Jesse Ventura Takes the Soaring Interest in Conspiracy Theory to TV -- And Viewers Are Flocking to It
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As Uri Dowbenko, who runs several popular conspiracy sites, including Conspiracy Planet, says: "There's no 'theory' in criminal conspiracy."
Because conspiracy theorists often feel isolated from and demeaned by the rest of us, they search out communities of fellow believers. Scholars believe that American conspiracy theorists tend to be predominantly white and male (no wonder Ventura's show has done well) and rather well-educated, albeit narrowly so.
"As conspiracy theories get more complex, and particularly for people who are more actively engaged in it, it is an intellectual enterprise which requires a good amount of reading and concentration skills," says Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture . "You see a lot of people who have received high levels of institutional education. For this reason, conspiracy theorists may well be of somewhat higher than average income level and wealth."
The community aspect is tantamount to a conspiracy theory's survival. With the advent of the digital age, the Internet has become the organizing hub for conspiracy theorists.
While some believe the Web is almost entirely to blame for today's conspiracy theory maelstrom, Fenster says the Internet is simply speeding up a process that would normally happen. He points to the chatter that almost immediately began after JFK's assassination, and grew louder after the Warren Commission Report, as a historical example he finds rather analogous to the conspiracy theories that sprouted from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the ensuing 9/11 Commission Report.
What 9/11 "truthers" have today that JFK assassination conspiracy theorists didn't is "the development of a community, and a body of literature and ideas that get circulated very, very quickly," Fenster says. "In the early days of a conspiracy theory, you get a whole lot of crazy theories, but as certain ones become more prevalent, as certain information works better than others, then you get a few competing theories that stabilize into some sort of competition and a community develops around the whole project."
But no conspiracy theory will make it past the fringe of the fringe unless someone's leading the charge.
Key figures in the conspiracy theory universe
Ventura is merely the latest in a long line of conspiracy theory personalities. Talk radio is where you'll find several longtime media figures preaching their conspiracy theories to a committed choir.
One of these is George Noory. In 2003, he succeeded the legendary Art Bell as the host of the most successful overnight radio program, "Coast to Coast AM." Syndicated on 528 radio stations and on satellite radio, Noory -- as Bell did -- spends four hours every night talking to at least three million rapt listeners about every conspiracy theory out there. He doesn't discriminate -- Big Foot and space-aliens are on equal footing with segments on the dangers of aspartame and the falsity of global warming.
"We want a program that covers all mysteries on this planet," Noory told me, conceding there is an element of entertainment to his show.
Another media figure is Alex Jones, also a popular nationally syndicated radio host and the founder of high-trafficking conspiracy sites such as Infowars and Prison Planet. Jones resolutely rejects the conspiracy theorist designation for himself. Unlike Noory, he refuses to engage "fantasy" conspiracies such as Big Foot and does not consider himself an entertainer.
"People confuse silly things like chupacabras with serious questions such as 9/11," said Jones. "I don't touch things I can't prove."
Jones told me he is the founder of the 9/11 truther movement; he is also a major figure among those who believe in the New World Order. (In this latter role, Jones appeared as a "source" to Ventura about the global warming conspiracy.)