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 Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

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.

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.

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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