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Published: Sat, 03 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Sat, 03 Dec 2016 08:30:50 -0500


Robert Ford Killed Jesse James—Or At Least That's What They Want You to Believe

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:30:00 -0500

(image) Ever since word went out that Robert Ford shot Jesse James, there have been legends that the dead man was really someone else and that the outlaw secretly survived. Alan Lomax ran into one of those tales when he toured the South with a tape recorder in 1959. Neal Morris (*), an Arkansas banjo player, told Lomax that the James brothers had often hid out at his grandfather's place ("because nobody expected them down in Arkansas, don't you see") and that grandpa had given him the scoop on the robber's alleged death. Jesse James wasn't even in that part of the country when Bob Ford supposedly shot him, Morris claims; instead, "Quantrill was the man that the Ford boys killed."

Morris presumably means the Confederate guerrilla William Quantrill, who had fought alongside James in the Civil War. Historians say Quantrill died at the end of the war, but there were rumors that he survived his reported demise too. So Morris has managed to combine two secret-history stories into one: Quantrill didn't die in 1865, and then in 1882 he died in Jesse James' place.

Morris wraps up his account by singing the ballad "Jesse James," which presents the more familiar tale of Ford blasting James in the back. "That's the story that's been told, don't you see," he says at the end, "but us people, a lot of these people in the mountains, don't believe it."

I'd call this "fake news," but the whole thing is so wonderfully strange that I'd like to hold out a tiny smidge of hope that against all odds it's true:

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In 1948, an Oklahoma man called J. Frank Dalton claimed that he was really Jesse James and that the fellow killed by Robert Ford had been a Pinkerton named Charles Bigelow. You can read all about that here. The body of the man shot by Robert Ford was exhumed for DNA tests in 1995; you can read about that here. To listen to Woody Guthrie turning that "Jesse James" ballad into a song about Jesus, go here. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.

(* It's spelled "Neal" on the Association for Cultural Equity's online archive of the Lomax recordings. When Atlantic Records released a selection of those tapes as an anthology called The Sounds of the South, they spelled it "Neil." I have no idea how Mr. Morris himself spelled it, or if he cared.)

Trump Says Millions Voted Illegally but Any Recount Would Be Pointless

Mon, 28 Nov 2016 11:15:00 -0500

Any hope that the prospect of occupying the White House would dampen Donald Trump's fondness for conspiracist crap seems to have been misplaced. Likewise the hope that he would prove gracious in victory. After a brief burst of magnanimity on election night, he has reverted to form. "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide," he bragged on Twitter yesterday, "I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." Trump says any recount of votes in the presidential election is "a scam," since it will not affect the outcome. Yet he also claims "millions of people" voted illegally. Can both propositions be true? Only if you assume, as Trump apparently does, that millions of illegal voters 1) exist and 2) favor Hillary Clinton. A couple of weeks ago, Politifact found no evidence to back up reports by websites such as InfoWars, Milo, The New American, and Freedom Daily that more than 3 million votes were cast by noncitizens in this month's election. The source of that claim, Republican activist Gregg Phillips, said it was based on an "analysis of [a] database of 180 million voter registrations," but he declined to say where the information came from or how he had analyzed it. Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told Politifact "the idea that 3 million noncitizens could have illegally voted in our elections without being detected is obscenely ludicrous." Here is what Hasen told Politico about Trump's claim that "millions of people" voted illegally: There's no reason to believe this is true. The level of fraud in US elections is quite low....We're talking claims in the dozens. We're not talking voting in the millions, or the thousands, or even the hundreds. Politifact's Allison Graves noted that claims about widespread voting by noncitizens got a boost from a 2014 study estimating that 6.4 percent of noncitizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent voted in 2010. But the survey data on which that study was based were flawed because some respondents accidentally gave the wrong answer to a question about their citizenship. Three researchers who reinterviewed participants in the survey found that a small percentage changed their answers to that question. "It appears as though about 0.1-0.3 percent of respondents are citizens who incorrectly identify themselves as non-citizens in the survey," they explained in The Washington Post last month. "With a sample size of 19,000, even this low rate of error can result in a number of responses that appear notable when they are not."[...]

