For an investigative journalist, reporting on official misconduct involving covert operations, intelligence-gathering, and national security issues is like competing in a potato-sack race in a minefield. All officials tend to be suspicious of the motives of nosy journalists; government spokespersons frequently deny first and dissemble later; meanwhile, actual spies tend to keep their mouths shut. As a result, sources for such stories frequently come from a murky netherworld of ex-intelligence agents, retired military officers, and self-anointed investigators. Some offer valuable information along with frustrating fantasies; some are well-meaning but confused; others are professional or amateur charlatans. A few are brilliant paranoid crackpots. Some people just plain lie.
More than fifty investigative reporters and researchers spanning the political spectrum were interviewed in the course of preparing this report. Most of them thought one should not minimize the continuing reality of illegal and unethical conduct by government and private intelligence operatives. But even those who agreed that tough reporting on these subjects helps defend constitutional safeguards added that they have grown very weary of hearing the same unproved or debunked conspiratorial stories over and over again.
" A lot of stories with conspiratorial themes have gone a great distance with very few credible witnesses," says Michael Kelly of The New York Times. "Some reporters use a much lower standard of evidence with these stories. They are tempted to take what they can get, and overlook the fact that the source has been convicted twice for perjury and on alternate Tuesdays he thinks he is Napoleon Bonaparte."
If many of the key sources for conspiracy stories are unreliable, why are so many journalists tempted to use them? One reason is that, in an age of official denials, many journalists give unofficial sources the benefit of the doubt. Another is that, in some cases, the tales these sources tell provide a fairly clear-cut explanation of what may otherwise be a confusing welter of conceivably related events. In short, they provide a story line. A third reason is that they can usually supply details that seem to substantiate their version of events. When the details provided by two or three such sources mesh, the theory gains in credibility and the story built on it may gain wider attention in the media. Meanwhile, talk radio shows, interviews on small FM stations, even messages posted on computerized information networks contribute to keeping theories alive--and building an audience that wants to hear more.
In addition to individual sources such as these, there are
organizations that disseminate conspiracy theories through every segment of the media. Despite wide political differences, these organizations tend to reinforce one another. "There has been some odd communion of the minds between the far left and the far right in viewing the world as one vast and varied conspiracy," says Michael Kelly, "and that communion has exponentially increased the ability of looneys of various stripes to get their nonsense into print. These people have started a sort of referral service: they all refer people to each other. So what you are doing is chasing a rumor around a closed circle."
Listen to talk radio, for example, and chances are that when the talk turns to conspiracy the same sources will be cited: the Christic Institute; the right-wing, anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby and its "Spotlight" newspaper; and Lyndon LaRouche publications, including "Executive Intelligence Review" and "The New Federalist" (formerly "New Solidarity" ).
These groups were among the first to provide pieces of the Iran-contra puzzle. But, as Kelly observes, "the true nuggets were usually mixed into a great stew of falsities and improbabilities."
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