Jesse Ventura Takes the Soaring Interest in Conspiracy Theory to TV – and Viewers Are Flocking to It


Jesse Ventura has worn many hats over his lifetime. In addition to being a body-slamming professional wrestler and one-term governor of Minnesota, he was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones. In his latest career move, he is a conspiracy theory investigator.

His television show, "Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura" premiered on TruTV in early December delivering the 17-year-old channel’s largest-ever premiere audience – 1.6 million people – and maintaining it during subsequent episodes. It held onto high Nielsen ratings despite being panned by critics because the masses love it. TruTV’s slogan is "Not Reality. Actuality." This is a baffling mantra, but it’s the perfect place for a show like Ventura’s.

"We developed it for our audience," one that is "usually fascinated with inside worlds they don’t normally have access to," said Darren Campo, senior vice president of programming at the channel. But the show is very much about Ventura’s "voice," he adds.

"I’m doing this show to wake people up," Ventura says in a promo. Throughout the first season (which ended Jan. 13 but lives on through YouTube and an upcoming marathon) the former wrestler dons a little gray ponytail and a black leather blazer, expertly fitted to his massive frame, as he sternly yet charismatically commands his team of "investigators," most of whom inexplicably have British accents – perhaps so they’ll more closely recall Agent 007.

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In one episode, Ventura investigates global warming, which the trailer-voiced narrator calls "the most convenient scam yet."

The episode sends Ventura and his team across the globe, speaking to all manner of global warming conspiracy theorists, including self-proclaimed investigative journalists and a couple of contrarian climate scientists – one a physicist at MIT, and the other a blurred-out American living abroad who says he fears for his life.

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While Ventura says early on that he personally believes climate change is happening, the overall thesis of the episode is that global warming is being used as an excuse to make money off our carbon footprint fears and move us closer to a global government, known in conspiracy circles as the New World Order.

Al Gore’s name is trumpeted endlessly as a key financial benefactor of climate change (though Ventura calls him a "friend"), second only to mentions of the United Nations, which is presented as the shadow entity for a powerful elite that seeks to control the world – and you.

To climate change believers, the show is hokey at best, but its action-mystery set-up is undeniably entertaining. You can see how a person might convince himself that global warming is fake when some environmentalists are trumpeting cap and trade, which the show’s narrator calls pollution "permission slips." It’s certainly a contradiction.

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TruTV hasn’t committed to a second season but "Conspiracy Theory" has found what it most likely needs to survive – an engaged audience. The first seven episodes have already touched upon many of the most popular conspiracy theories in America today: 9/11, 2012 doomsday, government surveillance, and, of course, climate change.

Though the TruTV executive insists the show is "not political," it’s propelled by Ventura’s axiom, which he mentions at least twice: "The one thing I learned in government is if you want to find the answer to a question, follow the money."

Asking who benefits is a question most cynical Americans find reasonable and appealing. And a segment of that demographic takes it to an extreme, dedicating most of their waking moments to what the majority among us calls conspiracy theories.

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‘There’s no theory in criminal conspiracy’

By general definition, a conspiracy theory is a claim that stars secretive yet powerful rogue groups who seek to control or steal from "the people" – and it usually carries the stigma of untruth.

According to David Coady, a philosopher at the University of Tasmania in Australia, and author of Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate, the term conspiracy theory started to carry negative connotations after the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, during the Third Reich, that conspiracy theories propelled the paranoid ideologies that gave rise to totalitarian regimes such as that of Adolf Hitler.

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Since the term has a derogatory slant, few conspiracy theorists self-identify as such. The term is mostly used to suggest that a particular theory is false, or that the person proposing it is unreliable. A reliable means of discrediting a story, it’s often used unfairly.

As Uri Dowbenko, who runs several popular conspiracy sites, including Conspiracy Planet, says: "There’s no ‘theory’ in criminal conspiracy."

Because conspiracy theorists often feel isolated from and demeaned by the rest of us, they search out communities of fellow believers. Scholars believe that American conspiracy theorists tend to be predominantly white and male (no wonder Ventura’s show has done well) and rather well-educated, albeit narrowly so.

"As conspiracy theories get more complex, and particularly for people who are more actively engaged in it, it is an intellectual enterprise which requires a good amount of reading and concentration skills," says Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and the author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. "You see a lot of people who have received high levels of institutional education. For this reason, conspiracy theorists may well be of somewhat higher than average income level and wealth."

The community aspect is tantamount to a conspiracy theory’s survival. With the advent of the digital age, the Internet has become the organizing hub for conspiracy theorists.

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February 2, 2010