Conspiracy theories a distraction from real news

Nearly everyone loves a good mystery. The allure of hidden knowledge can be tantalizing, and authors like Dan Brown and David Baldacci sell millions of copies of their sagas of secret history and the unseen hands behind world events.

Of course, some conspiracies actually do exist. The CIA really did conduct the mind-control experiments known as Project MKULTRA, and the bungled Watergate break-in ultimately brought down an American president.

But I sense that some readers suspect there’s a “real story” in the shadows behind almost every news event. As a teenager in the Kansas City area, I often heard whispers that the Country Club Plaza is actually a hotbed of rape and robbery, but The Kansas City Star and TV stations had reached an agreement with police and Plaza management not to publicize the crimes, lest shoppers be scared away.

Back in the real world, things don’t always follow such neat narratives. But still, readers often demand that The Star investigate conspiracy theories, like the “inside job” of 9/11 or Barack Obama’s ineligibility for the presidency.

I always convey that interest to the newsroom, but I admit that it’s seldom with much enthusiasm. The true believers will never change their minds, regardless of how much physical evidence or firsthand testimony indicates otherwise.

It’s nothing short of sad to see a pundit such as The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan — respected in the past for his intellectual rigor — whine about “media intimidation” when sources such as the devoutly liberal Salon have persuasively refuted his nutty theory that Sarah Palin faked her pregnancy with son Trig. This is another one of those bewildering falsehoods that some people just can’t seem to let go.

These tall tales have always been with us, but of course our interconnectivity in the electronic age makes sharing them far faster and more efficient than ever. The great equalizer of the Internet lends credence to all voices, and it remains fashionable to bash the “mainstream media” (whatever that means any more) for not chasing down every claim that makes the email rounds.

So what, then, is the professional journalist’s responsibility? I hear frustration from rational readers who want to see calm explanations knocking down the falsehoods.

But I also respect another school of thought, articulated by a reader last week who asked The Star not even to broach the topic of whether Osama bin Laden’s killing was faked: “If al-Qaida put out its own threats over (bin Laden’s) death and his wife is saying he was killed, why do we even need to listen to people who weren’t there who have all these clever reasons why it can’t be true? Don’t waste the ink or my time with it.”

Everything in life is a question of resources, and journalism is no different. I agree with readers who say the real investigative muscle needs to be invested in news leads from credible sources — not the sexy contemporary legends.

This column was originally published in The Kansas City Star on May 7, 2011.

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