'Law and Order' Star's Dangerous Dalliance with Some of the Most Paranoid Conspiracy Theories in America
November 20, 2013
Actor Richard Belzer is a familiar, good-guy cop to millions of TV-watching Americans after a 20-year career playing Detective John Munch on 11 different shows and series. Best known for depicting Munch for 15 seasons now on the NBC hit “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” Belzer appears the archetypical detective personified: an acerbic, slightly paranoid cynic who, since the show focuses on sexual crimes against children and women, often proves disturbingly correct.
In recent years, though, Belzer, 69, has gone far beyond anywhere even the fictional Munch would, into a never-never land of florid political conspiracy theories that are doubtful at best, and frequently without the slightest basis in fact. Starting with a fascination with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that is shared by millions of Americans, Belzer has now reached the point where he describes the United States as a “fascist state” run by “sociopaths,” regularly makes conspiracist claims about a vast array of alleged plots, and even heartily endorses Alex Jones, arguably the loudest and most unhinged conspiracy theorist in America.
The latest blast from Belzer came this April, with the release of his book Hit List: An In-Depth Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination, co-authored with Bogota, Colombia-based journalist David Wayne. That followed last year’s Dead Wrong: Straight Facts on the Country’s Most Controversial Cover-Ups, which was also co-written with Wayne.
Belzer has been interested in tall tales for a while. But his 1999 debut in the field, a book entitled UFOs, JFK, and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Believe, was conspiracy lite — footnote-free and sprinkled generously with humorous asides. In contrast, the two new books are more serious in tone and larded with footnotes and descriptions of (mutually contradictory) Byzantine “secret government” cover-up plots. Both have made The New York Times Best-Seller List, though Belzer doesn’t take full credit for that; he attributes much of their success to his recent spate of appearances on Jones’ Austin, Texas-based radio show.
Alex Jones may be the nation’s most vocal promoter of the far-right, antigovernment “Patriot” movement, providing it with an endless series of claims and “documentaries” supported by dubious or nonexistent evidence. He says the government was behind the Oklahoma City bombing, the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center, and this April’s Boston Marathon bombing. He assures his listeners that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has secretly built a whole complex of concentration camps intended for liberty-loving Americans. He asserts that global corporate elites are planning to depopulate the planet using a variety of poisons, all in service of the coming “New World Order.” When U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was badly wounded in a 2011 shooting, Jones said it was a government-run “mind control operation” using “geometric psychological-warfare experts.”
None of this bothers Belzer, whose books have been warmly endorsed by Jones and are sold on Jones’ websites. Indeed, they’ve become close comrades in the last year and a half. “Your work has thrilled and astounded me for years. … You’re doing great work, Alex. We’re brothers now,” Belzer assured Jones on his show last year. For his part, Jones makes clear that he’s overjoyed to have Belzer on board — “We’re just flattered to have you here” — and keeps on inviting him back.
All this might not amount to much were it not for Belzer’s celebrity.
Richard Jay Belzer has played the wise-head Munch on almost a dozen TV shows, ranging from “SVU” to such huge successes as “The X-Files,” “30 Rock,” “The Wire,” “Arrested Development” and even “Sesame Street.” That’s a record for any single fictional television character, says an NBC spokeswoman.
“He’s been omnipresent over the past 20 years,” says Robert Thompson, the director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University. “He’s always Munch. That tends to solidify his identity and makes him seem less fictional as someone who’s got the ability to figure things out.” And that helps him sell his theories to enormous numbers who are inclined toward conspiracist thinking. “He’s got a megaphone, no question about that,” says Thompson. “And, as a mainstream actor, he enhances the credibility of someone like Alex Jones by appearing on his shows.”
Jones, whose show is streamed online five days a week and carried by more than 60 radio stations, is known for his bellowing presentations, infamously melting down on Piers Morgan’s CNN show earlier this year as he literally shouted about gun control. This June, he appeared on the BBC’s “Sunday Politics,” where the normally calm presenter Andrew Neil ended the interview early, telling viewers that Jones was “an idiot” and “the worst person I’ve ever interviewed.”
Belzer cuts quite a contrast with his new friend. Coming across on Jones’ shows as soft-spoken and gentlemanly, he often expresses pride that stores shelve his conspiracy tomes with the history books. But despite their differences in style, Belzer is clearly veering into Jones’ territory with his latest JFK book.
