How I Became the Subject of a Conspiracy Theory

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The paranoid style in American politics is alive and well, as I learned after writing about the new Sarah Palin movie

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Before I say something provocative about Sarah Palin, Andrew Breitbart, the mainstream media, and the culture wars, or revisit the short piece I wrote about "The Undefeated," I insist on airing a complaint. In four months as an associate editor at The Atlantic, I've argued the case that President Obama took us to war illegally in Libya, excoriated him for persecuting whistleblowers, insisted that he betrayed a central promise of his candidacy, and strenuously objected to his claim that he is empowered to assassinate American citizens without due process.

I've shown that the DEA callously prevents sick people from getting useful therapy, highlighted work done by the Institute for Justice to advance economic freedom, called out the TSA for its harassment of air travelers, noted that kidney patients are dying needlessly, urged on efforts to rein in excessive public employee pensions in California, called for a repeal of the light-bulb law, highlighted Orwellian threats to privacy, and complained that federal prosecutors misallocate resources.

I've profiled Gary Johnson, formulated 11 questions all presidential candidates should be asked to test their civil liberties bonifides, urged the tea party movement to embrace Mitch Daniels, warned against the inexperience of Michele Bachmann, and even curated nearly 100 fantastic pieces of journalism!

Despite those pieces and many others (267 items over almost four months, to be exact), the highest traffic thing I've written, the most liked and the most hated, the most quoted, linked, commented on, praised, excoriated, and widely controversial, is a lighthearted item about going to "The Undefeated" last Friday to interview Sarah Palin supporters, and finding none of them there.

Why?

One answer is that, despite the protestations among her critics that Palin is a media driven phenomenon, people want to consume Web items about her. It's a revealed preference. At present, 47,000 people have indicated on Facebook that they "like" my piece. Don't get me wrong. I tried my best to salvage what I took to be a failed reporting trip with as solid a 3 a.m. PST write-up as I could manage. I sincerely appreciate that so many folks thought it succeeded. But only a sixth as many people "liked" what I am confident in calling a damn good list of exceptional non-fiction that took many weeks of work to compile, and that affords delightful reading to last months! Is it any wonder that magazines, newspapers, and blogs keep covering Palin?

What bewilders me even more are certain people who didn't like the piece. I don't mean critics like John Nolte at Big Hollywood. He is characteristically unfair to various publications, and to me too. But his core argument, that my piece was irresponsibly used by other media outlets in service of a larger narrative about the movie's failure, is partly true. I reported, quite explicitly, from one theater. It was an interesting, legitimate data point. Obviously, AMC was surprised no one showed, or they wouldn't have scheduled the 12:01 am screening, and people used to line up overnight, even in freezing temperatures, for Palin-related events, so the fact that her middle-aged fans in Orange County wouldn't turn out for a midnight movie certainly wasn't obvious.

At the same time, the Palin movie has done better in subsequent screenings, according to various reports around the Web: at least one sold out screening in Texas, for example, another in Georgia, and a Friday morning screening in Orange County where the theater was reportedly a third full. It is still far too early to gauge how the movie is going to perform overall. The opening weekend receipts were the very low sum of $75,000, though as yet it's only playing in ten cities.

The fact that so many people imagine I am invested in the movie's failure, or that anyone cares deeply about its box office performance other than the filmmakers themselves, is frankly baffling to me. As I said in my piece, I expected to find a crowd when I arrived at the theater. As I drove home that night, I had no idea whether its absence meant that the movie would flop, or meant nothing at all. Various conservative blogs are investing a lot of energy into arguing that the movie is in fact succeeding, and I don't understand that either. It's perfectly useful to report on other showings. But what is ultimately at stake? Say it earns billions. Is that going to shrink the federal government? Or reform entitlements? Or affect the foreign policy America adopts? Why would an ideological movement that insists the country is going down the tubes waste so much time and energy complaining about their perception that a movie is doing better than the MSM says?    

That brings me to the folks I am here to lambast: William Collier, a conspiracy theorist extraordinaire; the people who should know better but took him seriously; Andrew Breitbart, once again showcasing his deeply unethical approach to public life; and the subset of Sarah Palin fans who've joined in writing the most vile things about me in the days since my piece originally ran. I desire to set the record straight for anyone who took their various lies and distortions as truth-telling. And to illustrate a glaring hypocrisy that Palin fans would do well to repudiate.

Bear in mind the righteous critique that the folks mentioned above aim at "the mainstream media": we're quick to spread sensationalized stories; negligent or malicious in publishing inaccurate material that destroys reputations; motivated by point-scoring more than truth; and morally depraved in the insults we hurl at ideological adversaries. There are certainly media outlets which fit that description. This isn't one of them. In any case, they claim to detest these pathologies.

Yet they engage in the very unethical behaviors that they allegedly abhor.

Let's start with inaccurate rumors intended to destroy reputations. That's what Collier has published about me. Identifying himself as someone involved in the marketing of "The Undefeated," he asserted on his blog that a midnight showing in Orange County, where I saw the film, was never scheduled or advertised. "The only way" I could've seen the movie, he speculated, was by arranging a "secret showing" with a cooperative employee inside the AMC chain.

Showing what I thought to be admirable restraint, I e-mailed the man:

Bill, I am going to presume that you've made an innocent mistake, but I expect you to correct it. Attached is an image from the Los Angeles Times dated Thursday, July 14, 2011. The movie was advertised there, just as you'd expect, and contrary to the assertion in your post that "there has never been any mention of or advertising for any midnight showing." The movie was also advertised on Google, where I found it. I Googled "Sarah Palin, The Undefeated" and the first result was movie times at the AMC Theater at The Block. (Unsurprisingly. I am staying in Orange County, very close to there.) So will you now apologize and correct your item?

His response?

The film's listing in the LA Times only proved "how elaborate such a setup could be." Like all conspiracy mongers, he incorporated the new information into his ever-evolving theory, even updating his post. He also sought to place an op-ed in The Daily Caller repeating his bizarre accusation. To their credit, a fact-checking staffer emailed. I sent him a scan of the same movie listing.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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