Jesse Ventura Takes the Soaring Interest in Conspiracy Theory to TV -- And Viewers Are Flocking to It
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Jesse Ventura has worn many hats over his lifetime. In addition to being a body-slamming professional wrestler and one-term governor of Minnesota, he was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones. In his latest career move, he is a conspiracy theory investigator.
His television show, "Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura" premiered on TruTV in early December delivering the 17-year-old channel's largest-ever premiere audience -- 1.6 million people -- and maintaining it during subsequent episodes. It held onto high Nielsen ratings despite being panned by critics because the masses love it. TruTV's slogan is "Not Reality. Actuality." This is a baffling mantra, but it's the perfect place for a show like Ventura's.
"We developed it for our audience," one that is "usually fascinated with inside worlds they don't normally have access to," said Darren Campo, senior vice president of programming at the channel. But the show is very much about Ventura's "voice," he adds.
"I'm doing this show to wake people up," Ventura says in a promo. Throughout the first season (which ended Jan. 13 but lives on through YouTube and an upcoming marathon) the former wrestler dons a little gray ponytail and a black leather blazer, expertly fitted to his massive frame, as he sternly yet charismatically commands his team of "investigators," most of whom inexplicably have British accents -- perhaps so they'll more closely recall Agent 007.
In one episode, Ventura investigates global warming, which the trailer-voiced narrator calls "the most convenient scam yet."
The episode sends Ventura and his team across the globe, speaking to all manner of global warming conspiracy theorists, including self-proclaimed investigative journalists and a couple of contrarian climate scientists -- one a physicist at MIT, and the other a blurred-out American living abroad who says he fears for his life.
While Ventura says early on that he personally believes climate change is happening, the overall thesis of the episode is that global warming is being used as an excuse to make money off our carbon footprint fears and move us closer to a global government, known in conspiracy circles as the New World Order.
Al Gore's name is trumpeted endlessly as a key financial benefactor of climate change (though Ventura calls him a "friend"), second only to mentions of the United Nations, which is presented as the shadow entity for a powerful elite that seeks to control the world -- and you.
To climate change believers, the show is hokey at best, but its action-mystery set-up is undeniably entertaining. You can see how a person might convince himself that global warming is fake when some environmentalists are trumpeting cap and trade, which the show's narrator calls pollution "permission slips." It's certainly a contradiction.
TruTV hasn't committed to a second season but "Conspiracy Theory" has found what it most likely needs to survive -- an engaged audience. The first seven episodes have already touched upon many of the most popular conspiracy theories in America today: 9/11, 2012 doomsday, government surveillance, and, of course, climate change.
Though the TruTV executive insists the show is "not political," it's propelled by Ventura's axiom, which he mentions at least twice: "The one thing I learned in government is if you want to find the answer to a question, follow the money."
Asking who benefits is a question most cynical Americans find reasonable and appealing. And a segment of that demographic takes it to an extreme, dedicating most of their waking moments to what the majority among us calls conspiracy theories.
'There's no theory in criminal conspiracy'
By general definition, a conspiracy theory is a claim that stars secretive yet powerful rogue groups who seek to control or steal from "the people" -- and it usually carries the stigma of untruth.
According to David Coady, a philosopher at the University of Tasmania in Australia, and author of Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, the term conspiracy theory started to carry negative connotations after the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, during the Third Reich, that conspiracy theories propelled the paranoid ideologies that gave rise to totalitarian regimes such as that of Adolf Hitler.
Since the term has a derogatory slant, few conspiracy theorists self-identify as such. The term is mostly used to suggest that a particular theory is false, or that the person proposing it is unreliable. A reliable means of discrediting a story, it's often used unfairly.
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.)
Distrust of power
But even Noory -- who does dedicate airtime to the most fantastical conspiracy theories -- is ultimately most motivated by political conspiracies involving elites. Noory says he grew passionate about the theories he discusses on his show after the Bush administration's claim of WMD in Iraq turned out to be false. That made him question government actions more than he had before.
"We have got to get to a point where we have leaders who are there for us instead of representing their manipulative, greedy ways," he told me.
This insight is one most progressives can identify with, and it drives home the fact that people like Jones and Noory are driven to do what they do because they are distrustful of the powers that be.
The fear of a government that ignores your constitutional rights or of too-powerful interests controlling the economy is a perfectly legitimate concern. This manifests itself across the political spectrum in the United States. When a Republican is in the White House, conspiracy theories veer to the left; when a Democrat is in power, they veer to the right, says Fenster, the conspiracy theory scholar.
George Noory, who has his finger on the pulse of at least one segment of the American conspiracy theory community, has observed this as well. "What this tells me is that there's an incredible dissatisfaction with the ways government handles issues that affect people. People just seem disillusioned with the government and it's obvious by the way they flip-flop all the time," Noory said. It doesn't matter who's in power, "they just don't trust government."
Mike Ruppert, a self-described investigative journalist who is often labeled a conspiracy theorist, and author of Confronting Collapse, which details connections between money and energy, told me that conspiracy theories not only indicate distrust of power, they also remind you that "this 'system' has no real means to hold bad people accountable. When has Dick Cheney ever been held accountable? Henry Kissinger? George W. Bush?"
That's a fair question.
There is always doubt
Jesse Ventura gets to the heart of the matter when he says that conspiracy theories are so popular "because people leave lots of room for doubt."
That doubt stems from not knowing what happens behind closed doors in government and in the board rooms of the largest, most powerful companies in the country. What we have little doubt about is that power in the United States -- and everywhere, for that matter -- is monopolized by small, associated groups that do not represent the interests of the great majority. That's why there is at least a grain of truth in every bit of conspiracy theory, even the most delusional ones.
The fear of concentrated power is valid and brings up important questions that mainstream culture is often unwilling to ask. Conspiracy theorists ask those questions, though their answers may lead some astray.