Super Fun Conspiracy Fun!; or, a media drunk on its own story.

August 7, 2008, 2:49 pm

I have a theory that the media is not in the tank for either candidate, but that they do not want to report the news as much as they want to write the script of The News. I will eventually flesh out this theory, but for now, I submit the following story as evidence.

So as the anthrax story winds up, we receive a portrait of the scientist as a deranged man. Bruce Ivins apparently confided in e-mails to a co-worker fears that he was losing his grip, feeling paranoid, and struggling to put up a ‘good front’ so as to contain the ‘pestilence’ of paranoid delusions in his head. He took to writing nursery rhymes about his condition:

I’m a little dream-self, short and stout.
I’m the other half of Bruce — when he lets me out.
When I get all steamed up, I don’t pout.
I push Bruce aside, then I’m free to run about!

The portrait painted is of a paranoid man on the edge, anxious about the fate of his anthrax research, when fate hands him the perfect moment to ensure that his research will remain relevant and funded.

If you want serious questions asked about this case, go where everyone else has gone and read Glenn Greenwald. If you want to have fun with a little irresponsible speculation, keep reading.

What’s striking about this case is how fast story of the mad scientist who took his own life is congealing. It’s neat and tidy: guilty man kills himself, FBI presents proof he was crazy, a nation is comforted by the solving of what was a terrifying crime.

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Ivins could have been known to be paranoid and unbalanced by his colleagues without them getting worked up over it; John Nash taught for years, claiming he was due to be tapped to be the emperor of Antarctica without anyone thinking that he was anything more than eccentric.

But, Ivins wasn’t the FBI’s first target, and even if what’s presented is the truth, the whole enterprise feels like the end of Arlington Road. Truth is secondary to a good yarn about the Mad Scientist. (All this thing needs is a couple of maniacal laughs and a few new songs and we’ve got the next episode of Dr. Horrible.)

But Ivins said some crazy things, right? What’s interesting to me is that the brief excerpts we get are completely devoid of context:

“Paranoid man works with deadly anthrax!!!” he wrote in one e-mail message in July 2000, predicting what a National Enquirer headline might read if he agreed to participate in a study on his work.

Pretty damning stuff. But let’s play pretend:

from: Bruce Ivins
to: Kindly Colleague
subject: re: study?

Haha, are you kidding me? After this latest round of insane administrative battling over funding, the only headline that’s going to come out of that is “Paranoid man works with anthrax!!!!” I’ll be next to the little green men in the Enquirer or Batboy or whatever.

Save me a slice, though.


hey, bruce, are you going to participate in that study? they said there’d be pizza. -kc

If that were the full exchange, we’d have a very different sense of whether Ivins was an accident waiting to happen. (I encourage you to create your own versions for the rest of the quotes in the article in comments. It’s not hard. Want more fun? Try making your own crazy narrative about yourself, using e-mail quotes frmo your own archives.) Many of the excerpts in the article aren’t even his writing, but bits of other people’s e-mails, including one that speculates about Ivins’ mental state, relevant for no reason except that it was sent in mid-October 2001.

There’s no reason to doubt the man was ill*, but the portrait that’s emerging is one where whatever narrative there was tying his thoughts and e-mails together has been wholly replaced by a new narrative, one that warps every shred of information around until it focuses solely on ‘mad anthrax scientist.’

What’s disturbing is how anxious the media seems to be to have a neat ending to this, and to have the neat ending fit into a neat little narrative box, where no one asks too many hard questions.

It’s not that it couldn’t be true. But if it isn’t, would we know? The media’s probably taking auditions for their next new play, McCain the Maverick.

*cue whistly X-Files music.

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