ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 8-18-16):
ANCHOR: If it’s Thursday, old conspiracy theories gain new steam.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 3-4-17):
JAKE TAPPER: President Trump tweeting another conspiracy theory…
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 3-4-17):
DANA BASH: Baseless allegation that former President Obama wiretapped him during a 2016 campaign.
NARRATION: Once in the margins of politics, today, conspiracy theories are headline news.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 8-18-16):
ANCHOR: Clinton has Parkinson’s Disease, Clinton has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 3-12-17):
RACHEL MADDOW: If the Russians are attacking our election in order to elect Trump, they’re not going to do that for free.
DAN RATHER: A conspiracy theory can spread faster than it ever could before, because it goes like a flash on social media.
ALEX JONES: With 9/11, the whole thing is a black hole of lies.
NARRATION: Some conspiracy theories have become part of our national psyche.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-22-76):
ANCHOR: More and more Americans, according to the polls, have become convinced they haven’t been told the whole truth about the Kennedy assassination.
ALEXANDRA ZAPRUDER: There’s nothing quite like the Kennedy assassination, I think, in the realm of conspiracy theory.
NARRATION: What can this seminal moment in American history tell us about the grip of the new breed of conspiracy theories we’re seeing today?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-22-63):
WALTER CRONKITE: From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2:00 Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.
MAN: I think this has to be a planned conspiracy…
MAN: It could have been communists, I think, probably something like that.
DAN RATHER (COVERED THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION FOR CBS NEWS): The conspiracy theories they actually began exploding almost from the moment it was officially announced that the president was dead. All kinds of rumors were spreading that the Soviets might have done it, the Cubans might have done it.
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH): It was the anti-Castro Cubans. It was the FBI, it was the Mafia. Bobby Kennedy will ask the head of the CIA, “Did you kill my brother?” In other words, a coup d’etat as opposed to a lone gunman.
NARRATION: Almost every aspect of the assassination was under dispute.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, INQUIRY: THE WARREN REPORT, 1967):
REPORTER: How many shots did you hear?
MAN: I heard three.
MAN: There were definitely four shots.
NARRATION: From where the gunshots came from to the number of shooters involved.
ARCHIVAL (BEYOND JFK: A QUESTION OF CONSPIRACY, 1992):
JEAN HILL: And that’s where I saw the shots come from. I definitely saw the man shooting from the knoll.
MAN: It was on the 6th floor….
ARCHIVAL (FIRING LINE, 12-01-66):
MARK LANE: My book shows quite conclusively that shots came from at least two directions.
JEFFERSON MORLEY (EDITOR, JFK FACTS): The JFK conspiracy theories arose out of a spectacular crime that occurred under very suspicious circumstances.
NARRATION: Jefferson Morley has been studying the Kennedy assassination for 30 years. He says the questions mounted when the main suspect, Lee Harvey Oswald, was killed in custody.
He has been shot! Oswald has been shot! Lee Oswald…
NARRATION: And the concerns escalated when the government released the findings of its official investigation.
ARCHIVAL (NEWSREEL, 9-24-64):
NEWSREEL: Today, the Warren report attempts to unravel the dark twists into which the national tragedy was thrown.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: So The Warren Commission investigated and then they put out this report and not a particularly convincing account of the crime.
WOMAN: They’ve sealed away some of the evidence and I think that’s rather disturbing to most people.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Why did Oswald do this?
LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: The Warren Commission never came up with a motive. Why would he do it? People said, no the government’s explanation doesn’t make sense and they began to look for other ways to explain it and so they came up with conspiracy theories.
NARRATION: For many, the proof of conspiracy was confirmed when they saw an amateur home movie taken by a Dallas businessman.
ARCHIVE (CBS SPECIAL, 1967):
WALTER CRONKITE: The most dramatic and most important single piece of evidence of the assassination was provided by Mr. Abraham Zapruder on one roll of 8 mm color film, Mr. Zapruder had the astonishing luck to capture the entire assassination.
ALEXANDRA ZAPRUDER (GRANDDAUGHTER OF ABRAHAM ZAPRUDER): When people saw the film – and anyone who sees the film I think can agree, that when you first see it, it looks like the president must have been shot in the front of the head because his head is thrown violently backwards. The Warren Commission said the president was hit in the rear of the head. That basic conflict led people to assume that there was a second shooter, evidence of a conspiracy that has been covered up by the government. And that really is the main gist of an argument that has now been going on for more than 50 years.
NARRATION: The film was studied frame-by-frame, used as a critical piece of evidence for those challenging the official line that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
ARCHIVAL (GERALDO, 1988):
GUEST: This man with an open umbrella…
ARCHIVAL (BEYOND JFK: A QUESTION OF CONSPIRACY, 1992):
NEWS REPORT: 1.6 seconds after President Kennedy.
ARCHIVAL (GERALDO, 1988):
GUEST: It turns, it comes back about 18 inches.
NARRATION: As the conspiracy theories began to take hold, the CIA issued a memo expressing concern, saying, “innuendo of such seriousness affects…The whole reputation of the American government.”
JEFFERSON MORLEY: A memo lays out the strategy for the CIA to marginalize and discredit critics of The Warren Commission and he explains how you should do it. Secretly, you should cultivate your contacts in the newspapers, you should make “X”, “Y”, and “Z” arguments about why conspiracy is ridiculous.
NARRATION: But the public wasn’t buying it – and by the mid 1970’s the lasting narrative had been set.
ARCHIVAL (AMERICAN ASSASSINS, 1975):
DAN RATHER: The CBS News nationwide poll last month indicated that in President Kennedy’s case, 68% believe that Oswald was involved with others in the crime. I remind you that the official version is, Oswald alone was solely responsible. Only 15 % believe that.
