Clare Birchall (2006) Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip.

London and New York: Berg. ISBN: 184520143-4.

Spied On, Sexed Up and Talked About

Gary Walton

This study is a cogent and welcome examination of what Clare Birchall calls ‘popular knowledge’, i.e.. those ways of knowing that ‘circulate by way of mouth, television, talk radio, the Internet, tabloids, magazines and so forth, rather than verified, peer-reviewed academic journals, books or more “serious” or “elitist” forms of cultural output’ (21). These ‘knowledges’ tend to be populist and not bounded by legitimated or official knowledges. While there are many such knowledges extant in contemporary culture, such as alien abduction narratives, astrology, urban legends, self-help rhetoric, not to mention various new age practices, Birchall chooses to focus on two of the more compelling examples: gossip and conspiracy theory. The study would be worthwhile if the author had chosen just to discuss those two popular knowledges, but it does much more. Not only does Birchall’s work examine popular knowledges providing the historical background and formal attributes of both conspiracy theory and gossip; it orients the study of those knowledges within traditional academic disciplines, including sociology and anthropology. In addition, this study investigates the very thorny problem of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ vis à vis ‘illegitimate’ knowledge, and it does so while arguing for ‘cultural studies’ as a valued and necessary academic discipline. Given the study’s length (only 185 pages), it is a densely packed, closely argued tour de force on an important and timely subject.

The author chooses to use poststructuralism, and particularly deconstruction, as her theoretical lens. While some readers may think that these theoretical perspectives have run their course, Birchall argues that, since popular knowledges set themselves up against more ‘legitimate’ epistemological structures, they find themselves in an inherent fight for credibility and therefore in a struggle for power for their place in the public zeitgeist. Thus chapter one, entitled ‘Know It All’, begins by delineating accepted notions of ‘legitimate knowledge’ and dividing it into ‘official knowledge’ (secured by scientific rationalism and humanism) and ‘popular knowledge’ (defined usually as common sense, the voice of the people, etc.), as opposed to ‘illegitimate knowledge’ (that is knowledge which maintains an uncertain status, whether because it is unverified or because it has been officially discredited – even while it may enjoy a mass circulation (3)). The author’s intent is to challenge the accepted categorization of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ knowledge, especially as such categories apply to ‘gossip’ and ‘conspiracy theory.’

Birchall stresses that anyone interested in the study of popular knowledges must begin by recognizing the inherent power struggle between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ knowledges. Accordingly, the author discusses the key theories of Michel Foucault, especially those that analyze ‘epistemic structures’ and how these structures relate to power. She begins with Foucault’s formulation of the ‘power/knowledge’ paradigm. Any knowledge structure cannot be thought of outside of this paradigm. She emphasizes one of Foucault’s key principles: power must not be thought of as a hierarchy only – power relations also can be seen as ‘chains’ that can influence culture from the bottom up or laterally. This dynamic is vital if we are to understand how popular knowledges such as gossip and conspiracy theory operate in contemporary culture. Further, we must see that the term ‘discourse’ refers to the unwritten rules that determine the boundaries of such knowledge. Thus, the constituent areas of knowledge ‘making’ are as important as the end product. According to Birchall, ‘It is this notion that I want to take forward, positioning popular knowledge as a discursive formation (though not a discipline) that is characterized by contexts that give rise to ideological formations’ (11). Moreover, she continues, ‘Popular knowledge is also that which has been excluded from other, more “legitimate,” discourses by practices embedded within rationalist institutions.’ Indeed, Foucault’s study of marginal texts and informal knowledges (i.e. non-canonical texts) sets a precedent for Birchall’s own study of ‘non-official’ knowledge structures. In the end, the author wants to ‘take forward Foucault’s way of thinking about the discursive conditions of production for and rules of constraint upon a knowledge-producing discourse’ (12). Foucault’s work helps us to understand the anxiety produced by popular knowledges when juxtaposed to Enlightenment rationalism.