'Fake News' Is Easier to Trace and Debunk Than Ever Before

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 14:45:00 -0500

As pundits search for a scapegoat they can blame for Donald Trump's victory, one increasingly popular target is "fake news." Most of the discussion proceeds as though groundless stories transmitted from friend to friend are something invented in the Facebook era. You're lucky if people remember the dubious email forwards of a decade ago, let alone the orally transmitted tales of earlier generations. But when I hear the phrase fake news, I think of the Eleanor Clubs. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of those: It's been seven decades since anyone was abuzz about them, and even then they were as fictional as the pope's endorsement of Donald Trump or that photo of a bare-chested, gay Mike Pence. But in the early 1940s, quite a few people believed in them. They were even investigated by the FBI. The clubs—named for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a vocal supporter of civil rights—were supposedly a subversive network of black servants working to overturn the racial caste system, so that one day whites would work for blacks instead of the other way around. Howard Odum, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, collected versions of this story from across the South (and sometimes from other parts of the country too) in his 1943 book Race and Rumors of Race. The details varied, but the core idea, in the words of one of his informants, was this: "I hear the cooks have organized Eleanor Clubs and their motto is: A white woman in every kitchen by Christmas." Mrs. Roosevelt was supposed to be the clubs' secret chief. Did the Eleanor Club story injure Eleanor's husband at the polls? No: He kept carrying the South, as the Democrat usually did in those days. But then again, no one—as far as I know—tried to weaponize this particular tale against him. Other rumors were deliberately engineered to hurt particular public figures. These were known as whispering campaigns, and they have been deployed in political fights for eons. In 1928, Irving Stone writes in They Also Ran, a host of rumors dogged the Democrats' Catholic nominee, Al Smith: "he was building a tunnel which would connect with the Vatican; the Pope would set up his office in the White House; the Catholics would rule the country, and no one could hold office who was not a Catholic; Protestant children would be forced into Catholic schools; priests would flood the states and be in supreme command; Smith would set himself up at the head of a Catholic party which would supersede the old Democratic party!" (These were transmitted not just orally but through the fake-news organs of the day: "A flood of letters, pamphlets and anonymous newspapers swept across the South, rehashing the worst libels against the Catholic church that had been circulated in the United States during the period of 1840–60. One Democratic chairman of North Carolina reported that the anti-Catholic literature that poured into the state must have cost at least half a million dollars.") Smith didn't just lose the election; he managed to lose several Southern states. Did the rumor-mongering swing many votes? Quite possibly. The point isn't that this is the same as the fakery that flows through Facebook. We live in an entirely different media environment, with possibilities that hardly anyone could imagine in the '20s or '40s. If you told Al Smith that one day there would be Macedonian content farms targeting Trump fans because that's what brings more clicks, he would say, "No offense, my fellow American, but I don't know what the hell that means." 2016 is not 1928, and I'm all for careful efforts to see how this era's rumor transmission belts differ from their many, many precursors. But that requires you to acknowledge that the precursors existed. It also requires you to think about the ways the internet has empowered not just liars but debunkers. Consider this image, highlighted and marked up in one anti-fake-news jeremiad that's been floating around: No, that isn't fake news. It's a true story from a mainstream newspaper, and the fellow s[...]

Policing ‘Fake News’ Is Our Own Responsibility, Not Facebook’s

Tue, 15 Nov 2016 13:45:00 -0500

So now it's Facebook's fault that Donald Trump was elected president. If you have any number of friends who like sharing either memes or headlines, you've undoubtedly seen all sorts of fake news stories and fabricated facts. We're not talking deliberate parodies, like The Onion, though even they fool people now and then. We're talking pieces that are just completely made up by little-known "media outlets" with vague names, and the stories are intended to be perceived as real. Because these stories don't show up anywhere else (because they're not true), people might be more inclined to click the link to read when they see them on Facebook, particularly when the headlines are outrageous. There's now apparently both a push to act as though these fake stories had a major impact on the election and also that Facebook should do something about it. There has been coverage in the New York Times, Gizmodo, and elsewhere. Google and Facebook have responded in the past by trying to find ways to de-emphasize links from these sites and just recently announced they'll refuse to run ads on fake news sites. There are a lot of concepts to parse on what seems like a minor election side story (and the latest reason for some people to ignore why Hillary Clinton actually lost), but it's worth exploring more deeply. First of all, perhaps consider that thinking people voted because of fake information they were exposed to on Facebook says more about you than them. To the extent that people fall for fake news, the fact that such news affirms existing biases certainly plays a major factor. Does anybody have evidence to suggest that fake news actually caused anybody to change their vote? There is a component to this particular argument that has a stench of "What a bunch of rubes the people are," connected directly to the results of a controversial election. Not that people don't believe in conspiracies or fall for fake news, but as Jesse Walker would point out, Americans across the spectrum believe in them, not just those who would vote for Trump. And I would point out that believing fabricated conspiracy stories perpetuated by fake news sites significantly influenced the election is itself kind of a conspiracy theory. Second, do you know who was big about pointing out fake news stories? Donald Trump. All those accusations of sexual assault and harassment? He said they're all lies. A smear job. He said he was the victim. We all understand what people demanding Facebook do something about "fake news" are actually getting at. They're generally not asking for Facebook to serve as an arbiter of the factual components of controversies (though I wouldn't put it past some people). Facebook is not very good at managing controvery. Rather what these folks have in mind that is that there are clearly news outlets that are producing fake news stories on purpose to get page views and earn some cash, and they're absolutely right. But that's exactly how Trump would describe the media outlets who run with the assault stories. So what these frustrated people need to realize is that if they convince Facebook to censor sharing of these obviously fake stories, then there's going to be a fight over what a "fake story" actually is. There's a bias here—in media circles most obviously—that it's simply going to be a matter of cutting out the outlets making stuff up from whole cloth. These little no-name places that aren't known journalistic outfits. Why would it end there? Given that Facebook is now so influential in putting information in front of people, the result will most certainly be a push to define "fake" down in order to keep stories that harm certain interests from spreading. And so, yes, forget letting algorithms do all the work. Eventually Facebook staff will be put in a position of determining what is and isn't "real" news. How many people think the Trump sexual assault scandal is fake? How many people think the Hillary Clinton email scandal is fake? And then there's the Ame[...]

