You have to go get marriage licenses. You have to get a gun permit. Whatever it is, you have to go down to that big stone structure monument to tyranny and submit, crawling, groveling on your hands and knees. “Oh give me permission to do this, give me permission to do that.” I don’t know. Sounds a little like Nazi Germany to me. Or maybe communist Russia.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of organized extremist groups in the United States has risen almost eightfold since 2008. The SPLC recognizes 1,096 such groups. Even if you disagree with the SPLC and its ideology, it is hard to deny that the vast majority of these groups do in fact have ideologies based on hate.
So why do the media treat these beliefs as entertainment?
The New World Order in particular has been a popular touchstone of “entertaining” cable television programs. Jesse Ventura made frequent reference to it on his old Conspiracy Theory TV show, and the NWO is no stranger to the H2 television channel. In addition to an episode of America Unearthed dedicated to investigating whether the quasi-governmental conspiracy was planning a mass genocide in support of liberalism, the NWO also reached its tentacles into the network’s America’s Book of Secrets conspiracy show. Earlier this year the program featured commentary from Mark Dice, the author of (and I am not making this up) Illuminati in the Music Industry, where he accuses Jay-Z and Christina Aguilera of being Illuminati agents for Satan. Dice describes himself as “fighting the New World Order.” He is a frequent guest on Coast to Coast AM and the Alex Jones Show, two other hotbeds of conspiratorial thinking. He lists his hobbies as “causing trouble for the New World Order.”
Dice specifically noted on his YouTube channel the importance of appearances on cable TV shows, despite their small viewership, for exposing new audiences to conspiracy theories: “H2 only has between 300,000 and a half a million viewers. I have probably a dozen YouTube videos with well over a million views each, just to give you a comparison, but at least it will reach the masses slurping soda on their sofas.” Good to know what he really thinks of his potential audience.
Dice believes that the Illuminati are a secret cabal who run the world for nefarious ends.
You will of course recall America Unearthed and its foray into New World Order conspiracies. There, Scott Wolter gasped in astonishment at the Georgia Guidestones, a 1980 granite construction that he declared proof of “connections” to the NWO. He called the monument’s cranky call for a reduced human population a “New World Order mandate” despite the monument never mentioning any New World Order.
And don’t forget that Wolter himself is a NWO true believer, stating in a March 28 radio appearance that he is certain a dark conspiracy is behind American government:
Do I think there’s a New World Order? Yes! Do I think there are secret societies that get together like the Bilderberg Group and make key decisions that dictate how things are going to go generally around the world? Of course!
How about when Brad Meltzer’s Decoded investigated those same Guidestones for the History Channel in 2011 and also told tales of their occult purpose as a founding document for the New World Order to come when an apocalypse destroys most of humanity—and that the stones’ Rosicrucian builders were the real assassins of Robert F. Kennedy? Meltzer at least had the common sense to conclude that the stones are the idiot ranting of some Cold War paranoiac and not an occult secret, though it hardly excuses giving an hour of air time to lunatics raving about the Antichrist, anti-government conspiracies, and the imminent end of all flesh.
Isn’t this fun?
We can go on, of course. But what’s the point? Almost any time of day or night, a TV viewer can find a cable documentary “investigating” a paranoid conspiracy theory, but no one takes responsibility for the contributions such paranoid programming make to American culture. (It doesn’t help when tone-deaf officials like Vice President Joe Biden also speak of creating a “new world order,” as Biden did last month, apparently oblivious to its darker meaning among the paranoid fringe.)
Now obviously disturbed people do not need assistance from television (or the vice president) to justify their delusions, nor does TV turn people into killers. But why would the media want to intentionally give aid and comfort to ideologies and beliefs that have dark and tragic real world effects? I can’t help but think that every time a cable show implies that a Freemason-Illuminati-New World Order conspiracy might actually be true, it legitimizes the conspiracy just a little bit more. It was on TV, after all!
In communication theory, there is a concept called selective exposure, which helps to explain how the media influence viewers. Selective exposure researchers explain that media consumers tend to favor media messages that agree with their ideology and preexisting beliefs. Thus, conservatives are more likely to watch Fox News because it reinforces their preexisting beliefs. This tendency in turn functions to make those beliefs stronger by systematically limiting or eliminating exposure to opposing points of view. In this reading, cable TV conspiracy shows don’t create conspiracy theorists, but their constant drumbeat of paranoia reinforces conspiracy beliefs by legitimizing them, thus encouraging viewers to commit to those beliefs more strongly.
With such shows as a part of a broader conspiracy culture that includes radio shows (Coast to Coast, Alex Jones, etc.), internet sites (InfoWars.com, AboveTopSecret.com, etc.), publications, conventions, and more, it becomes possible to live in a bubble where conspiracy is normalized, reinforced because “everyone” you encounter is a believer and everything you read and watch is filtered through this belief system.
The rejoinder to this is that television is giving viewers what they want, that such programs represent free speech, and that broadcasters cannot be held responsible for what extremists do. And yet there are obviously viewpoints that TV won’t show. Explicitly racist programming, for example, is not shown, even though there are presumably more white supremacists available as viewers than the 40,000 people A. C. Nielsen reports watch the Fox Business Network. Similarly, we have no major networks making the case for communism or anarchism, nor proclaiming the truth of Hinduism. In reality, the range of acceptable viewpoints is exceedingly narrow, and this almost forces us to ask why it is that paranoid anti-government conspiracies are part of that acceptable range of public discourse.
There is a difference between freedom of speech and moral responsibility. I would never advocate censorship, and TV networks have every right to show whatever lies they’d like. But it is not too much to ask that they consider filing paranoid conspiracies alongside other topics considered too politically or socially loaded to treat as consequence-free entertainment.