The author then fixes her current study in relation to the disciplines of sociology and anthropology. Sociology recognizes that ‘knowledge’ is socially constructed and determined, while anthropology has adumbrated many of the concerns of the current study through its interest in folklore and other traditional forms of informal knowledge. Next, Birchall confronts the tenuous position that ‘popular knowledges,’ especially those considered under the rubric of ‘cultural studies,’ occupy in the academy. Here she examines not only the sociology of curriculum formation but that of pedagogy in general, especially as it deals with the legitimization of knowledge production. She also confronts the criticism that ‘popular knowledges’ simply ape legitimated knowledges. She focuses on John Fiske’s Power Plays/Power Works (1993), saying that Fiske’s book is the ‘closest that cultural studies has come to a theory of how popular knowledges work’ (18), in that it ‘recognizes the way in which popular knowledges question paradigms of legitimacy and authority’ (20) – the latter being a vital function of popular knowledges.

Birchall admits that political considerations of popular knowledges are an important aspect of their study. Popular knowledges are political not only in the context of their own epistemological structures, but in their fight to be taken as legitimate studies within the academy. Even so, the author eschews what she calls the ‘Big Theories’ that are used to explain popular knowledges in terms of political dynamics. Political commentators tend to see popular knowledges like conspiracy theory as either Marxian false consciousness, emotional irrationalism that distracts individuals from the praxis of real politics, or as attempts to replace class consciousness with what Fredric Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’ (23). According to Birchall, the problem is more complicated than the ‘Big Theories’ describe: ‘popular knowledges can appear. . . both politically engaged and deeply ineffectual in the realm of democratic politics. The oscillation between the serious nature of popular knowledges and their more ironic and playful elements is important to any ‘theory’ or account of popular knowledges. . . .They are constantly shifting’ (23).

This very undecidability or structural ambivalence is a subject the author examines in some depth. Thus, ‘the popular can resonate seriously’ (23). Indeed, the commodification of popular knowledges such as gossip and conspiracy theory has complicated any attempt to categorize them. As these popular knowledges operate on so many different levels at once, the author at one point suggests that ‘we have to start thinking about popular knowledge at both a local and global level; as both “home-made” folk culture andmass-produced culture; and as both a pragmatic, social tool and an entertaining, pleasurable practice or product. It means keeping such binarisms in tension’ (24). This tension of binarisms is expressed as the self-reflexive quality endemic to both gossip and conspiracy theory. The recognition of this self-reflexivity is useful not only in the study of popular knowledge but also when thinking about cultural studies as a discipline. In the end, a poststructuralist approach, especially a decontructionist approach to cultural theory, allows the theorist to consider the questions of ‘power, legitimacy, responsibility, and representations’ (28) and to keep those questions open, not only when approaching the subject of the inquiry but also when considering the very discipline of cultural studies itself, which attempts to define and legitimate the study at issue.

The core of Knowledge Goes Pop is expressed in the several case studies that the author offers for the reader’s consideration. In chapter two, entitled appropriately enough, ‘Just Because You’re Paranoid, Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You,’ the author gives a short historical overview of conspiracy theory and then examines two cultural events as they were treated in the public arena: ‘Dianagate’ and ‘September 11, 2001.’ The chapter’s stated purpose is to examine press stories about conspiracy theories: 1) to examine how the concepts of ‘legitimate and illegitimate’ are decided in the public sphere; 2) to examine how ‘popular knowledges produce and negotiate the stories that nations tell about themselves’ (33); and 3) to see if there is a shift in the way people conceive of ‘conspiracy theory’ post-9/11.The author begins by pointing out that the history of conspiracy theory stretches back in America, in the form of pamphlets, broadsides, periodicals, etc., to its founding. Examples can be found in Europe dating back much farther than that. Yet, because of the advent of electronic media and the concomitant ‘information flows,’ a ‘technological reinforcement of an alternative paradigm of knowing. . .[that] presents new challenges for how we think about knowledge, and how we think about our own investments in knowledge’ (34) is necessary. Moreover, while there were scores of conspiracy theories pre-9/11 (from those that questioned the FBI’s shooting of the family of Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge; to those that attempted to explain the deaths of the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas; to those that confronted the official version of the attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City; much less those that dealt with the first attack on the World Trade Center, for example); after 9/11, conspiracy theories became the very currency of public debate. (It is probably worth noting that the official explanation for the events of 9/11 is itself a conspiracy theory involving Osama Bin Laden and nineteen Arab terrorists.).