Seeing Trump on the Silver Screen

Sun, 06 Nov 2016 06:00:00 -0500

In the year of Trump, the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd has had more cameos in the political columns than any other revival-house staple. Pundit after pundit has pointed to the picture to explain the rise of the Republican nominee. That may say more about a certain segment of Donald Trump's foes than it does about Trump or his following. The movie traces its roots to a tipsy conversation screenwriter Budd Schulberg once had with Will Rogers Jr., the son of the folksy cowboy humorist. "My father was so full of shit," Rogers declared, "because he pretends he's just one of the people, just one of the guys...but in our house the only people that ever came as guests were the richest people in town, the bankers and the power brokers of L.A." That comment inspired Schulberg's short story "Your Arkansas Traveler," and that story became the seed of A Face in the Crowd, scripted by Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. The picture has long been popular with people who fear the place where populism meets pop culture. The movie begins with Marcia Jeffries visiting a county jail in Arkansas. Jeffries is a starry-eyed Sarah Lawrence grad who works for her uncle's rural radio station; she learned in college that "real American music comes from the bottom up," and she's delighted to discover a singing and storytelling drifter doing time for drunk and disorderly conduct. The prisoner is Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith as a magnetic bundle of appetites, and his mix of country music and unfiltered philosophizing becomes popular on her uncle's radio outlet, and then on a larger-market television outlet, and finally on a national TV show transmitted from New York. Rhodes turns out to be not just a natural entertainer but a natural advertiser: Between his charisma and his frenzied fan base, he boosts the sales of everything from mattresses to energy supplements. The story takes a turn when Rhodes starts applying his techniques to politics, pitching an ultraconservative senator with the talents he'd been using to pitch consumer goods. (The movie signals that the senator is a bad guy by calling him "the last of the isolationists" and by having him criticize Social Security.) Just as the dark night of reaction is about to fall upon the land, Jeffries sabotages Rhodes by flicking his mic back on when he thinks a TV broadcast is over. Suddenly his audience hears him mocking them: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar....They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers." His former fans rebel and the republic is saved. The movie wasn't a hit when it came out, but it has had a long shelf life. That's partly because of Griffith, who gave the best performance of his career: a vortex of villainous charm that can shock viewers used to the genial TV sheriff he played later. But it's also because the picture speaks to a set of social anxieties that haven't disappeared: fears of television, advertising, popular culture, and demotic demagoguery. If a politician wanders over from the entertainment industry, and if his views even superficially resemble Rhodes', someone is bound to bring up Kazan and Schulberg's picture. (Kazan himself declared that it "anticipated Ronald Reagan.") It's no surprise that we've been hearing about it throughout this election season. "Rarely and perhaps not in modern times has a presidential campaign more resembled the classic 1957 film, A Face in the Crowd," the conservative columnist Cal Thomas announced. At the other end of the spectrum, a scribe at The Nation informed us that "Lonesome Rhodes has come to life in the form of Donald Trump." CNN ran a story headlined "Did this movie predict Trump's rise?" The Washington Post's Marc Fisher declared that A Face in the Crowd set "the template" for "Trump's rule-smashing romp." Several pundits fantasized that a gaffe would trip up Trump the way Lonesome Rhodes' hot-mic moment brought him down[...]

Welcome to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, Director Comey!

