Conspiracy Theories

A number of years ago, when I was an editor on the national desk of The Washington Post, I had the privilege of spending a month as the journalist-in-residence at Duke University’s public policy institute. I remember an occasion when a professor asked me to sit in on his seminar, and respond to students’ questions, many of which were related to how The Post had covered–or not covered–important stories of that time. I remember fielding a question from a student who argued that our failure to cover a particular story adequately obviously revealed the existence of a conspiracy (whether it was a liberal media conspiracy or a fascist media conspiracy, I can no longer remember.) But I remember laughing and saying something to the effect of, “No, actually, we just screwed up.”

Two weeks ago I delivered a speech about my book that was recorded by a professional video crew at a venue where they had filmed before. If all went well, the speech was to be broadcast on a national cable channel. Last weekend, the speech was slotted on the network’s schedule on its Website. Two days later, when I prepared to share this happy news with family and friends around the country, I double-checked the listing. It had disappeared. Further inquiry brought back the word that when checked, the video turned out to be unusable.

Now, looking at the list of authors whose videos weren’t messed up, it would be easy to develop a conspiracy theory to explain this episode. I could allow myself to imagine that an over-zealous producer with a particular point of view didn’t like my message, and pulled the plug. Or that a recently divorced audio technician just decided to flip a switch in the wrong direction because on that particular night he was mad at all women. But that presumes that someone thinks I’m important enough that the plug is worth pulling.

No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think somebody screwed up. Simple as that.

But it’s easy to fall back on conspiracy theories when we are mad or frustrated or can’t understand why the world isn’t turning out the way we want it to. At her most cynical moments, Elly Peterson believed that conservative operatives in President Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign deliberately tried to throw his race because they really wanted Ronald Reagan to be elected president four years later. She saw conspiracies where the reality was more likely simply campaign chaos and incompetence. And considering that Ford came back from a 33-percentage-point deficit before the Republican National Convention to lose one of the tightest races of the 20th century, I’d argue that the “conspirators”  failed pretty miserably.

So I’m prepared to accept that my lost video was a screw-up. And I hope I will get another chance to record a speech.

But if it happens a second time. . . .

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