The opening of the May 3 episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was eerily reminiscent of the actual scandal from which the episode was cribbed. Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor was exchanged for the “Coral Dragon” Chinese restaurant, but the basic story was identical. Intrepid conspiracy theorists uncovered a secret code in hacked emails that detailed a Congressional child sex ring. Countless victims were being held in the restaurant’s non-existent basement, just waiting for a brave “self-investigator” to rescue them.
The shooting is nearly identical to Edgar Maddison’s failed “investigation” of the Washington, DC pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong. Just as in the episode, Maddison entered the restaurant, fired several shots, and was promptly arrested. Fortunately, no one was injured. After finding no captive children at the restaurant Maddison admitted, “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” and ultimately took a deal, pleading “guilty to interstate transportation of a firearm and assault with a dangerous weapon.”
In the real world, the conspiracy largely fell out of prominence after Maddison’s arrest. Certainly, there are holdouts who claim the shooting was a “false flag” hoax and plenty of online researchers are still pushing their theories on YouTube, but in the real world, the conspiracy theory fell back out of the mainstream as quickly as it rose.
SVU, however, gave it a different trajectory and breathed a whole new layer of intrigue into the events that unfolded.
In Law and Order’s version, Pizzagate was an even larger conspiracy, possibly led by the Russians to take out a New York Congressman with too much influence on American foreign policy. “Fake News” the show argues, is being used to facilitate the framing and vigilante murder of inconvenient politicians. Hackers dump child pornography onto the congressman’s computer, and anonymously leak misinformation to the unscrupulous proprietor of “The Endless Truth,” a conspiracy website with “two million unique visitors a day.”
The officers of the Special Victims Unit ultimately prove Congressman Bolton was framed, and arrest those responsible for the actual child sex ring from which the illegal material was culled to frame him. This victory doesn’t satiate the conspiracy theorists. The episode concludes with Congressman Bolton being shot to death in front of his daughter during a photo-op meant to demonstrate the Coral Dragon is a safe restaurant.
It’s interesting that SVU’s writers didn’t think the true story for their latest “ripped from the headlines” episode was conspiratorial enough for television. Pizzagate could have held its own with minimal embellishment and could have given the audience an opportunity to reflect on the influence of social media.
Instead, ‘Real Fake News’ fell into an equally disingenuous trope, strongly implying that foreign meddlers are really running our government through complex propaganda. The episode was the latest attempt to redefine the nebulous term “fake news.” The “mainstream media doesn’t spread lies about a sex ring that doesn’t exist,” shoots Lieutenant Benson at one point. Perhaps mainstream outlets didn’t fall for this story, but there are plenty of examples where the media did get suckered. Last November, “A jury found writer Sabrina Erdely and Rolling Stone liable on multiple claims in a defamation suit based on a gang rape story the magazine later retracted.” There are plenty more examples of similar media failures, yet none of those made it into an episode of Dick Wolf’s masterwork, nor do I expect they ever will.