Mon, 31 Oct 2016 12:25:00 -0400

You would think FBI Director James Comey had sent his Friday announcement to Congress on Trump-Pence letterhead the way Hillary Clinton and Democrats have responded. To recap, for the benefit of those who spent the weekend preparing their racially and culturally tasteful and sensitive Halloween costumes instead of following the news: During the course of investigating scandal-tainted Democratic former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and an accusation he was sexting with a minor, the FBI found hundreds of thousands of emails on a laptop he and/or his likely-soon-to-be-ex-wife Huma Abedin had been using. The metadata suggested that many of these emails might have been sent to or from Clinton's private server. So now the FBI has to investigate to determine whether any of these emails were classified or were connected in any way to Clinton's previous mess. The letters may turn out to be duplicates or nothing interesting in particular. It seems very unlikely they're going to find any new smoking guns (insert joke about dick pics here). But Comey, after previously declaring that the FBI would not recommend any charges over Clinton's "extremely careless" handling of classified communications, decided to send a brief letter to various leaders in Congress to inform them that the FBI would be reviewing these letters to see if they were at all relevant to their previous investigation. His letter was brief (three whole paragraphs) and did not accuse Clinton of any wrongdoing whatsoever. But, boy, has that letter opened possibly a bigger can of worms than the Wikileaks email dump somehow. To this outside observer who is completely over the election at this point, Comey's letter looks like a simple ass-covering move so the FBI doesn't get accused of ignoring evidence. But to Democrats and the Clinton camp and some others, that short letter is a full-on assault on the democratic republic and the sanctity of this election. Over the weekend, dozens of former federal prosecutors signed on to letter criticizing Comey's decision to send the letter, noting: Director Comey's letter is inconsistent with prevailing Department policy, and it breaks with longstanding practices followed by officials of both parties during past elections. Moreover, setting aside whether Director Comey's original statements in July were warranted, by failing to responsibly supplement the public record with any substantive, explanatory information, his letter begs the question that further commentary was necessary. For example, the letter provides no details regarding the content, source or recipient of the material; whether the newly-discovered evidence contains any classified or confidential information; whether the information duplicates material previously reviewed by the FBI; or even "whether or not [the] material may be significant." Perhaps most troubling to us is the precedent set by this departure from the Department's widely-respected, non-partisan traditions. The admonitions that warn officials against making public statements during election periods have helped to maintain the independence and integrity of both the Department's important work and public confidence in the hardworking men and women who conduct themselves in a nonpartisan manner. The Clinton campaign took this call for respect for non-partisan traditions and tossed it right up on their website. Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. signed on to the letter and also wrote a separate commentary for the Washington Post saying much of the same things. The talking points have been established. This goes against procedure! This is not the way things are done! Even Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld criticized Comey's letter and said Attorney General Loretta Lynch should maybe step in and "order him to stand down" if more information gets leaked. Of course, law enforcement officials leak information to the press all the time. In fact, that might[...]

The Great Halloween Clown Purge of 2016

Thu, 27 Oct 2016 16:15:00 -0400

Halloween's urban legends have a habit of absorbing other urban legends, so I'm not surprised to see a rumor going around about a Halloween Clown Purge:


See all those shares? Halloween + clowns + The Purge = social-media catnip. But look at the bright side: This isn't anywhere near as popular as last year's big rumor, the "Halloween Revolt."

Remember the Halloween Revolt? Some anarchist militia that no one had heard of before was supposedly going to spend the night of October 31 luring cops into ambushes and killing them. Chunks of the media just ran with the story, treating it as a bona fide threat rather than a revamped gang-initiation urban legend mashed up with the resurgent fear of a war on cops. (Some versions of the story managed to work in a reference to The Purge too. The fear that young people are getting ready to reenact the violence of the Purge pictures is getting to be a perennial panic, and not just at Halloween; one such rumor even shaped police behavior right before the 2015 Baltimore riot.)

But while reporters have rushed to cover all kinds of clown rumors this year, sometimes leaving their common sense behind in the process, the clown-purge story has barely penetrated the mainstream media. Almost all of the outlets covering it are super-clickbaity sites in the more remote corners of the media ecosystem.

The cops have been quiet, too. Snopes notes that in previous "'purge' scares, local police typically weighed in to either pledge a close watch or debunk the rumors. Yet in this case, we've turned up no such assurances or debunkings from any law enforcement sources." Snopes' search appears to be out of date: Police in Greenville, South Carolina—ground zero for the current clown scare—have now told the public that the Clown Purge isn't a credible threat. But even that sort of skeptical statement remains rare. I certainly haven't seen any sign that documents like this are circulating:


Why the difference? Who knows? Maybe a cop-killing anarcho-militia felt like a more urgent threat. Maybe the idea of a Clown Purge was so silly that even the 11:00 news was wary about covering it. Maybe the press is getting sick of clowns.

