In the weeks since the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, fringe conspiracy theorists have suggested that the shooting rampage there was staged or even perpetrated by the government to advance an anti-gun agenda—claims so absurd that even Glenn Beck has denounced them as preposterous.
The fact that these theories have been circulating should not surprise us; tragedies frequently give rise to anti-government conspiracy myths (9/11, Waco, etc.). More surprising—and unfortunate—is how much attention some media outlets are devoting to these claims, which have not been endorsed by any prominent politicians or commentators. While the coverage to date has generally sought to marginalize these conspiracy-mongers, it risks drawing more attention to their false claims and propagating the myth further.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper, for instance, has devoted two segments of his show to denouncing James Tracy, a Florida Atlantic University professor who has questioned media reports about what happened at Sandy Hook. Cooper’s flimsy justification for these reports is that Tracy works at a public university. As he put it Wednesday, “normally we wouldn’t dignify these types of remarks by covering them but James Tracy is a tenured professor at a public university.” Regardless, Tracy is still an obscure figure of no particular influence. His views deserve little attention, but unfortunately Cooper took the bait, seizing the opportunity to righteously denounce a crackpot on air.
Besides Cooper, the media figure who has done the most to draw attention to the Sandy Hook fringe is Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald, who has flooded the zone with a long series of reports. (Disclosure: I was the co-editor of Spinsanity, which was syndicated on Salon in 2002.) On Friday, he also offered one of the most extensive defenses to date of covering the so-called Sandy Hook truthers—arguing, in short, that the conspiracy theories are being discussed widely online and should not be ignored:
We’ve been writing a lot about the conspiracy theories surrounding the Sandy Hook school shooting—some say too much. “Why you’re giving these Sandy Hook truther media whores the time of day. Ignore them and they go away [sic],” one reader emailed.
Unfortunately, that’s probably not the case. The genie is already out of the bottle and this myth will likely only heat up as the debate over gun control does…
The true believers will probably never come around—confirmation bias will make them deaf to any conflicting evidence—but experts say the way to fight conspiracy theories is to prevent them from spreading. The only way we can do that is by first acknowledging that we have a problem.
Earlier that day, BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith and C.J. Lotz outlined a similar case for media coverage based in part on online traffic statistics:
The theory is ludicrous, but there is hard evidence that it has begun to go viral. The leading, anonymous, 30-minute video created by YouTube user ThinkOutsideTheTV had been viewed 10.6 million times by Friday morning…
The media is often reluctant to engage such theories directly. The political press spent much of 2007 and 2008 ignoring grassroots conservative beliefs that President Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and that his wife had thrown around the epithet “whitey.” But both of those eventually became so widespread, embraced by local elected officials and other public figures, that they were impossible to ignore; their course served as a template for Obama’s being forced to display, from the White House podium, his birth certificate.
Now the media is on the cusp of having to struggle with whether or not to cover and debunk another insane theory, at the cost of—critics say—dignifying it. But at some point they may not have a choice: At least one Newtown resident told Salon that he’s begun to receive harassment accusing him of cooperating with a government cover-up.
Seitz-Wald and his counterparts at Buzzfeed are correct that these myths are widely circulating, of course—the volume of traffic that conspiracy-mongering can draw in 2013 is staggering. But these ideas are still fringe ones. If they were crossing over to the mainstream, we would see leading media figures and politicians endorsing or promoting them (as we did with the birther movement, for instance). But neither Smith and Lotz nor Seitz-Wald can identify a single prominent advocate of the Sandy Hoax truthers’ claims. Instead, they point to obscure incidents like a blog post by the Florida Atlantic professor, an online video from a local Fox reporter in Cincinnati, and a single tweet sent by an outfielder on the Washington Nationals—a flimsy roster of supporters that doesn’t suggest a need for sustained coverage.