Even so, the author acknowledges that when it comes to studying conspiracy theory as an iterated narrative, there are many problems associated with developing its ‘genealogy.’ These problems include 1) the blurring of categorical lines between ‘history,’ ‘journalism’ and other ‘legitimate’ disciplines, and 2) other influences – such as cyberpunk, hacking, UFOlogy, the attitudes and rhetoric of the counter-culture in general, as well as the rhetoric of survivalists and Militias that bleed into the milieu of conspiracy theory. On the other hand, Birchall offers a list of previous critics who she sees as setting the tone and the parameters for her current study of conspiracy theory. These authors include Mark Fenster – Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture (1999); Peter Knight – especially his anthology, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files (2000), and Jodi Dean – Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outer Space to Cyberspace (1998) and Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (2002). Other less friendly critics include: Daniel Pipes – Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From (1997). (She could have also listed the grand père of contemporary thinking on conspiracy theory, Richard Hofstadter, whose early treatment ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ (1966) influenced many subsequent critics, including Mark Fenster – who uses Hofstadter as a benchmark critic in the field.)

As the second chapter makes clear, the popularization and commodification of conspiracy theory has been an on-going affair, in its current avatar dating back several decades. Contemporary publications that promote conspiracy theories include one of the earliest of the genre, Steamshovel Press edited by Ken Thomas, as well as Paranoia edited by Al Hidell (whose moniker is a cryptic allusion to one of Lee Harvey Oswald’s aliases), and IllumiNet edited by Ron Bonds. Other publishers include The Skeptical InquirerNexusFeral House, and Prometheus Books. Moreover, the author lists movies such as: Slacker (1991), JFK (1991), Roswell (1994), Men in Black (1997), Enemy of the State(1998), Conspiracy Theory (1997) and the ubiquitous X-Files; as well as the TV shows Dark Skies (1999), Roswell High (2002) et al., for evidence of the commodification, if not the fetishism, of the contemporary conspiracy theory mindset.

Birchall suggests that a film like Conspiracy Theory ‘starts to signify a marketable category rather than a subterranean activity’ (40). She quotes the author Don DeLillo’s statement that paranoia has been marketed as just such a commodity in recent years. Commodification invites the audience to adopt an ironic distance on the subject rather than to invest their credulity or emotions into it: ‘The audience, in fact, is being asked to suspend its disbelief, rather than to believe’ (40). Thus the consumer can adopt a position in relationship to the ‘knowledge’ being presented that is aesthetic as much as it is conceptual – in fact, it can be deemed as a ‘kind of. . .fashion accessory.’ Conspiracy theory can be marketed to anyone who has a generalized feeling of unease or uncertainty about the world around her, without committing herself to any one specific theory or line of thinking. But the author warns us that such commodification of conspiracy theory is problematic, because while, on the one hand, such generalized skepticism might encourage individuals to a ‘deeper questioning of epistemological apparatuses’ – this questioning can be especially useful at a time when official channels of information have been proven not to be trustworthy[1]- on the other hand, some critics have complained that conspiracy theory may promote ‘a cynical abandonment of profound political realities that merely reaffirms the dominant political order . . . and substitute fears of all-powerful conspiratorial groups for political activism and hope’ (Fenster qtd in Birchall, 41). (More on this subject in a moment.)

In the first case study, ‘Dianagate,’ Birchall examines the press reports and the shift in public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and her lover Dodi al-Fayed in an automobile accident in Paris in 1997. She compares the early acceptance of the ‘official’ explanation of the deaths to the later ‘alternative’ narratives that became popular, especially narratives that were ‘conspiratorial’ in nature. The author is interested not only in the form and context of the ‘alternative’ narratives, but she also speculates on the causes for their appearance. Birchall states that her.

aim. . . is to examine a narrative construct that allows readers to rewrite or re-cognize events, and perhaps more importantly, to reconfigure context (by bringing apparently peripheral narrative threads to bear on the death of Diana and the attacks on the World Trade Center) and the boundaries of contextualization (when the knowledge employed to interpret and cognize a story becomes an integral part of that story). (44).

She goes on to say that ‘The Diana theories (along with the responses to September 11). . .reveal contemporary conspiracy theory to be an instantaneous response reliant upon an already established knowledge network’ (45). Here is an example of Foucault’s warning about the lateral nature of power networks as they apply to popularized knowledge systems and to the reflexivity inherent in those same knowledge systems.