DAN RATHER: As the years have gone by, I’ve come to understand that people ache for an explanation of the unexplainable. They ache for an explanation that’s broader, more darker if you will than what the facts dictate the story actually is.
NARRATION: And throughout history, conspiracy thinking has been part of the American fabric.
JOSEPH USCINSKI (ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI): You can go back a couple hundred years and then you will see, “Oh, we’re afraid of the Red Coats.” And in the 1990s they’re afraid of the black helicopters. There’s always someone coming for us.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, THE VIEW 7-20-09):
WHOOPIE GOLDBERG: You know I love great conspiracy theories and these are better than a lot of them. Because they say why is the flag rippling? There is no air.
BARBARA WALTERS: Because they touched it.
JOSEPH USCINSKI: We have been conditioned to believe conspiracy theories. Hollywood movies, television shows, but also the federal government. The federal government kept millions of documents secret. Whether it’s looking at Vietnam looking at the last Iraqi war, Watergate and you say to yourself, the federal government is not telling us everything.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2013):
JESSE VENTURA: Our government, every year, declares 16 million things top secret, 16 million. I would say that’s about everything.
NARRATION: But at the same time, exploding sources of information have left the public confused about the line between fact and fiction.
DAN RATHER: At the time of the Kennedy assassination—there were a few places in the country which overwhelmingly, people in the country trusted as honest brokers of information.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: There’s no authority anymore. Nobody’s going to take “CBS” or “The New York Times” word for it. You don’t have a common reality and so people can generate their own facts. This is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
ALEX JONES: Pizzagate is real, the question is how real is it. What is it? Something’s going on. Something’s being covered up. It needs to be investigated…
NARRATION: Toward the end of 2016, conspiracy theorists honed in on leaked Clinton campaign emails that referred to a Washington, DC pizza joint.
JAMES ALEFANTIS (OWNER, COMET PING PONG): I got a call from a reporter with the “Washington City Paper,” asking if I had heard about this kind of bubbling conspiracy theory that was on chat rooms.
NARRATION: The online chatter focused on words in the emails, like pizza and cheese, and claimed they were actually code for a child sex ring run by top-ranking Democrats… and headquartered at James Alefantis’s restaurant.
JAMES ALEFANTIS: There was like hundreds of lines of chat about a human trafficking scheme involving Hillary Clinton that focused around Comet Pizza.
ALEX JONES: You’ve got to see their menus.
INFOWAR REPORT: Notice the symbol of the ping pong paddles and it’s clever resemblance to the FBI document’s symbol for child love.
JAMES ALEFANTIS: It’s a bubbling noise. But then once this bubbling noise becomes broadcast on a megaphone to millions and millions of viewers, it really becomes a dangerous situation.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 12-5-16):
ANCHOR: An alarming and bizarre incident in the nation’s capital after a man opened fire at a popular pizzeria.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 12-6-16):
NEWS REPORT: Court documents say Welch read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves.
JAMES ALEFANTIS: It was completely surreal, I’m so thankful that no one was hurt.
ALEXANDRA ZAPRUDER: The story of comet pizza can only be described as an outlandish theory. There are no facts. There is absolutely no evidence. There’s no photographic evidence. There’s no written evidence. There’s no evidence. And yet it won’t go away.
WOMAN (AT PIZZAGATE RALLY): I do not stand behind James Alefantis and Comet Ping Pong.
NARRATION: Months after the theory was debunked by authorities, protests drew people from all over the country who believe the government is involved in the trafficking of children.
KRISTEN (AT PIZZAGATE RALLY): To think we could stumble upon a ring like that in Washington, DC is very plausible.
ALEX JONES: We apologize…
NARRATION: Not even an apology by Alex Jones, the so-called “king of conspiracy,” has changed the minds of true believers.
JOSEPH USCINSKI: It’s very difficult to dissuade people from their cherished beliefs. And they’ll just pick out the pieces of evidence that seem to support it, but then forget everything else that would not support it.
DAWN (AT PIZZAGATE RALLY): Sorry, there’s too many coincidences.
NARRATION: One reason conspiracy theories catch on, according to historians, is that something larger is at play.
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG: Americans do not trust their leaders. I think that Americans do not trust the basic institutions that govern us, whether they’re corporations, universities, the judiciary.
NARRATION: And that trust has been eroding for decades.
In 1964, when The Warren Report was released, 77 percent of Americans said they trusted the government to do what’s right.
Today, that number has plummeted to under 12 percent.
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG: If you don’t believe that these authorities have your best interest at heart, if you can’t believe that these authorities are telling you the truth, you’re still searching for answers.
MIKE CERNOVICH: Syrian gas attack, which is a hoax.
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG: And what you then turn to is these counter-authorities
JAMES FETZER: Children did not die, teachers did not die.
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG: These conspiracy theorists who say, “I’ve got the answers.”
NARRATOR: And with politics becoming increasingly polarized…
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 4-11-17):
TUCKER CARLSON: Do you have any evidence for that?
NARRATION: …Peddling in conspiracy has become the new normal.
DAN RATHER: We’ve moved fairly quickly, fairly deeply into a post truth, post-fact era – that is an era where any number of people, including some of them in the highest reaches of our own government can say “Well, facts are fungible.”
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 1-22-17):
KELLY ANNE CONWAY: …gave alternative facts to that.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: The challenge for the truth is, you know, even greater than it ever has been.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 2-5-17):
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: A lot of people have come out and said I am correct…
BILL O’REILLY: Yeah, but the data has to show that three million illegals voted.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Forget that, forget all of that…
ROBERT A. GOLDBERG: This president who has become an opinion-maker supreme to at least 40% of the American people is shaping a vision that I think is going to take us decades to remove and if his style continues as such, we are going to have a great deal of difficulty rooting conspiracy thinking out of the American mainstream.