'Conspiracy Theories'

"Failing to contain the disasterous situation in Iraq, is the U.S. plotting to bring Ba'athists back to power? Asks a headline among the stories Al Jazeera has posted on its 'Conspiracy Theories' page. Other stories include claims that the U.S. was behind the assasination of Rafik El Hariri and that the new U.S. $20 bill contains hidden pictures of 9/11.

Looking through the list of 259 'conspiracy theories,' I sensed a general need to blow off steam. The world is frustrating, espeically for people who aren't members of the dominant classes. I also thought about how people living in certain places had the right to be a little paranoid: C.I.A. plots are responsible for regime changes in Iran and Iraq in the 50s and 60s, and a botched C.I.A. operation blew open in Syria in the 80s. Even if America is home, it's getting harder and harder to shrug off signs that the Bush Administration routinely lies to the public. As collective trust plummets, conspiracy theories have a chance to take hold.

Then I found some stories that actually made it to the mainstream meida. The first was about Pat Tillman, the former NFL player turned soldier who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Al Jazeera's version takes the reporting from a Washington Post story from late spring of 2005 and adds its own bite. The story about the coverup of the causes of Tillman's death is contextualized by complaints about a Newsweek story that apparently misreported abuses at Guantanamo Bay. Another conspiracy theory that wasn't so far out was "U.S. military plants stories in Iraqi media." Yep, that happened.

While some of the conspiracy theories didn't seem so far out in principle--others were outrageously imaginative--they were written with more emotion and less professionalism (if those things are opposite) than normal Al Jazeera stories.

It's puzzling to find this category on Al Jazeera's Web site. Is it there to attract readers, to provide a place for frustrated consumers and reporters to commiserate? Or is it a sardonic attempt to demonstrate how easily the public information sphere can be manipulated? It is both maddening and refreshing, but beside swirl of absurdity that is sinking deeper into regular news, it doesn't seem entirely unwelcome.

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