewer, Al Kresta, to invite me for an on- air discussion.
I hailed the political reporters for their research and insights regarding how Washington dealt with polarization, but I also suggested to Kresta that neither the causes nor the cures for this country’s divisions were exclusively centered in the nation’s capital or even on the “politics” beat emphasized on the program.
Putting the Facts (and Non-Facts) Together
Now, I come away from “United States of Conspiracy” with new fear that we might miss the bigger point. Frontline’s samples of coverage connecting dots between Alex Jones, Trump, and his advisor Roger Stone concluded that too much of the dialogue and cooperation they cultivated was detrimental grandstanding—poorly grounded in fact and dominated by emotion, distraction, and manipulation. Political synergies for one, two, or all three of these players arose out of tragedies, such as the 9/11 terror attacks, the Sandy Hook school shootings, and the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the documentary.
Just as the program’s January episode showed our distressed republic turning partisan opponents into antagonistic enemies, this July episode shows our search for empowering truths and agreed-upon ideals retreating into solidarity-busting fears and incompatible, relativistic “realities.” The divisiveness infecting our citizenship increasingly takes the form of personal scorn or hatred. Indeed, I heard on the program political descriptions of Jones and his conspiratorial universe suggesting a burden of guilt that could be interpreted as just cause for what is popularly called “cancel culture.” This form of moral enforcement (which should not replace appropriate determinations within our justice system) shrinks freedom for extreme views and deprives offensive speech of media platforms.
Skeptical of such enforcement in many, though not all, cases, and nervous about its tendency toward demonization rather than dialogue, I was curious to dig more deeply into the big-picture research Frontline had conducted. One of the program’s valuable practices—providing additional resources such as the texts of expert interviews conducted for each program—allowed me to learn more about the insights of Nancy Rosenblum. A Harvard professor of ethics in politics and government, she has authored A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault of Democracy.
According to the text of the March 2020 interview with Rosenblum,
“conspiracy theories” per se are nothing new in the human mind frame. It has been natural, and potentially valuable, for citizens who observe unexplained events to act as amateur detectives, piecing together clues to better understand whether their origins are coincidental or collusive. Rosenblum told filmmaker Michael Kirk that the modern twist on conspiracy theories in public affairs now replaces healthy, proactive curiosity and reality-based reasoning with oversimplified acceptance of a myth-maker’s assertions.
Big View of Conspiracy: More Than a Theory
When something significant happens, it has to have a cause proportionate to the significant thing that’s happened,” Rosenblum explained. Big understanding is needed, I heard her saying: If that is furnished through declarations of facts which may or may not be real,, some people will accept the assertions in order to enjoy the comfort of “knowing” and the power to act on that knowledge.
She agreed with the journalist that Trump himself is “an absolute conspiracist” of this sort. “This is a man who psychologically sees the world in terms of how he needs the world to be…. And one of the characteristics of how he sees the world is in terms of loyal friends and enemies….” OK, yes, please tell me more about that trait—as exhibited by Trump and by countless others in politics and beyond.
Asked about the prominence of this breed of conspiracism today, Rosenblum called it “a monumental national effect,” creating a polarization that goes beyond affirming a particular policy stance. Instead, it honors certain people for knowing a truth unknown by others. It’s “an epistermological divide” that dismisses the value of systematic, reasoned inquiry by opposing sides. Rosenblum’s panoramic assessment did not judge only the potently political, compellingly visual story of Alex Jones, Roger Smith, and Donald Trump.
I came away thinking she views conspiracism as part of a phenomenon in secular modernism writ large. It seems closely tied to narcissistic and autocratic tendencies, as well as to the cancel culture, confirmation bias constricting online communities, the digital world’s embrace of customized realities, and the tribal thinking that reinforces self-defensive politics rather than “common-good” politics and dignity-based compassion. These are the characteristics of mass communication that Pope Francis has asked us all to examine in his messages for World Communications Day. In other Church documents, he has echoed the call to build up strong communities where many voices participate in the story-telling that yields more complete truth and trust.
Rosenblum seems to agree that this approach to conspiracism should concern us regardless of our opinions or partisanship. Yes, a defeat of Trump and allies such as Jones and Stone this November would rein in the president’s abilities “to inflict a compromised sense of reality on the nation.” But it doesn’t stop there, she adds; the group-think she has studied “is now recognized as a means of exercising power, and I think it will be hard to resist. I think it’s likely to spread across the political spectrum. And whether it returns to the fringes or not”–replaced by more conventional and rational forms of public discourse and deliberation—“I think will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.” That struck me as news we all can use: It’s up to us, and something else!
The Rest of the Story
As usual, the experience of digesting one of PBS’s elaborate products of professional journalism was eye-opening and thought=provoking. My receptivity to the documentary along with its ancillary online information allowed me to put into practice a “keep-digging” discipline I remember from my college journalism classes. This “journalism of abundance,” as I call it, seems likely to benefit all of us, as is the injection of Catholic values Pope Francis has said should guide a renewal of social communications.
In his 2018 message for World Communications Day, Francis said the pursuit of “a journalism of peace” must be driven by an embrace of truth and healthy curiosity—in the spirit of personal encounters sparking continuous listening and learning, widening our world and softening our hearts to gain additional perspectives on God’s complex ecology of diverse, flawed, and complementary individuals. This gives us both a compelling love story of unity and a treasure trove of personal stories that are up for discussion and contemplation in our evolving relationships with Jesus Christ. He’s the ultimate storyteller and interlocutor for us to emulate as professional or amateur journalists; He is the capital-T Truth, as well as the Way and the Life, in which we’re meant to participate.
One might say our lives are our assigned “beats,” with the mission of gathering and wisely interpreting pieces of truth in ever-growing degrees of quality and quantity, partly for our own edification and partly for everyone. Pope Francis invites us into reflections on this in his 2020 World Communications Day message. Our society does no one any favors by drifting into a “post-truth” realm of zero accountability or a conspiratorial politics where our “private stock” of truth is weaponized to cancel others or elevate ourselves. The Frontline journalists probably didn’t reckon that I would come away from their creditable cautionary tale with gratitude for their justice-driven research alongside hope that we will all undertake mercy-driven follow-up work—in our social-media messaging and the life stories we write together.
Are we now the “United States of Conspiracy”? I desire that in only one sense, which reminds me of a light-hearted theological riddle: What is the difference between a paranoid and a mystic? The paranoid believes there is a conspiracy in the universe against him. The mystic believes there is a conspiracy in his favor.