The book purports to offer savvy, “here’s what really happened” post-mortems on the deaths of 50 people, nearly all linked to the assassination of President Kennedy. Although the official causes of death are typically illness, accidents or suicide, Belzer is sure they are part of murderous efforts to cover up the conspiracies that really led to the president’s murder. It is conspiracies plural because there’s a dizzying array of devils cited here — a CIA cabal, FBI plotters, anti-Castro activists hired by the John Birch Society, mob bosses in Chicago and New Orleans, a dirty Chicago cop and Dallas police, among others. Belzer even argues that Lee Harvey Oswald and Dallas patrolman J.D. Tippit, who most people know was shot down by Oswald on a city street, were actually comrades on a military intelligence team attempting to prevent the assassination of the president.
One of the book’s peculiarities is that Belzer and Wayne seem to have no problem floating apparently contradictory stories. That’s no surprise to Gerald Posner, the author of Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK who has spent years debunking bogus JFK conspiracy theories. While most books being published in this 50th anniversary year of the assassination offer single-plot theories, Belzer’s is more like a compendium of older claims. “It’s a blast from the past, a redo of ‘the greatest hits,’” Posner told the Intelligence Report. “They’ve published a rehash of previously unproven and discredited information.”
Still, the book is well written, anchored by abundant footnotes and filled with the words of allegedly impeccable sources all pointing to the conclusion that Oswald could not have been alone. The “mysterious” deaths investigated range from those of Oswald and Jack Ruby to CIA and FBI agents, well-known gangsters, journalists, an X-ray technician said to be aware of purportedly phony autopsy findings, an alleged lover of JFK, and exotic dancers at Ruby’s Dallas nightclub. What they supposedly all had in common was knowledge of the assassination or its cover-up.
Curiouser and Curiouser
But a close look at the book reveals a number of problems.
Take, for example, the authors’ treatment of Jack Ruby, who is depicted as a key conspirator. They never mention the clear testimony that Oswald’s assassin gave to the Warren Commission denying any plot and saying he killed Oswald on impulse to save Jacqueline Kennedy the pain of returning to Dallas for a trial. Or look at how they focus on a man who told the commission that he heard shots coming from a different spot than the book depository where Oswald was ensconced. Although he died after testifying, many others who also thought they heard shots from the grassy knoll lived on for decades. In a similar way, they portray as suspicious the deaths of columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and other journalists skeptical of the official story, but say nothing of many other doubting reporters who lived on unmolested.
One of the long-lived conspiracy theories Belzer and Wayne adopt is the claim that Kennedy’s wounds were surgically altered prior to his autopsy in order to make the bullet tracks support a one-assassin theory of the killing. Citing researcher Allan Eaglesham of Ithaca, N.Y., they suggest that a Navy X-ray technician who was about to blow the whistle was killed and his death made to look like a suicide. But Eaglesham told the Report that he retracted that claim eight years ago, after additional research, and prominently updated his new thinking on the Internet.
Belzer and Wayne seem to have missed that entirely.
The authors repeatedly cite a website, www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk, run by British history teacher John Simkin, as authoritative. But in fact the site simply reproduces a host of conspiracy theories that first appeared elsewhere. “It’s very shoddy, not well-sourced,” says Arthur Goldwag, author of Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies and The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. In fact, many of the books repeatedly cited in footnotes are other conspiracist tracts offering their own speculations — speculations that Belzer and Wayne elevate to ostensible facts by footnoting them as if theirs were an academic thesis.
Other examples of sources that are treated as credible in Hit List are Judyth Baker and William Robert “Tosh” Plumlee. Baker, who attests to a link between Oswald and purported New Orleans conspirators, claims to have had a torrid affair with Oswald and also to have worked on a “rapid cancer”-inducing vaccine intended for Fidel Castro but later used to murder Jack Ruby, who did die of cancer. Baker’s story is so baroque that Marquette University political scientist John McAdams devotes 40 pages to meticulously picking apart its inconsistencies, contradictions and evident impossibilities. The analysis of Baker appears among a rich trove of JFK conspiracy-challenging material on his website, http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu.