Birchall posits that one reason for the rise of alternative narratives and conspiracy theories in particular is what Mark Lawson calls ‘the collapse in editorial authority’ (52) in traditional news organizations. This perceived collapse has been partially caused by the competition of twenty-four hour cable and satellite news organizations, where speed in reporting has trumped accuracy. Other perceived problems faced by news consumers, include the consolidation of ownership of media corporations[2] and the elevation of entertainment value over news value (as well as profits above all other values[3]) in both broadcast and print media, not to mention the homogenization of the corporate world view due to ownership realities. One problem which has much in common with Birchall’s descriptions of both conspiracy and gossip has been observed by David Brock in his book The Republican Noise Machine (2004), in which rumor and political talking points are first floated on partisan BLOGs (like the Drudge Report) and then repeated on partisan talk radio programs, creating a kind of media stir that the traditional news media such as network news and daily newspapers feel obligate to report.[4] Thus, a kind of ‘echo chamber’ is created where rumor and ‘spin’ are reported as news. Such practices make news consumers skeptical, if not conspiratorial, in their views of traditional news organizations..

In addition, governments themselves are seen by many consumers to be manipulating not only the public debate, but also the facts on which that debate is formed.[5] Not only does the public feel that it was lied to by the Bush administration to get it to go along with the invasion of Iraq, for example; many individuals feel frustrated in trying to find answers to the great number of ‘unanswered questions’ surrounding the 9/11 attacks. A quick survey of selected websites and books concerned with 9/11 reveals that the public find far too many coincidences or that the ‘available evidence [is] “too present”‘ or ‘implausibly convenient’ (56). A number of commentators, for example, have pointed out the myriad of distortions, errors and omissions in the 9/11 Commission Report.[6] In fact, during the entire tenure of the current US administration, government secrecy and apparent manipulation of the means to collect and distribute vital information to the public has created an atmosphere in which conspiratorial thinking has become an almost logical reaction, even in the press. Birchall quotes Jonathan Rabin of the Guardian as saying that ‘[c]onspiracy theorizing is fast becoming a legitimate means of reporting on a government [which is] so secretive. . .’ (Rabin qtd in Birchall, 59). Thus, according to Birchall, not only do conspiracy theories ‘flood to fill the void of a nebulous, dispersed terror’ (62) created by the terrorist attacks themselves (as well as to address the fears of anticipated future terrorist events), but they also ‘go some way to creating a level playing field: attempting to prevent the government from being the only faction translating the radical future threat’ as well as the only conduit through which unanswered questions (and the concomitant ‘ideological anxiety’ caused by them) can be addressed.

In chapter three ‘Cultural Studies on/as Conspiracy Theory,’ Birchall confronts the current debate on not only the legitimacy of conspiracy theory as a subject for academic study, but also in the legitimacy of cultural studies as an academic discipline. Here, the author pinpoints three arguments against conspiracy theory: 1) conspiracy theory is a form of ‘latent insurrection’; 2) it lacks seriousness; and 3) it is laden with ‘irrational’ and ‘illegitimate’ excesses (66). To answer these criticisms, she draws on the theoretical lens of deconstruction because, as she puts it, ‘Deconstruction . . . has explicitly and rigorously turned its attention to the aporias that lie at the heart of legitimacy, knowledge and interpretation’ (66). Birchall surveys and engages many critics, including Karl Popper, John Fiske, Elaine Showalter, Daniel Pipes, Umberto Eco, Fredric Jameson and Jürgen Habermas. Karl Popper and Frederic Jameson denounce conspiracy theories as ‘a naïve way of accounting for history.’ Elaine Showalter expresses an ‘anxiety over epistemology’ and sees conspiracy theory as a kind of cultural disease that ‘obstructs the rule of reason.’ Showalter’s criticisms are not all that different from Jürgen Habermas’s fears that poststructuralism itself is moving society away from the bedrock of Enlightenment rationalism. Of course, Showalter’s perspective is fiercely feminist, just as Jameson’s is, fundamentally, Marxist. Both see a need to be hardheaded about the viability of history as the venue for political action. They fear that conspiracy theory tends to undermine such an approach, because of its appeals to a nebulous ‘other’ as the power behind public events. Such a belief, they feel, dissipates the collective power traditionally disenfranchised groups have constructed in the ‘real’ world; thus, they trade the ‘defining characteristics of capitalism,’ for an overly simplified and irrational view of political and economic structures. Moreover, Showalter feels that conspiracy theory is a ‘symptom of contemporary hysteria that should be dealt with in private as individual psychological ailment rather than in public as social narrative “reality”‘(70).