Or maybe this year, when it comes to scaring people, Halloween just can't get out of the shadow of Election Day.

Pollsters Made Up a Conspiracy Theory, and Then 32.5% of the People They Questioned Endorsed It

Tue, 25 Oct 2016 14:03:00 -0400

(image) In Chapman University's latest Survey on American Fears, pollsters asked about 10 alleged cover-ups. In the most striking result, 25 percent of the respondents agreed—and another 7.5 percent strongly agreed—that the "government is concealing what they [sic] know about the North Dakota Crash."

What's striking about that? Just that the pollsters had never actually heard any conspiracy theories about a "North Dakota Crash"; they threw that in to see how people would respond to a vaguely ominous-sounding episode that they invented. Yet enough people said agree to make it the sixth most popular theory in the poll: It finished behind the notions that the government is concealing information about 9/11, the JFK assassination, aliens, global warming, or plans for a one-world government, but it was more popular than the ideas of a birther, AIDS, Scalia, or moon landing cover-up. You'll have to guess for yourself how many of those North Dakota Crash truthers were trolling the pollsters, how many simply figure the government habitually conceals information about everything, how many were thinking about some other crash, and how many were just getting excited in the heat of the moment. (Who knows? One might even be a fellow who lives in the Dakotas and has long harbored suspicions about some crash.)

The pollsters say that 74 percent of the sample agreed with at least one of the "real" conspiracy theories they asked about. I ought to like that number, since I'm constantly arguing that conspiracy theories are not just a fringe phenomenon but can be found across American society. But because of the way the questions were framed, I'm not sure these results really tell us much. Are officials "concealing what they know about the 9/11 attacks"? Well, yes: These answers were collected in the spring, and the feds didn't declassify 29 pages (*) of their 9/11 report until July. You didn't have to believe in an elaborate conspiracy theory to tell a pollster the government was hiding information; you just had to follow the news. The same goes for the Kennedy assassination: The government hasn't released all its files about that yet. Is "concealing what they know" really the best way to frame that question?

But if you want to see the totals, here they are in snazzy infographic form:


For the full report, go here. For Reason's coverage of a previous Chapman Survey of American Fears, go here.

(* Everyone calls them "the 28 pages," but there were actually 29 of them.)

Trump's 'Rigged Election' Talk May Backfire

Fri, 21 Oct 2016 13:30:00 -0400

"We've been busing people in to deal with you fucking assholes for 50 years, and we're not going to stop now," the Wisconsin Democratic operative Scott Foval declares in Rigging the Election, a video released this week by the conservative undercover-media activist James O'Keefe. In the video, Foval drunkenly discusses how to pull off a voter impersonation fraud scheme by sending folks with fake IDs to vote in neighboring states. The indiscreet Foval has since lost his job. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump invited O'Keefe to attend the third major party presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas. During the debate, Trump refused to say whether or not he would concede if he lost the vote the November, insinuating that there is a conspiracy to rig the election against him. "The O'Keefe videos will add some evidence to Trump's claims about a rigged election," says Joe Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. "They will give him some red meat to throw around." When asked how he thinks the public will respond to the O'Keefe videos, the Western Washington University political scientist Todd Donovan replied in an email, "My guess is that the viewers will respond to it through their partisan perspectives. It reinforces pre-existing Republican attitudes; Democrats will see the source and assume it's a hack job of editing." In a prepublication study, "The Effect of Conspiratorial Thinking and Motivated Reasoning on Belief in Election Fraud," Uscinski and his colleagues point out that significant proportions of both major parties believe that electoral fraud is common. "Republicans are especially prone to believing that people are casting ballots they should not, whereas Democrats are more concerned that they are not able to cast ballots," they write. As evidence they cite a national poll taken in July 2012 in which 54 percent of Democrats believed that voter suppression was a major problem compared to 27 percent of Republicans who thought so. On the other hand, 57 percent of Republicans believed that casting illegal ballots was a major problem compared to 38 percent of Democrats who did. "Electoral fraud is a form of conspiracy theory," Uscinski tells me. "And like any other conspiracy theory it is hard to disprove. Evidence that the plot didn't happen actually works in favor of the conspiracy theory: 'Look how hard they're working to cover it up.'" How common is electoral fraud? As Uscinski notes, since the would-be perpetrators do not want their schemes to be detected, voter fraud is by definition hard to measure. Nevertheless, most scholars have concluded that voter fraud, especially voter impersonation fraud of the sort that Foval appeared to be discussing, is rare in American elections. Uscinski thinks scholars probably undercount instances of voter fraud because the undetected successful instances don't get tallied. But he also thinks such frauds are vastly overestimated in the popular imagination. Keeping a national electoral fraud scheme hidden would be exceedingly hard to do, Uscinski points out: It would be a huge coordination problem involving lots of people in very uncertain circumstances with many opportunities for blunders. Donovan agrees. In an email, he writes: "Even if we take at face value the 'description' on the edited video of how to commit fraud, the execution wouldn't be possible. It would require thousands of voters per state (tens of thousands?) to affect these elections. Renting cars in dozens of tates to move voters to dozens of Republican controlled states, where they would have fake addresses to vote under, would require 20,000 people or 200,000 people or even more people with rental cars (or each in a car bought at an auction?) and just as many fake addresses. You would need to convince 200,000 people or more to commit a crime and assume not one would be [...]

