When Paranoids Get Lazy

There was a time when conspiracy theorists looked for discrepancies in the record before they started speculating in public about who killed whom. No matter how firmly you may believe the official accounts of the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Vince Foster, and Ron Brown, you have to give the conspiracy crowd credit: They based their theories on head wounds and bullet angles and comparably concrete stuff. If you wanted to dispute their data, there at least were data to dispute.

Not so with Paul Wellstone, the Minnesota senator who died in a plane crash last Friday. Less than two hours after his death was announced, one of the crankier members of an e-mail list I'm on—and I mean "cranky" in both senses of the word—opined that it "Looks like a Bush Junta hit to me." I'd like to report that he followed that statement with an argument for his thesis; in fact, I've just quoted the full text of his message.

Idle speculation in an e-mail is one thing. But it wasn't long before the same suspicions were being beefed up into full-fledged but no less flimsy articles. On October 28 Dr. Michael I. Niman, a professor of journalism at Buffalo State College, published a legwork-free article on AlterNet called "Was Paul Wellstone Murdered?" A day later Ted Rall, a sometimes good cartoonist and generally wretched commentator, devoted his syndicated column to "The (Possible) Assassination of Paul Wellstone." The chief difference between the pieces is that Niman never actually bothered to present any evidence for the murder hypothesis, while Rall brings up one datum of dubious relevance: Wellstone's plane, he notes, carried neither a flight data recorder nor a cockpit voice recorder. "Were the black boxes lost or were they never aboard?" he asks. "Someone may know, but thus far no one's saying."

Actually, we do know: The devices were never aboard. And no, that isn't suspicious: Rall claims that the aircraft "was required to be equipped with both," but in fact, the plane was exempt from that rule.

So what do these writers offer in lieu of evidence? Mostly speculation as to motive and opportunity, along with a run-down of earlier plane crashes and some ass-covering assurances that they're only saying Wellstone might have been murdered. Niman concludes that "For our government to maintain its credibility at this time, we need an open and accountable independent investigation involving international participation into the death of Paul Wellstone," and Rall declares that "the fact that we're having this discussion at all is a symptom of the polarizing effect that Bush and his top dogs have had on the United States since assuming office." Well, it's certainly a symptom of something.

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