To counter these criticisms Birchall brings to her defense such diverse critics as Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Gustave Le Bon, and, to some degree, Mark Fenster. For example, Birchall invokes Lyotard’s concept of the differend. She says at one point: ‘Showalter does not entertain the possibility that to ask these narratives to prove themselves “legitimate” by the very criteria that root her discourse rather than theirs might constitute a Lyotardian differend‘ (71); she then quotes Lyotard as saying that a ‘differend would be a case of conflict between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments’ (72). The differend, then, ‘occurs when there are no procedures to present the different in the contemporary sphere of discourse.’ This concept seems to be key for Birchall’s understanding of one of the basic aporias contained in popular discourses, especially conspiracy theory. Moreover, she argues, the very self-conscious undecidability and ambivalence that is part of conspiracy theory’s internal dynamics might force the reader to realize that there is ‘something dubious’ about the legitimizing process of ‘all knowledge,’ that indeed there is a basic aporia suggested by the very process itself..

Moreover, the project of trying to arrive at a ‘consensus’ interpretation, being called for by Showalter, Eco and Habermas is problematic. Birchall states that ‘The way in which interpretative communities are not exclusive realms but are constantly being negotiated by challenges to them serves as the basis of Lyotard’s refutation of Habermasian consensus as the ultimate goal of discourse’ (80). Eco and Habermas insist that consensus is necessary if individuals are to be able to resist the flouting of Enlightenment rationalism for elitist and/or nefarious ends. (Habermas is particularly concerned with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, but the Neo-conservative abuse of democratic institutions as well as their manipulation of the media in the US underlines the gravity of Habermas’s position.7) Birchall agrees with Lyotard’s notion that the ‘disruptive potential’ of popular knowledges to effect ‘parlogic “moves”‘ is ‘beneficial to the interpretative community’ even if, or perhaps especially if, that community rejects them. The goal of such moves is not consensus, but ‘dissensus,’ which moves the community toward ‘justice’ and, one must assume, freedom. The author then attempts to expand the lesson learned here to the discipline of cultural studies itself. She writes: ‘The idea is not to replicate the failures of conspiracy theory but to take on board the lessons to be learnt from conspiracy theory regarding authority, legitimacy, and how to approach cultural phenomena without silencing it, in order to reimagine cultural studies and what it is capable of becoming’ (89).

In her study of gossip in chapter four, ‘Hot Gossip: The Cultural Politics of Speculation,’ Birchall builds on her theoretical discussion of popular knowledges and suggests that gossip is ‘far from being a contaminating force that needs to be kept in check or an aberrant, improper form of knowledge external to knowledge proper’; instead, it is ‘at the heart of cognition, conditioning any history of knowledge or claim to knowledge put forward within the socio-cultural sphere’ (108). Birchall’s argument for gossip in many ways parallels her argument for conspiracy theory, in that she sees gossip as offering the same kind of interpretive aporias, as well as providing similar kinds of ‘paralogic moves’ creating ‘dissensus’ that in the end move knowledge forward. After contextualizing gossip by describing its history, its associations with the feminine in culture, and its current commodification, the author moves on to suggest that cultural studies itself has affinities to gossip in that it is ‘speculative.’ Its strength is that it is at base ‘athetic’ (119) – a term Derrida used to suggest a process of moving ‘beyond’ the current theory or position. Birchall states she wants to consider ‘knowledge/non-knowledge (or what exceeds knowledge) [such as] gossip’ to proceed in an ‘athetic’ operation.

