Leaps and Bounds

Paranoia: as American as your (possibly poisoned) apple pie

Perhaps not since colonial Salem have fears of conspiracy been so pervasive. And though old women are no longer persecuted for dancing with the devil (we’re fairly sure), a new study shows that paranoid tendencies in American thinking are still strong. Only instead of wayward outsiders, would-be conspirators are seen at the heart of the establishment, engaged in covert operations against the public. According to the study, published in the summer issue of the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly by Carl Stempel, Thomas Hargrove, and Guido H. Stempel III, more than a third (36 percent) of the Americans surveyed believe it somewhat credible or very credible that the Bush administration assisted in or intentionally refrained from preventing the 9/11 attacks so it could launch the country into a war in the Middle East.

Of the two other common conspiracy theories addressed in the July 2006 survey, few people bought into the notion that a U.S. missile and not a plane hit the Pentagon (12 percent of those surveyed in a national sample) or that secretly hidden explosives caused the Twin Towers to collapse after the planes hit them (16 percent).

The survey also found that regular consumers of “legitimate” media (daily newspapers, newspaper Web sites, radio, and network TV news) proved less likely to believe the conspiracy theories than people who have minimal media involvement. Those who consume “less legitimate” media, such as blogs and supermarket tabloids, are more likely to believe in at least one of the conspiracy theories than followers of “legitimate” media.

Conspiracy thinking, according to the study, comes decked out in the red and blue of political partisanship. Although Republicans are commonly chided for believing more often than Democrats that the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Democrats are also able to swallow far-fetched notions based on flimsy evidence; and more likely to accept 9/11 conspiracy theories than Republicans because of their dislike and distrust of the Bush administration. Indeed, support for the conspiracy theories tested in the survey seems to reflect bitter partisanship more than hard-core paranoia.
Though the relationship between belief in the 9/11 conspiracy theories and media use is statistically weak in the survey, it is suggestive: if less “legitimate” media, which include blogs, foment political paranoia, and if heated speculation in the blogosphere is more likely to fan conspiratorial flames, then, with blog use on the rise, we might anticipate conspiracy thinking to spread.

That doesn’t mean consumers of mainstream media are above some “gunman on the grassy knoll” theorizing of their own. As the authors note, scholars such as Peter Knight see a constant low-level paranoia as a “necessary and understandable default approach to life in a risk society,” while others trace the proliferation of conspiracy thinking to an increased awareness of government secrecy and the deepening belief that the world is shaped by powers outside our knowledge and control. Add to that Watergate, Cointelpro, the 1970s revelations of CIA efforts to assassinate foreign leaders, Iran-Contra, the Savings-and-Loan scandal, Enron, and the abuse of intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq and it’s a wonder that the best informed of us don’t jump to speculation about conspiracies.

In a famous 1965 essay on the “paranoid style” in American politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter described it as an emotional and rhetorical use of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” It is by no means exclusively American, he insisted; it is an old story in politics. “While it comes in waves of different intensity,” he wrote, “it appears to be all but ineradicable.” 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.