Stanley Fish in the Times does his usual backstopping of “rational” journalistic convention, using 9-11 “Truthers” as his foils. ‘Just listen to how crazy these left-wing conspiracy people sound. The right has no monopoly on crazy conspiracy theories.’ He doesn’t bother to refute anything. He just cites what he heard, and lets you agree with how wildly out of touch with reality these people are. He assumes that you are well trained, in this era when use of the accusation “that’s a conspiracy theory” is taken by journalists as an exhaustive and conclusive argument.
Interestingly enough, a scan of today’s news also brings us Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning: Did the CIA spread LSD?, wherein the BBC presents an ongoing debate between an American investigative journalist (whose work is only quoted in British news sources, of course) and an American scholar over a seeming outbreak of ergotamine poisoning in a French village in 1951 which may or may not have been the result of LSD having been put in bread by the CIA, but where they agree that the official story was almost surely incorrect.
Then we have Claudy bombings cover-up revealed in police report, which reveals collusion between “senior police officers, government ministers and the Catholic hierarchy” to conceal the lead role played by a Catholic priest in a deadly bombing in Ulster in 1972.
Now picture yourself in 1951 saying, “I think the CIA sent everyone in Pont-Saint-Esprit, France on an LSD trip.” Or saying in 1972, “The bombing in Claudy was led by a Catholic priest and the British government and the Catholic Church are covering up for him.” The Stanley Fishes of the day and all of the rest of the “responsible journalists” could have used you as an example of how crazy conspiracy theories are.
Conspiracy is simply planning by two or more people to commit an illegal act. Did the CIA commit an illegal act in Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951? Who knows? It will almost surely never get into a court of law to be tested. In fact, the CIA – and most conspirators generally – plan it that way. It’s called plausible deniability and coverup. Was it illegal for the Northern Ireland Government to fail to investigate and prosecute Father Chesney for his role in the bombing and use the Catholic Church of Ireland to help cover it up? No, it probably just falls under the heading of prosecutorial discretion. But in both cases, something funny was going on, which might have merited more than a sniff and a sneer from journalists.
For our hard-nosed, skeptical modern journalist, a “conspiracy theory,” especially one regarding the inherently trustworthy powers that be, is by definition ridiculous, and can be demonstrated to be ridiculous merely by calling it a conspiracy theory. But history – a subject about which he is militantly ignorant – says that may not always be the case.