How I Became the Subject of a Conspiracy Theory

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.

He said he'd reject the Collier piece.

Had everyone else done two minutes of due diligence, it would've ended there. Instead, Sarah Palin fans, who complain constantly about journalists passing on unsubstantiated rumors, proceeded to Tweet, ReTweet, and approvingly link the conspiracy theory. Incredibly, Mediaite also treated it seriously. Having earlier linked to my item, staffer Josh Feldman updated as follows:

Mediaite post2.png

Perhaps I am biased. I understand that Feldman was just trying to do his job, and I bear no ill will toward him. But is there no threshold of plausibility that an allegation must pass to be uncritically publicized? Is it even possible that a manager at a multi-billion dollar theater chain agreed to reserve a screen on the night that Harry Potter opened for a secret showing of a movie? So that a magazine journalist could get in what wasn't even actually a dig at Sarah Palin? Is the allegation perhaps iffy enough to warrant contacting me before airing it? Or, say, calling the theater? Or checking the newspaper of record in the area, which would have confirmed that the movie was listed? But hey. Everybody makes what, to me, was a mistake. As soon as I e-mailed Colby Hall, one of the site's editor, he updated the piece with the pertinent information.

Truly, no hard feelings.

Less professionalism has been shown by Breitbart. The man constantly rails at the mainstream media. He is self-righteous. Indignant. In his telling, journalists are bad people. They publish frivolous innuendo and ad hominem attacks. Due to these smears, they're undeserving of their sizable platforms, or the respect of the American people. Here is what Breitbart tweeted to his 51,765 Twitter followers:

andrew beitbart tweets 99.png


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So in three Tweets, we've got a juvenile made up name, an erroneous statement of the screening that I saw -- it was at 12:01 am, not 12:45 am -- plus the false implication that the films were unadvertised, requiring some special knowledge to know about them, and the false notion that I committed an unnamed firing offense. Needless to say, Breitbart didn't contact me prior to publishing that. Nor has he corrected any of his numerous errors. But he's a crusader for truth.

Said Collier in his e-mail to me, "Rumor has it that Breitbart will also be looking into your journalistic practices." Thankfully, I haven't given any speeches to the NAACP, so he can't publish misleading excerpts. I just hope like hell that he doesn't send James O'Keefe to seduce me.

There were attacks aplenty besides. On the personal blog of Dan Riehl, a contributor to Breitbart's sites, I came across this lovely headline: "Conor 'Pee Wee Herman' Friedersdorf Exposes Himself To Female At Palin Film Showing." I'm sure Breitbart will censure him any minute now. And Saturday at Breitbart's site, Big Hollywood, writer Larry O'Connor speculated that I lecherously approached the two young female moviegoers who I quoted in my original story. But Breitbart hates media workers who traffic in cheap smears, character assassination and innuendo.

The hate didn't end with them.

Said one guy on Twitter: "I hear that CONOR FRIEDERSDORF is dickless." There were hostile e-mail messages too -- perhaps if they keep coming in, I'll qualify to be the subject of a Matthew Continetti book titled "The Persecution of Conor Friedersdorf." I jest, but not without a point: the hordes that go after Sarah Palin critics online aren't representative of all her fans, but they do refute the notion that the former Alaska governor is alone in being subjected to objectionable attacks, or that conservatives and "real Americans" would never behave in that depraved way. Lots of Palin fans don't seem particularly bothered by conspiracy theory, character assassination, or ad hominem attacks when they're undertaken by ideological allies against other people.

If I might address Sarah Palin fans directly: early in "The Undefeated," there is a montage of celebrities saying vile things about the former Alaska governor. The celebs come off as mean-spirited jerks. And rightly so. But are your favorite conservative celebrities so different? Scroll through a week of Andrew Breitbart's Twitter feed (though not if any kids are around). Read this Mark Levin exchange. Watch Rush Limbaugh mock how Chinese people speak. Do you see that they're the right-wing analogues of the celebrities you justifiably criticize? That you give them a pass for the most offensive comments merely because they're on your side -- and that if they were liberals, and behaved in the same way, you'd condemn them in the strongest terms?