In chapter five, she puts her theory into practice by combining conspiracy theory and gossip theory to examine the real world case study of what BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan called the ‘sexing up’ (132) of the intelligence that lead to the invasion of Iraq. Birchall sees such information as gossip. The problem for the public is that such ‘sexed up’ information is not labeled as such. On the other hand, if we can admit that much official ‘fact’ has the much the same quality as gossip, then we can make ‘athetic speculations’ about such information, which ironically would help us be more responsible in our decision making. In fact, as the author suggests, if we ‘recognize gossip as undecidability, it forces us to decide what is and what is not knowledge at every step of the way. And this decision making about knowledge we encounter is one possible description of politics. It is part of the work of an ethical and responsible analysis of culture’ (150). Thus, we can see the importance of such a politics in a world that has been taken over by the hyperreal and simulacra masquerading as the Ding an sich..

In the end, Clare Birchall’s Knowledge Goes Pop: From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip is a dedicated and trenchant examination of popular knowledges and a defense of their place in the academy. In a world where conspiracy theory and gossip are used as signifiers for narratives, as well as world views, that are not to be taken seriously (indeed, not only is the signifier ‘conspiracy theory’ itself derided, but those who express their views outside of the accepted ‘code’ are demonized as ‘nerds, nervous, and nutty’8 (50)), and where cultural studies itself is constantly having to defend its credibility, this book goes a long way to define the subject, analyze its various contexts, and defend not only the legitimacy of popular knowledges in the academy, but also of cultural studies as the appropriate discipline to engage with such an important and volatile debate.


1 For example, Frank Rich’s book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (2006) details how the Bush administration consistently ‘stove-piped,’ ‘cherry-picked,’ and disingenuously manipulated intelligence to support their political ends, especially the invasion of Iraq. Rich states at one point that ‘the intelligence that the administration chose to overstate, leak to willing journalists, and repeatedly broadcast to the public . . . proved to be dead wrong’ (187). Yet, he continues, ‘There was an assembly line for providing and publicizing much of this erroneous evidence. . ..’ But the administration was helped along by a press corps that was either culpable or incredibly gullible. One of the worst offenders was New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose series of erroneous stories on Saddam Hussein and the chimerical WMDs lent credibility to the administration’s own prevarications and legerdemain – and eventually led to war. Miller was forced to resign from the Times several years after the damage had been done (190). ‘”WMD – I got it totally wrong,” said Miller.’.

2 According to Mafruza Khan’s 2003 article, ‘Media Diversity at Risk: The FCC’s Plan to Weaken Ownership Rules’, five companies – Viacom (owner of CBS), Disney (ABC), News Corporation (Fox), General Electric (NBC) and AOL Time Warner – control about 75% share of production of prime-time viewing. Research conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism finds that larger companies and network owned TV stations produce lower quality news shows than do smaller media companies. These five corporations are now on the verge of controlling the same number of television households as the big three broadcast networks did forty years ago. In the past, when three or four broadcast networks controlled so many households, the Commission (FCC) protected the public’s interest in competition and diversity of viewpoints by requiring independent production of programming..

3 In the 1970s, network ‘news’ organizations were placed under the auspices of the ‘entertainment’ divisions of US media corporations. News and entertainment had traditionally been separate entities, with separate management and profit expectations. ‘News’ was considered a public service whose primary purpose was not profit. Today, ‘news’ is treated like any other ‘entertainment’ programming and is subject to the same clamor for ratings.

According to David Brock, ‘The Drudge Report is by far the premier transmission vehicle for right-wing media’ (166). Brock states that much of the Drudge Report’s ‘news’ is false, especially when it is aimed at Democrats and liberals. Drudge’s website is a ‘dumping ground for ‘news’ driven by a political agenda’ (165). Republican political operatives e-mail him their ‘rumors, tips, and findings’ (168); Drudge posts this information on his site; then, these items are picked up by right wing talk show hosts as ‘news’ and presented as such. If enough buzz is created by the talk shows and right wing screeds, then traditional news organizations feel obligated to report the ‘buzz’ – giving even more credence to what amounts to invented gossip. Brock states that ‘When anti-Clinton operatives were unable to plant smears and rumors against the Clintons in the regular press, they leaked frequently to Drudge, who became known for these spoon-fed “scoops” and “exclusives”‘ (165). Brill’s Content checked the Drudge site for accuracy and found that only one out of three items were true.

5 According to the New York Times:

Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. In all, at least 20 federal agencies, including the Defense Department and the Census Bureau, have made and distributed hundreds of television news segments in the past four years, records and interviews show. Many were subsequently broadcast on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government’s role in their production.

