Bill Keller, the soon-to-be-former executive editor for the New York Times, writes a front-of-the-magazine column for the Times Sunday magazine. This week he had a relatively balanced take on conspiracy theories left and right, including a whopper from leftist feminist Naomi Wolf, in "Let Me Take Off My Tinfoil Hat For a Moment...to discuss why otherwise-smart people fall for crackpot conspiracy theories."
But Keller equating "global warming is a hoax" to genuinely crackpot theories reaffirms the paper's preconceived opinion on the matter: Global warming is real and dangerous, and anyone who believes otherwise is a shill or dupe. And since when does rational, non-conspiratorial thinking require believing everything the Times has to say, as Keller also implied?
Humans live along a continuum from doubt to faith. Wander far enough in the direction of faith and you reach the land of Nostradamus and of the Rapture (recently postponed). Wander too far in the other direction, past cynicism, through misanthropy, and you get to more or less the same zone of credulity: Osama bin Laden isn’t dead, President Obama isn’t American, global warming is a hoax.
The birther controversy might be written off as a fever of racial bigotry and right-wing paranoia. But the [Dominique Strauss-Kahn alleged rape] case was a useful reminder that evidently rational people, educated and skeptical, liberal or conservative, can fall for beliefs that seem far-fetched at best. Think of Gore Vidal nursing the idea that 9/11 was part of a Bush administration plot to justify oil-field conquest. Or consider that Vidal’s nemesis on the right, the late William F. Buckley Jr., was once enticed by a theory that F.D.R. was complicit in Pearl Harbor. Oliver Stone, Michael Moore and Norman Mailer have all dabbled in dark intrigues, too.
And then there is Naomi Wolf, the author and feminist, who detected ominous "geopolitics by blackmail" in the coincidence that three antagonists of the establishment -- Eliot Spitzer, Julian Assange and Strauss-Kahn -- were sidelined by sex charges.
Suspicion hardens into full-blown conviction when people lose faith in authorities, says [Peter] Knight, who edited "Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America." The present day, he told me, when Internet access has sparked a proliferation of competing, self-appointed authorities, is a particularly fertile time for conspiracy theorists, who might ask: "‘Why would you believe The New York Times? Why do they have a monopoly on truth? Surely Twitter and WikiLeaks are just as trustworthy.’ "
Knight added, "As soon as you lose faith that the mainstream media are telling the truth, anything is believable."
So anyone who doesn’t implicitly trust an "authority" like the Times is a conspiracy theorist? Over the years Times Watch has documented ample reasons why one can’t always take the paper’s proclamations at face value: Jayson Blair's fake reporting, the paper's disgracefully misleading coverage of the Duke lacrosse "rape," Sen. John McCain’s "affair," the unsubstantiated claim that Tea Party members shouted racial slurs, and Martha Coakley’s 2010 U.S. Senate win in Massachusetts, to name a few.