The Conspiracy Commerce Department

The Conspiracy Commerce Department

The Conspiracy Commerce Department

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Jan. 18 1997 3:30 AM

The Conspiracy Commerce Department

Is there an Internet plot against Clinton, or has he been Web-surfing too much?

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By David Plotz

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When it comes to Clinton scandals, it's usually the right-wingers who spout conspiracy theories. But now the administration is engaging in a little conspiracy-mongering of its own with its 331-page report, "The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce." Publicized by newspapers last week, the report posits a right-wing media conspiracy to spread, well, conspiracy theories.

According to the Clinton administration, this is how the Stream of Conspiracy courses its way through the media: "Well-funded right-wing think tanks and individuals" subsidize fringe media such as the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the Western Journalism Center, which publish outlandish charges against Clinton. (These two outfits are especially intrigued by White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster's suicide--or rather, "suicide"--hinting that Foster was murdered; that his suicide note was forged; and that he died in a White House parking lot.) These stories are "bounced all over the world" on the Internet and reprinted in British newspapers before they filter up to conservative American publications such as the Washington Times, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The news generated by their appearance prompts congressional investigations; congressional investigations lead to articles in mainstream newspapers; and voilà , we have a manufactured scandal!

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C onservative journalists have joyfully ridiculed "Conspiracy Commerce." The Washington Times compared the report to Nixon's enemies lists. A Wall Street Journal editorial writer alleged a counterconspiracy: that the White House is trying to suppress reporting about Clinton scandals. (These conspiracies are stacking up like Russian nesting dolls: Right-wingers advance conspiracy theories about Whitewater; the administration shoots back with a conspiracy theory about the right-wingers' conspiracy theories; now the Journal counters with a conspiracy theory about the administration's conspiracy theory about right-wingers' conspiracy theories. Whew!)

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

The administration's charge that the Internet has become a conduit and multiplier of Clinton tall tales poses a tricky question about the Web: Is the free flow of information always a good thing? The Internet is a marvelous instrument for educating large numbers of people very quickly, but it is also a marvelous instrument for deceiving large numbers of people very quickly. Remember the Flight 800 "friendly-fire" theory? That particular unsubstantiated rumor is still circulating on the Internet, months after it was shot down.

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So what to make of "Conspiracy Commerce"? Is it another friendly-fire theory? Is the Internet nourishing and promoting anti-Clinton conspiracies? Is there a right-wing plot to spread baseless rumor and innuendo around the online world?

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C onsider this example, cited in the "Conspiracy Commerce" report: the right-wing charge that Vince Foster's "suicide note" was forged. This little drama began on Oct. 25, 1995, when three handwriting experts held a news conference to announce that the note was a forgery. The experts were paid by James Dale Davidson, a full-time investment-newsletter publisher and part-time Clinton-hater.

Even before the news conference started, the Usenet discussion group devoted to Whitewater (alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater) was buzzing about it. The Usenet group examines every rumor of Clinton scandal--both the possible and the absurd. More than 100,000 messages have been posted to the group during the last two years, all of which can be viewed at this archive, maintained by some diligent soul at Dartmouth College.

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T he news conference made great copy for the right-fringe media. On the afternoon of Oct. 25, Christopher Ruddy filed a story about it, "Experts: Foster Note Fake," in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Richard Mellon Scaife, who owns the Tribune-Review and a fortune of $800 million, is dubbed the "Wizard of Oz behind the Foster conspiracy industry" in the White House report. Scaife certainly does seem obsessed. Although the Tribune-Review is a small suburban daily (lots of zoning and high-school sports), Scaife employs Ruddy as a full-time Vince Foster reporter. The Tribune-Review posted the forgery story in its online archive of Ruddy's work.

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The London Telegraph also promoted the forgery theory, with a story headlined, "Vince Foster Suicide Note Forged, Say Experts." The Telegraph is the only newspaper that matches Ruddy's Foster-mania. Its principal scandal reporter, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, has published lots of stories on the suicide. All of them are stored on the Telegraph's snazzy Web site.

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T he forgery story churned its way into the Washington Times on Oct. 26. A few days later, the Times printed an op-ed criticizing the liberal media for ignoring the Davidson news conference. (Although AP and Reuters filed small stories about the news conference, only a few newspapers--none of them big, mainstream dailies--carried the dispatches.) The online Times offers a daily "Whitewater, Etc." update, as well as flashbacks to Whitewater coverage from a year and two years ago. It also maintains a link to the Telegraph in its "media links" section.

The forgery story spread from the Times, Tribune-Review, and Telegraph to the rest of the Whitewater Web. Soon, the Western Journalism Center republished Ruddy's story in its newsletter, Dispatches ("Experts say Foster 'suicide' note forged"). The WJC, which is also funded by Scaife, sponsors investigative reporting for right-wing causes. (You may recognize the name from the full-page ads the WJC buys in the Washington Post and New York Times to reprint Ruddy's articles.) The WJC placed the Ruddy story on its "Foster Scoops" page. The "scoops" are mostly recycled articles by Ruddy and Evans-Pritchard. The WJC site also sells Ruddy's book, The Foster Investigation, and a video, The Death of Vince Foster: What Really Happened? (Incidentally, the WJC page, which links to the Washington Times site, boasts some of the most intrusive music of any site on the Web.)

The right-wing press critics at Accuracy in Media hyped the forgery theory as well, wondering why big media skipped the story ("Experts Say Foster's Suicide Note Was a Forgery"). The site also maintains an online archive packed with Whitewater columns. The Washington Weekly, a Web magazine devoted to right-wing politics, also promoted the forgery claim. The Weekly had first suggested that the note was a fabrication in September 1994, a year before the press conference. The Weekly's articles are now stored in its "Whitewater Scandal Page," but you must subscribe to view them.

The forgery controversy eventually reached the Web's noncommercial fringes. Almost every story about the forgery resides on Nick's Whitewater Archives, an encyclopedic compendium of Whitewater dirt, Foster-murder intrigue, Travelgate accusations, Mena airstrip revelations, and the INSLAW case. The site republishes articles from the Times, Accuracy in Media, the Tribune-Review, the Washington Weekly, the Telegraph, and other publications. Another Web site alleges that the Foster suicide note was forged, and includes a picture of the note plus links to the full text of the handwriting analysts' study. Yet another offers a comprehensive index of Whitewater links.

J. Orlin Grabbe, the most prolific conspiracist on the Web, has written a 51-part (and counting) Foster exposé. (Grabbe's conspiracy-theory net is so wide that it encompasses Clinton's alleged cocaine habit, the "bombing" of Ron Brown's plane, Foster's espionage history, the machinations of Bert Lance, and the bribery of Mike Wallace.) Another site presents a massive compilation of Clinton scandals--from Flight 800 to the "Whitewater Body Count." An even stranger page explores the Grand Unified Mena airport/drug-dealing/arms-dealing/Clinton/murder theory.

There may be a Web conspiracy against Clinton, but it isn't very organized or very efficient. In the case of the forged-note story, the allegation originated with Scaife's Tribune-Review and the Telegraph. From there, it progressed to the conservative Washington Times and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Only then did it find a home on the Internet, where it festers to this day. But this Rivulet of Conspiracy has never merged into the mainstream of the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times. All of which proves that the adminstration is almost as paranoid as the Whitewater Webheads.