Jesse Walker to Speak in Baltimore About Conspiracy Theories and the Election

Thu, 20 Oct 2016 10:15:00 -0400

(image) This Saturday afternoon I'll be giving a talk, at Baltimore's Kol Halev synagogue, called "Fear, Conspiracy, and Presidential Campaigns: Is This Election Different From All Others?" (Since the event is being hosted by a synagogue, we're going with a Passover-flavored title.) Here is Kol Halev's description of the discussion:

Come on Saturday, October 22 at 1:30 p.m. to KHL to hear Jesse Walker, author of the well-received book The United States of Paranoia.

You may believe you're living through a uniquely fraught presidential campaign. But Jesse Walker has done a fascinating job of describing American political paranoia from our inception as colonies to our post-9/11 world.

The talk will be a mix of current events and historical context, and the topics to be covered include Trump's conspiracy theories, the anti-Trumpsters' conspiracy theories, and the clown scare. (No, really. I swear it's relevant.) If you'd like to see this, come to 6200 North Charles Street at 1:30. Don't be confused by the sign outside that says "Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church"; the synagogue meets at a church. (I'm hoping some of the Presbyterians will stop in too.) Admission is free.

The Roger Stone Home Stretch of Election 2016

Wed, 19 Oct 2016 14:45:00 -0400

Though he is too "busy" to find it online for me, former Reasoner Michael C. Moynihan had a segment on Vice News last night in which he attended a JFK conspiracy conference and interviewed an attending Roger Stone, author of (among many other curiosities) The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ. Of course, Stone is no marginalized questions-asker in Election 2016: He has been among the closest advisers to Donald Trump throughout. (Read Anthony Fisher's mini-interview with sharp-dressed man at the Republican National Convention.) Which makes his frequently suggestive observations that much more newsworthy: At meeting of JFK conspiracy buffs today, Roger Stone says "internal workings" of Media Matters will be "exposed to the public" next week — Michael C Moynihan (@mcmoynihan) October 17, 2016 With Donald Trump's post-Billy Bush pivot to Full Metal Deplorable, it is, I contend, a Roger Stone finish to an already pretty Stonetastic Trump campaign. The second presidential debate was ripped right out of the pages of his most recent book, The Clintons' War on Women, and God only knows what fresh hell awaits us tonight. That, more or less, is the topic of this week's rambling, conspiratorial edition of The Fifth Column, your very favorite weekly libertarian podcast. Mentioned along the way: Jesse Walker on voter fraud, James O'Keefe's latest revelations, Hit & Run commenters, Moynihan's terrible accent, the re-re-re-retaking of Mosul, my secret Al Gore 2000 conspiracy, PEN America's attempt to find a Third Way on campus free speech, Kmele Foster's ongoing 2020 presidential campaign, and so very much more. Take a listen: src="" width="100%" height="100" frameborder="0"> Here are the locations at which you can download, interact with, recommend to your friends about, and write reviews of, The Fifth Column: iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play,, @wethefifth, and Facebook.[...]

