There’s a bizarre fallacy being pushed by the right-of-center commentariat and MAGA politicians, which is that the mainstream media, government, and other gatekeepers are innately untrustworthy—therefore even the worst purveyors of fact-bereft garbage are “valuable” to the public discourse, because they serve as a necessary check on “the powerful.”
The theory has even been used to laud the liar-for-profit Alex Jones as a brave dissident, a bulwark in the resistance against “the cathedral.” The anti-democracy, neoreactionary writer Curtis Yarvin credits himself for coining the phrase, which he defines as thus: “‘The cathedral’ is just a short way to say ‘journalism plus academia’—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.”
Put simply, adherents believe the cathedral is “the enemy of the people,” and anything the cathedral believes inherently discredits itself.
Case in point, new Twitter boss Elon Musk started his worst week ever by tweeting a link (at Hillary Clinton) from a low-trafficked fake news site that pushed a baseless conspiracy theory about the near-fatal attack on Paul Pelosi—condescendingly adding, “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye.”
To demonstrate his courageous skepticism of “the narrative,” Musk was completely unskeptical of the false information pushed by a fringe website.
Musk isn’t an outlier. Megyn Kelly said she “smelled a rat.” Tucker Carlson said, “We’re not the crazy people; you’re the liars. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions, period.” Former President Trump’s large adult son shared homophobic memes to cast doubt on the “official” story of Paul Pelosi nearly being murdered.
To the self-avowed enemies of “regime media,” it doesn’t matter how disreputable your source, what’s important is virtue-signaling your opposition to “the current thing.” It’s the MAGA/faux-heterodox centrist version of 9/11 Trutherism: If the “institution” tells you the sky is blue, you must assume they’re nefariously concealing something from you about teal and gray.
The anti-“corporate media” vlogger Glenn Greenwald, during a segment on Carlson’s Fox News show about the “glaring holes and doubts” in the Pelosi story, rhetorically asked: “How many millions of people have been conditioned to believe it’s immoral—or even some kind of reflection of mental illness, like you’re a conspiracy theorist—if you don’t immediately and unquestionably accept whatever story is told to you by institutions of authority?”
That’s about as thin as a strawman argument gets. But it’s useful if your only requirement in a discourse ally is the “enemy of my enemy.”
To be very clear, I fully subscribe to the principle that the press should be generally adversarial to institutions of power—both public and private. Journalists should not just take the bosses at their word, they should demand as much transparency as possible and follow the facts wherever they lead—even when it runs in conflict with their own political preferences.
As a journalist who is often disappointed in the way newsrooms have irresponsibly run with “narratives,” drawing sweeping conclusions before conducting basic fact-checking (think Jussie Smollett, Covington Catholic, and the Steele Dossier), I’m also of the mind that not everything published by “legitimate” news outlets should be immediately believed, and never questioned. I most definitely don’t reflexively accept government officials, law enforcement spokespeople, or political pundits as purely unimpeachable sources—nor do I think anyone else should either.
But that doesn’t mean I go looking to Alex Jones for that necessary check on the “cathedral” narrative. Just because the “media” and other institutions have themselves to blame for inviting much of the current levels of skepticism—the solution is not to replace healthy skepticism with unhealthy conspiratorial improv sessions.
And yet, a lot of the “rational skeptics” think that’s exactly what we should do.
Anti-cancel culture commentator Salomé Sibonex defended Jones’ value to the discourse on a podcast shortly after a jury ruled against him for knowingly and continually defaming the parents of Sandy Hook victims. “I like where he aims his ire, for the most part, which is at political elites and institutions…we need that. You need to have people who are rabidly suspicious of power. That’s good. That’s healthy…It’s good to have a thorn in the side of your leaders, even if he goes off the rails and even if he’s wrong most of the time,” Sibonex said.
That’s a pretty sad commentary on how much value the “skeptics” put in the integrity of their sources. It’s as if there isn’t a vast middle ground between “the narrative” and a despicable opportunist like Alex Jones.
And not only are Jones and other reckless misinformation merchants not providing a balance to “the powerful,” their “just asking questions” postures are not taken as such by their audiences. The misinformation merchants are planting their own narratives, which are all but impossible to deprogram.
Take Joe Rogan. He’s insanely rich and popular. His fanbase is legion. He’s been described by admirers as “the Walter Cronkite of our era.” And yet, after Rogan regularly makes an ass of himself by propagating falsehoods, he retreats to the “clown nose on” defense—that he’s just an idiot comic, don’t take him so seriously. And then five minutes later he’s right back at it, postulating as the open-minded beacon of skepticism the people need to resist the tyranny of the “cathedral.”
Back in October, Rogan talked with MAGA’s favorite former Democrat, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, about a school that “had to install a litter box in the girls’ room because there’s a student that’s a furry.”
The story, of course, is complete bullshit. Rogan even recently admitted as much. But it’s already latched onto the brains of its intended audience. It’s even being pushed by a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who has a better-than-zero chance of winning.
Wharton professor Ethan Mollick this week tweeted about the “Illusory Truth Effect,” sharing several studies on the phenomenon which he summarized as: “If you see something repeated enough times, it seems more true. Multiple studies show that it works on 85 percent of people. Worse, it still happens even if the information isn’t plausible & even if you know better.” Apparently, even batshit crazy statements like “George Washington was born in China” can become believable after being repeated just five times.
That’s why it’s dangerous when Arizona’s likely next governor, Kari Lake, goes on Fox News and makes cryptic allusions that she’s going to be surreptitiously murdered by Hillary Clinton—slyly echoing a three-decade-old conspiracy theory that the Clintons have assassinated (and successfully concealed) scores of political opponents and problematic allies.
People believe this shit, just as they believed Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen. And the true believers internalize these deceptions as calls to arms. After Jan. 6, we’d be fools to believe “it can’t happen here.”
That’s why—however much the mainstream media, the government, and other institutions screw up, obfuscate, or straight-up lie—the solution is not “Believe and promote every psychotic conspiracy theory and trust every grifter that’s disapproved of by ‘the cathedral.’”
You can maintain a healthy skepticism of the powerful without debasing yourself to the point of clinging to a “gotta hear both sides” mantra when it comes to pink slime websites or sadistic performance artists like Alex Jones.
To paraphrase the legendary Dril tweet about ISIS/ISIL—when it comes to professional anti-establishment liars, “you do not, under any circumstances, ‘gotta hand it to them.’”