Says Breitbart, ever classy:

breitbart fecal.png

What opinion would you have, Palin fans, of a media figure who said that it is proper to use the term "fecal" to describe her? Why do you not feel the same way about Breitbart? Could it be that like "the lamestream media" you criticize, a glaring double-standard cripples your judgment?

The scatological insult isn't even the worst thing about that Tweet. I'd like to address the lie, frequently uttered by Breitbart and repeated endlessly by others, that I misrepresent my ideology. Speaking directly to those of you who've found me through him: On many occasions, I've written openly and at length about my ideological beliefs and biases. I did so in my first post after becoming an associate editor at The Atlantic. And I very publicly described myself as "of no party or clique" and moving toward "pragmatic libertarianism" on Andrew Sullivan's blog. I have even complained when other writers referred to me as a conservative in an attempt to use that characterization as a cudgel against the right. So what's going on? The Breitbarts of the world require, as an intellectual crutch, labeling those who disagree with them. Unable to win arguments on the merits, they must separate the world into Team Red and Team Blue. The biggest threat to their intellectual scam? People who disagree with them, but can't be dismissed as ideologically hostile.

Thus the outsized disdain the hard right has for folks like David Frum, David Brooks, Bruce Bartlett, and other "RINO heretics." Thus the habit of referring to me as "a leftist." And insisting that everyone must be labeled.

However labeled, I'd eagerly replace Barack Obama with Gary Johnson in hopes of ending unnecessary foreign wars, means testing Social Security and Medicare, ending the drug war, ceasing plans to assassinate Americans sans due process, stopping warrantless surveillance, increased localism, cutting back on the excesses of public employee unions, reforming the criminal justice system, simplifying the tax code, legalizing gay marriage, and aiming appropriate disdain at conservative talk radio hosts and their analogues in Hollywood. Of course, Johnson won't win the GOP nomination, so I'm an undecided voter who may write in "none of the above" in 2012.

I would've elevated Mitch Daniels. Even Romney's got a shot at my vote. But Palin?

Not a chance.

If that makes me a "fake conservative," or a "leftist," or an "Alinskyite," or whatever the slur of the day is, note that there are a lot of us Palin skeptics out here. We aren't all antagonistic to Palin fans. Speaking for myself, I think you're mostly good people, and just as you disagree with my judgment in candidates, I disagree with yours. And then folks in conservative media tell lies about me in order to make you think that I and others are conspiring against you. They're manipulating you.

This isn't a post or a controversy about whether Sarah Palin should be president. It's about journalism, paranoid conspiracy theories, the culture war, and the treatment other people are owed in public discourse. Why do I resent like hell being attacked by Collier, Breitbart and certain Palin fans? Because conspiracy theorists, profane bullies who've published egregiously misleading material on prior occasions, and Internet trolls who call me dirty names on Twitter haven't earned the right to engage in self-righteous media criticism and be taken seriously. Especially when the criticism itself is riddled with inaccuracies.

I close with a thought experiment.

The year is 2012. Al Gore and Michael Moore release a big budget polemic/documentary together. The subject doesn't matter. Theaters are permitted to start showing it on a Friday, and eager to get a jump on things, a movie house in Berkeley screens it at 12:01 am. Three conservative journalists attend together: Bill O'Reilly for Fox News, James O'Keefe for the Breitbart sites, and a third for Human Events. Upon arriving, however, they find they're the only ones there. In Berkeley, California, no one showed up to the debut! Here's the question, critics of mine: Do you think that would be a story? Would they cover it? Would they refrain from making larger speculative assertions about what it meant for the success of the film, as I refrained from doing in my Palin piece?


Image credit: Reuters

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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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