… the administration’s efforts to generate positive news coverage have been considerably more pervasive than previously known. At the same time, records and interviews suggest widespread complicity or negligence by television stations…

Some reports were produced to support the administration’s most cherished policy objectives, like regime change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters… They often feature ‘interviews’ with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy.

Some of the segments were broadcast in some of nation’s largest television markets … prepackaged segments [include] ‘suggested’ lead-ins written by public relations experts. It is a world where government-produced reports disappear into a maze of [news programming, feeds, web sites, etc.] only to emerge cleansed on the other side as ‘independent’ journalism.

(Barstow and Stein, 2005: non-pag., emphasis added)

6 The Bush administration was forced by public outrage, led by the Family Steering Committee, a group of 9/11 victims’ relatives, to form an official commission to study the 9/11 attacks. However, the first step the administration took (after dragging its feet for many months) was to appoint on November 27, 2002, Henry Kissinger (whose checkered reputation did not inspire confidence for a full and open investigation) to lead the investigation..

Many news agencies have connected Henry Kissinger with covert operations. The BBC reported on 4/26/02 that ‘Documents recently released by the CIA, strengthen previously-held suspicions that Kissinger was actively involved in the establishment of Operation Condor, a covert plan involving six Latin American countries including Chile, to assassinate thousands of political opponents’ (Thompson, 2004: 519). The BBC has also said that ‘It is even difficult for Kissinger to travel outside the U.S. Investigative judges in Spain, France, Chile, and Argentina seek to question him in several legal actions related to his possible involvement in war crimes, particularly in Latin America, Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Chile, and East Timor.’

Then, when Kissinger withdrew because the Congressional Research Service insisted that he disclose his conflicts of interest, the administration installed ex-Republican governor Thomas Kean as Chairman. Unfortunately, they also named Philip Zelikow, the head of the Bush transition team of 2000, as its Executive Director. The Family Steering Committee discovered that Zelikow was personally involved in briefings about possible terrorist attacks; he thus was culpable in the ‘failures’ of the administration to deal adequately with the terrorist threat – a clear conflict of interest. In addition, the commission was seriously underfunded (its budget eventually reached a high of $12 million, as opposed to the $50 million used to investigate the shuttle disaster) and requested documents as well as administration interviewees were painfully slow to materialize. Senator Max Cleland called ‘the Bush administration’s attempts to stonewall and ‘slow walk’ the commission a ‘national scandal’ (Thompson, 2004: 530). To many people, it seemed as if the ‘fix was in.’.

Indeed, it was discovered soon after the 9/11 Commission’s Report was released that NORAD had lied in its testimony. Many researchers have noted the many errors, deletions, and/or fabrications offered by both the government and the main stream media concerning the testimony of NORAD commanders to the 9/11 Commission. One of the most recent revelations involves the producer and writer of the film United 93 (2006). Many commentators find it curious, for example, that NORAD would release tapes of the NEADS air traffic controllers to a filmmaker, after refusing many requests for the tapes from legitimate news organizations. More disturbing is that after listening to the tapes, it becomes clear that NORAD officials lied to the Kean Commission. In fact, Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian that ‘Members and staff of the 9/11 commission believe the discrepancies may have been part of a deliberate effort to mislead, and they discussed asking the justice department to consider criminal charges against senior members of the military, sources told the Washington Post‘ (The Guardian, August 3, 2006).

The mentor for many of the Neo-cons who are either in power in the White House or exert much influence on national policy (include Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, William Kristol, et al.) was a political science professor at the University of Chicago named Leo Strauss. Among Strauss’s teachings to his ‘elite’ students such as Wolfowitz was that lying to the public was not only necessary but noble. Strauss’s own mentor Carl Schmitt, who was a member of the Nazi party in the 1930s, taught that all politics amounted to a state of war. All people were either friends or foes, and foes had to be destroyed at all costs. He also taught that war was a necessary and desirable state for mankind. Shadia Drury, a consistent critic of Strauss, has written: ‘A. . . fundamental belief of Strauss’s. . . has to do with . . . insistence on the need for secrecy and the necessity of lies. In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss outlines why secrecy is necessary. He argues that the wise must conceal their views for two reasons — to spare the people’s feelings and to protect the elite from possible reprisals.’ Postal, Danny. ‘Noble Lies and Perpetual War: Leo Strauss, the Neo-cons, and Iraq.’ (openDemocracy, 2003 <>) (Also, see Xenos, Nicholas. ‘Leo Strauss and the Rhetoric of the War on Terror.’ The Logos Reader: Rational Radicalism and the Future of Politics. Ed. Stephen Eric Bronner and Michael J. Thompson. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2006. 59-74.)

