Apr 1 1997

A Conspiracy of Dunces

Right-Wing Distortion Goes Mainstream

It was a shocking story: The White House, driven to paranoia by unfriendly press coverage, was claiming to be the victim of a “conspiracy,” a “cabal of right-wing extremists” bent on Bill and Hillary’s destruction. It was straight out of The Caine Mutiny; one half-expected Mike McCurry to issue a statement accusing Bill Kristol of eating Air Force One’s strawberries.

The only problem with the story was that it wasn’t true. The White House hadn’t accused anyone of being part of a conspiracy. In fact, the stories about White House paranoia were a perfect illustration of what the White House was actually complaining about.

The roots of this non-story go back to the dark days (for Clintonites) of 1995. Someone in the White House counsel’s office, presumably trying to cheer up the boss, put together a long memo that basically said the mainstream press picks up a lot of stories from dubious conservative sources. Oftentimes, the memo said, these stories are funded by right-wing foundations with an animus toward Clinton, get passed from right-wing outlet to right-wing outlet, and eventually acquire enough visibility that establishment papers like the New York Times or Washington Post feel the need to run them.

The White House supposedly distributed some 150 copies of this document to various press folks. No one now seems to recall getting it, probably because its thesis is so unexceptional. After all, anyone who hasn’t noticed that a lot of anti-Clinton stories go from the right-wing media into the mainstream press hasn’t been paying attention.

The most memorable thing about the White House memo is its peculiar title: “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce.” While the bad writing of the White House staffer is indefensible, it’s clear that in this context “conspiracy” is not a noun: It’s an adjective modifying a phrase that modifies “stream.” The memo’s title refers to a flow of information which traffics in conspiracy theories.

Fast-forward more than a year. The Wall Street Journal editorial page (1/6/97)—one of the outlets named by the White House as a source of unfounded stories—published a long piece complaining about the White House’s harsh attitude toward journalistic critics. In the lead, the article cited the White House memo, accurately summarizing it as accusing publications like the Journal and the Washington Times of being part of a “media food chain” that spreads “conspiracy theories and innuendo.” The Journal did not buy this argument, but did not accuse the White House of believing that these outlets themselves comprise a “conspiracy.”

That was left to the Washington Times (1/9/97), which picked up the Journal’s report and ran wild with it. In the Times’ version, the White House was no longer complaining about conspiracy theorists—it was complaining about a conspiracy. “It’s a conspiracy not only of shadowy domestic players, but of shadowy foreign players as well,” the paper reported on January 9, attributing this paranoid vision to the White House.

Now that was news. Suddenly, the 18-month-old memo was being written up everywhere. The next day’s Washington Post bore a front-page headline: “White House Asserts a Scandal Theory: Memo Concludes Negative Stories Arise from Right-Wing Conspiracy.” (The story went on to refer to the White House’s belief in “a cabal of right-wing extremists”—“cabal” being the Post’s word, not the memo’s.) USA Today referred in its January 10 story to “a 1995 report outlining what the Clinton administration sees as a conspiracy by some right-wing groups to manipulate the news and try to defame the president.”

Many of the mainstream reporters who responded to the memo focused on the supposed use of the word “conspiracy” as proof that the White House had gone around the bend. “A conspiracy suggests a bunch of people meeting in a dark room, and that’s nonsense,” Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was quoted in the Washington Times (1/10/97)—before adding, in agreement with the memo’s actual thesis, that “some conservative publications have gleefully seized on the opportunity to repeat anti-Clinton material after it has appeared on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Similarly, Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie was reported in USA Today (1/10/97) as saying that “conservative publications may publish stories that are later reported by other media. But in describing a conspiracy the White House is ‘seeing too much order.’”

These Washington Post journalists are taking issue not with what the White House said, but with a conservative distortion of what it said—a distortion which their paper picked up and put on its front-page. “I accept your point,” Washington Post reporter John F. Harris told FAIR when we pointed out that the misreading of the memo’s title. “It doesn’t claim a right-wing conspiracy. We shouldn’t have used the word ‘cabal.’”

Off-hand, it’s hard to think of a better demonstration of the “Communications Stream of Conspiracy Commerce” in action. “If we’ve been duped by some right-wing conspiracy, then it’s been so effective we still are being duped,” the New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal told the Washington Times (1/10/97). Maybe he’s right after all.

A longer version of this article appeared as a counterpoint in the conservative magazine Insight. Insight 1997. Used by permission.