None of my students seemed to want to talk about anything related to the bin Laden capture other than the possibility that it hadn't actually happened. There was animated discussion about the likelihood of lies in this killing, but not much else. Why is that?

This made me start thinking about the unusual prominence of conspiracy theories in the news overall, which seems to have accelerated recently. These theories have always existed, of course, but it strikes me that the way they are discussed in the forefront of the news is something new.

So we have newspapers reporting on the idea of releasing bin Laden death photos while discussing how this might quell the voices of those spinning conspiracies. If nothing else, this shows the centrality of conspirators in shaping current politics. But why should we take conspiracy theorists seriously rather than just ignoring them? Why thrust them into the conversation of reasonable people? It is a constant requirement now for government to prove its legitimacy in all cases.

I asked one of my colleagues (an expert on colonial America) if he can think of a comparable situation. It is not as if conspiracy theories have not always found traction in the American hive-mind (he cited Hofstadter, as you might expect), but the fact that that self-serious news outlets report on conspiracies now as a matter of course is, frankly, a bit bizarre.

It is almost as if the conspiracy theorists are being given equal time. Some examples of this would be the Big Lies foisted by the Swift Boaters, the death panels, and the Birthers. Any stupid idea expressed or lie floated is treated now as something to be considered and disproven.

Yes, the fact that it is right wing conspiracies that always get a lot of play should not go unnoticed. The right has perfected the art of the smear and the Big Lie, and the effective spinning of conspiratorial floss into political gold. The media dutifully reports these claims.

But the big media reporting on Donald Trump's lines seriously is in fact as morally defensible as serious reporting on recent statements from Christian Identity adherents. The rantings of a fool are not inherently news.

Keep in mind that I don't believe what the government says in most cases, like any sensible person. But this does not require the creation of fantastical conspiracies.

Plenty of for-real ones exist, created in the same precincts on the right. The same people nowadays pushing conspiratorial readings of anything that deviates from their narrow political readings are most often the ones who ran real Constitution-endangering conspiracies like Iran-Contra, Bush v. Gore, or the Iraq War.


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