There have been many news stories that featured conspiracy theory published in the run up to the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Part of the interest was spawned by the successful publications of many videos, such as Loose Change (2004), In Plane Site (2004) and 9/11 Press for Truth (2006), as well as books, including The New Pearl Harbor(2004) by David Ray Griffin, (2004), Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil (2004) by Michael C. Ruppert, The Towers of Deception (2006) by Barrie Zwicker, and The Terror Conspiracy (2006) by Jim Marrs, et al. Also, a relatively new organization called Scholars for 9/11 Truth (a group of academics including Professor James Fetzer from the University of Minnesota and Professor Steven Jones, until recently from Brigham Young University) has been gaining increasing notoriety, if not credibility. The press still keeps those involved with conspiracy theory at arms length, as the title of Alexander Cockburn’s piece, ‘The 9/11 Conspiracy Nuts,’ published in The Nation attests. The New Yorker article by Nicholas Lemann entitled ‘Paranoid Style’ is not quite as bellicose but it is no less circumspect. Other recent stories on conspiracy theory have included cover stories in Time (‘Why the 9/11 Conspiracies Won’t Go Away’ by Lev Grossman, Sept. 11, 2006. Vol. 168 #11) and U.S. News and World Report (‘Viewing 9/11 From a Grassy Knoll’ by Will Sullivan, Sept. 11, 2006) as well as Popular Mechanics (‘Debunking the 9/11 Myths,’ March 2005).


9/11 In Plane Site (2004) Dir. W. Lewis. Versailles, Mo.: Power Hour Productions.

9/11 Press for Truth (2006) Dir. J. Duffy. New York: Disinformation Co. Ltd.

Barstow, D. & Stein, R. (2005) ‘Under Bush, a New Age of Prepackaged TV News’. New York Times, March 13.

Brock, D. (2004) The Republican Noise Machine: Right Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy.New York: Crown Publishers.

Cockburn, A. (2004) ‘The 9/11 Conspiracy Nuts’. The Nation, Sept. 25: 12.

Griffin, D. R. (2004) The New Pearl Harbor. Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press.

Hofstadter, R. (1966) The Paranoid Style in American Politics. New York: Knopf.

Lemann, N. (2006) ‘Paranoid Style: Conspiracy-Theory Journalism Since 9/11’. The New Yorker, Oct. 16: 96-106.

Loose Change (2004) Dir. D. Avery. A Louder Than Words Production.

Marrs, J. (2006) The Terror Conspiracy. New York: The Disinformation Company.

Rich, F. (2006) The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina.New York: The Penguin Press.

Ruppert, M. C. (2004) Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Thompson, P. (2004) The Terror Timeline: Year by Year, Day by Day, Minute by Minute: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Road to 9/11 – and America’s Response. New York: HarperCollins.

Zwicker, B. (2006) The Towers of Deception. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers..

Gary Walton is an assistant professor in the department of Literature and Language at Northern Kentucky University, US. His areas of interest include Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Irish Literary Renaissance. Walton received a Ph.D. from the George Washington University. His thesis involved conducting a poststructuralist comparison of James Joyce’s Ulysses and the work of Donald Barthelme. He is currently Editor of the Journal of Kentucky Studies. He is the author of four books of poetry: The Sweetest Song (Peapod Press, 1988), Cobwebs and Chimeras (Peapod Press, 1995), Effervescent Softsell (Peapod Press, 1997) and The Millennium Reel (Finishing Line Press, 2003), and of one book of short fiction and humor, The Newk Phillips Papers (Peapod Press, 1995). His current work-in-progress is a comic novel about Newport, Kentucky, in its heyday as a gambling Mecca and is titled Sin City. It is based in part on a conspiracy theory about the Kennedy assassination. Walton is also working on several essays concerning conspiracy theory narratives in both fiction and nonfiction works…