The Fear of a Rigged Election Is Not New

Tue, 18 Oct 2016 12:45:00 -0400

It's getting harder to maintain any serious suspense about who will win the presidential election, so the focus has started shifting to the day after Election Day. Trump, trailing badly, has taken to preemptively declaring that if he loses, it will be because the game was rigged against him. A new Politico poll shows 41 percent of the voters, and 73 percent of Republicans, saying he may be right. So now the airwaves are full of fears about what could happen if Americans take those charges to heart. Here's CNN, for instance: "His accusations alone, experts say, could inflict long-standing damage on the US political system itself by eroding trust in the probity of the electoral process." The biggest problem with this argument is that we already live in a country where a lot of people don't trust the electoral process. George W. Bush was dogged throughout his presidency by accusations of stealing elections—not just after the messy ending of the 2000 campaign, but after 2004 too, when figures as influential as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and publications as prominent as Vanity Fair and Harper's questioned the count in Ohio. In 2008, John McCain himself warned in the third presidential debate that we might be headed toward "one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." After Obama won that year, a Public Policy Polling survey showed 52 percent of GOP voters believing that ACORN had stolen the election for him. Four years later, the same firm found 49 percent of Republican voters saying the same thing. You can dispute those particular numbers (it's a good idea to take PPP's polls with several grains of salt), but it's hard to deny that the idea was taken seriously on the right. (Here's a headline from November 2012: "Obama Likely Won Re-Election Through Election Fraud.") Meanwhile, the whole point of the "birther" story was that Obama was constitutionally ineligible to be president even if he did get the most votes. My point isn't to suggest that all those stories are equivalent. They aren't. My point is that we've spent the entire 21st century in a country where a significant segment of whichever party is out of power thinks the president holds office illegitimately. The "probity of the electoral process" has been distrusted for years. Now, obviously it's unusual for the candidate himself to be leading the charge. You occasionally had moments like McCain's comment in 2008 or, more recently, Hillary Clinton's warning that Russia has "maybe" hacked into "some state election systems." But Trump is beating the drum hard in a way that really is unprecedented in recent U.S. history. This has led some pundits to fear that he will keep beating that drum after Election Day, with apocalyptic results. It's one thing for most of the GOP to think they've had the election stolen from them; it's another for the defeated nominee to be egging them on. What happens if we have a rerun of Trump's little meltdown after the Iowa caucuses, when the Donald demanded a do-over rather than accept that Ted Cruz had beaten him? It's an open question. But Trump's ultimate aim after Iowa wasn't really to relitigate the vote; it was to make excuses for a public failure. My impression is that that's what he's up to now: not laying the groundwork for a post-election fight, but finding a way to salve his legendarily fragile ego. Trump certainly isn't acting like a guy who's trying to build a serious argument about electoral irregularities. He's acting like a guy who lashes out at anything in his way, to the point where even a Saturday Night Live sketch is supposed to be evidence that dark forces are rigging the election for Hillary: Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the borin[...]

Newsweek Plays Connect-the-Dots with Putin, Trump, WikiLeaks

Tue, 11 Oct 2016 09:30:00 -0400

Did you hear the one about Newsweek proving that Russia's conspiring with WikiLeaks? Anyone who doubts wikileaks is working w/ Putin: read how my words falsely became those of a Clinton confidante. — Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 10, 2016 That's Newsweek's Kurt Eichenwald promising a blockbuster and failing to deliver. At the time he sent that tweet, the article he was promoting looked like this. Later the article was updated significantly, changing the focus somewhat; it now looks like this. At neither point did it demonstrate that WikiLeaks has been "working w/ Putin." What it shows is that some people misread an item in WikiLeaks' recent release of Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's emails. In the message in question, Clinton crony Sidney Blumenthal (described by Eichenwald as "second only to George Soros at the center of conservative conspiracy theories") passed along one of Eichenwald's articles. The Russian news/propaganda outlet Sputnik then published a piece that mistook Eichenwald's words for Blumenthal's, declaring that Clinton's "top confidante" had said the Benghazi attack "was almost certainly preventable" and that criticizing Clinton for this failure "is legitimate." In the updated version of the article, Eichenwald highlights the fact that Donald Trump himself made the same mistake at a rally in Wilkes-Barre yesterday. If that were all there is to the article, I wouldn't blame Eichenwald for writing it. If people were mistaking me for Sidney Blumenthal, I'd be chortling about it too; if one of those people was the Republican presidential nominee, I'd be all over it. But I wouldn't claim that this proves WikiLeaks is an arm of Moscow—or, as Eichenwald puts it in the article, that it is "proof that this act of cyberwar is...being orchestrated by the Russians"—because that "proof" is obviously absent. Some Russians A reporter at a Russian-funded site misread an item in a WikiLeaks document dump. (*) That doesn't demonstrate that the Russians are behind WikiLeaks any more than it demonstrates that they're behind Newsweek. The updated version of the article argues breathlessly that Trump must have gotten the story from Sputnik: "This false story was only reported by the Russian controlled agency (a reference appeared in a Turkish publication, but it was nothing but a link to the Sputnik article). So how did Donald Trump end up advancing the same falsehood put out by Putin's mouthpiece?...Who in the Trump campaign was feeding him falsehoods straight from the Kremlin?" Well, it's certainly possible that someone on the Trump campaign found it in Sputnik. It's in English; it's online; it easily could've popped up in a Google News Alert. A campaign that cites stories from Infowars and the National Enquirer isn't likely to shy away from reading Sputnik too. But Eichenwald's claim that the tale "was only reported by the Russian controlled agency" is not in fact true. As BuzzFeed's Jon Passantino points out, the claim was already circulating in a viral tweet hours before Sputnik picked it up. I realize that "Donald Trump relied on a dicey source and said something inaccurate" is kind of a dog-bites-man story these days. Russian puppetmasters are much more exciting. But a reporter shouldn't claim to have proven something he hasn't. Especially if the result is an article that moves from dismissively invoking "conservative conspiracy theories" to claiming, based on the thinnest reeds, to have exposed a vast Kremlin-directed conspiracy. Postscript, 12:55 a.m.: Eichenwald has updated his article again, in a process that's starting to look like a textbook case of motivated reasoning. Here is one of the new passages: Since Newsweek first broke the [...]