McAdams, author of JFK Assassination Logic: How To Think About Claims of Conspiracy, also does a methodical job on Plumlee, a self-identified CIA pilot who claims he flew counter-conspirators into Dallas to try to halt the assassination. Belzer buys his story. But McAdams and others who have looked into it report that nobody can find a shred of credible evidence that such a thing ever happened. Plus, McAdams cites National Archives material on how law enforcement found Plumlee a frequent, unreliable crank who pestered them needlessly, along with FBI records indicating Plumlee had fabricated crime-related information in the past.
Belzer and Wayne repeatedly suggest that certain reported suicides are not plausible because the victims were on an emotional upswing before their deaths. But experts say that is often precisely when depressed people commit suicide — when they regain just enough energy to be able to go through with killing themselves.
Belzer and Wayne suggest that witnesses changed their testimony over time in ways that conformed to the official JFK assassination story for fear of retribution from various conspirators. But recent research suggests a plainer reason: People routinely conflate their memories with accounts, including media reports, after the event. “These new memories become as real as the original one,” Posner told the Report.
Sometimes, these people didn’t even die when Belzer and Wayne say they did. For example, there’s Eddy Benavides, killed in a bar, the authors suggest, because he was mistaken for his look-alike brother, Dom, or in order to intimidate that brother. Dom Benavides, the authors say, “witnessed the escape of the actual killer of Officer J. D. Tippit” and said he wasn’t Oswald. But McAdams points out that Dom Benavides actually testified to the Warren Commission 10 months before Eddy was killed in February 1965, a full year before the date given in Hit List.
The list goes on, but suffice it to say that it seems highly unlikely that conspirators could murder dozens of people to keep their plot secret. “If you’re trying to cover something up and you kill people,” McAdams points out, “then you have to eliminate the people who killed them, or they could spill the beans.”
Richard Belzer declined to speak with the Report about his books or his views. His spokesman, Joel Silverstein, promised to check with Belzer about an interview and phone back within a few days. He did not. Silverstein didn’t respond to several messages left on his cell phone over the following two weeks.
But does any of this rampant conspiracy-stoking really matter? What’s the harm? Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, founder of the Skeptics Society and self-proclaimed second to none in skepticism, worries about “the evil forces, shadow government” genre of conspiracy hyping, without solid facts, that people like Belzer and Jones engage in. It has a terrible impact on our democratic system, poisoning any kind of reasoned democratic discourse, Shermer contends. “It feeds into paranoia that makes you give up, since you can’t have any effect, and not want to participate in public life, government or politics,” he says.
Belzer himself may not see the end-point. He joined “The Alex Jones Show” for its Nov. 6 Election Day broadcast last year and, when Jones intimated that he might not vote, seemed taken aback. Belzer had been talking about the importance of getting involved politically. He didn’t argue with Jones, though.
Belzer does seem to have a grim view of the government that is at least somewhat in line with Jones’. “Our country now, I’m sad to say … by Mussolini’s definition, we are a fascist state,” Belzer opines. As for our leaders, “The cabal of people with power in the U.S., they’re sociopaths,” Belzer told Jones this April.
It’s not only Alex Jones who Belzer helps legitimize. Belzer and Wayne’s publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, is allowing the American Free Press, an anti-Semitic periodical run by long-time Holocaust denier Willis Carto, to sell both Hit List and Dead Wrong to its audiences. In its June 10-17 issue this summer, the periodical even ran an excerpt from Dead Wrong claiming that it is “literally impossible” that Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose of pills, JFK was slain by Oswald, or Sen. Robert Kennedy was killed by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.
In any event, however Belzer’s theories and opinions are viewed, there’s no doubt that he has the cachet to influence people. The actor is aware of that himself. “Because I’m famous I can put this book out and people will read it that wouldn’t if my name wasn’t on it.” He added on the Jones show, with what seemed to be great sincerity, “I’m cashing in on my celebrity—for unselfish reasons, I hope.”
Like it or not, Richard Belzer does not appear to be turning back. That became obvious in recent appearances on Alex Jones’ show. Already, he said there, he’s now working on a documentary timed to the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination this November. And he has promised his legions of fans yet another dramatic book — this one a look at the “sociopaths” in government and why we tolerate them.