Friday A/V Club: ABC, LSD, and the CIA

Fri, 23 Sep 2016 13:15:00 -0400

(image) Watergate and the other scandals of the '70s sparked a surge in skepticism toward the country's most powerful institutions. Here is an artifact from that era: a 1979 ABC News special called Mission: Mind Control. The hour-long documentary examines the CIA and Army's attempts to master brainwashing and other sorts of behavioral manipulation, included unethical experiments in which unwitting subjects were dosed with psychedelic drugs.

The show occasionally lapses into TV-news goofiness—at one point, as psychedelic imagery flashes on the screen, we're told that what we're watching is "considered by many experts to be the closest illustration of the effects of a hallucinogenic"—but at its core it's a hard-hitting piece of journalism. It was preserved, interestingly, by the National Archives and Records Administration, which did not bother to remove the commercials from the broadcast. So along with a harrowing exposé of official crimes, you get to see Will Rogers Jr. pitching Grape Nuts and a promo for a Geraldo Rivera report on a biker gang (featuring "dope, death, and the Bandidos"). Enjoy:

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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)

The Clown Panic Comes to College

Wed, 21 Sep 2016 10:20:00 -0400

The Great Clown Panic of '16 began in August, you'll recall, when children at an apartment complex in Greenville, South Carolina, claimed to have spotted some malevolent clowns in the woods, sparking city-wide chatter about clown conspiracies. Before long, the delirium was spreading across the Carolinas. In Winston-Salem, two kids claimed that a clown carrying candy had tried to lure them into the forest; not long after that, in nearby Greensboro, a man called 911 to report a clown, who he then supposedly chased into the woods with a machete. ("Officers responding to the call could not find the clown," the local News & Record reported.) The meme had marched into Georgia by mid-September, when two Troup County residents claimed to have seen some clowns trying to lure kids into a van, then confessed that they had made it up and were charged with making a false report. Last week a Georgia girl was arrested for bringing a knife to her middle school. She said she needed it to protect her from the clowns. By then the currents of coulrophobia had flooded into Alabama, where Facebook posts about the clown threat prompted schools across the state to go on lockdown, and where yet more hoaxsters were eventually arrested. Now the Alabama wave has hit the world of higher education. Charles W. Johnson, a Reason contributor, passes along a mass email that the Department of Public Safety and Security sent across the Auburn campus. Here's how it begins: On Monday evening the university and Auburn Police Division received a few reports of people dressed in clown costumes on campus. There were also several social media posts that suggested the same. We have seen similar reports of clown sightings at other universities and towns across the State of Alabama and the Southeast. Auburn Police officers were on patrol and immediately responded to the areas reported but were unable to locate anyone. Auburn Police will continue to patrol our campus and investigate any suspicious activity. We are not aware of any danger or threat to our campus community. We also had a report of students walking around looking for people dressed as clowns. For your safety, we strongly encourage you to leave this job to Auburn Police. Please use good judgment and avoid wearing clown masks, as it could be perceived as a hazard or threat to others. The bulletin goes on to offer information about emergency numbers, the Night Security Shuttle, and other safety services. Amid this cascade of hoaxes, pranks, and schoolyard rumors—and possibly, at some point, a sighting of an actual professional Bozo on his way to a birthday party—there have been exactly zero confirmed cases of harlequins plotting to kidnap or molest children. But you knew that already. Bonus video: This scare may be silly, but I sympathize with anyone who's afraid of clowns in general. When I was little, I'd run screaming from the TV set whenever this film aired on Sesame Street: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]