Truth, facts and our shared history are under assault in America. And no, I’m not talking about the rhetorical lashes of the tongue the commander-in-chief repeatedly lays on the backs of the nation’s media. I’m talking about what you, your friends and families alike stream from the comfort of whatever glowing screen is available.
It seems as though the intense battle underway by the nation’s dominant streaming networks — Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix — to provide consumers with a plethora of viewing options on the cheap is also bringing with it a disturbing side effect: They're all peddling conspiracy theory-laden "documentaries" alongside of the actually well-researched, fact-based documentaries they offer.
Sure, there are plenty of alien- and ghost-hunter docu-dramas parading as hard-hitting investigations on regular cable, but the streaming services (which are now subscribed to by almost half of consumers) are blurring the lines between far-flung internet fiction and something you formerly believed because it was from a trusted outlet, like PBS or NBC.
Take "Freeway: Crack in the System," which is currently streaming on Netflix. As a lover of hip-hop, I was mesmerized by the tales of the man who claims that rapper Rick Ross stole his name and identity when he was locked up for being one of the hardest hitting drug dealers during the crack epidemic.
Then the so-called documentary takes a wild turn, with the former convict claiming that he sold crack on behalf of the CIA to help Ronald Reagan fund the Sandinistas in the 1980s. The filmmakers don't provide any credible proof of their subject's allegations, which is a core tenet of legitimate documentary filmmaking.
Then there’s "Zeitgeist: The Movie" (and its subsequent sequels), which paints religion and the Federal Reserve as tools of mind control used by the federal government. There’s also "Aliens on the Moon: The Truth Exposed" (2014), which claims that their supposedly previously unreleased (and grainy) NASA footage shows that aliens use the moon as their landing base.
Viewers are also offered "Dark Legacy II: The Murder of John F. Kennedy, Jr." (2014), because viewers should decide for themselves if former President George W. Bush had a role to play in killing President Kennedy's son. And in "JFK: The Smoking Gun" (2013) ,people are informed that it was actually the Secret Service that assassinated the president.
But then there is also "The Untold History of the United States" by Oliver Stone. It’s been widely panned by actual historians as ideology masquerading as unvarnished, Hollywood-spruced up truth. But, like the others, it's listed in the “documentary” section on Netflix, where it sits alongside the likes of Ken Burns’ acclaimed documentaries and highly informative series like "Cosmos" and "Planet Earth."
The Ringer has pointed out the myriad of titles floating around on each of these competing streaming services that peddle 9/11 conspiracies as fact, or at least as plausible possibilities for the tragedy that struck the nation in 2001. The streaming services either didn’t respond or offhandedly dismissed their inquiries.
Today, as more and more people cut the cord — an estimated 22 million Americans have done so to date — the far flung reaches of the internet have now become many people’s regular old TV, which means any wacky hot take is given equal footing with the works of the nation’s most acclaimed and honest historians.
It’s truly no wonder many voters don’t know who to trust these days.
Many in the media and academia have been highly critical of how Facebook, Twitter and Google were used as profit-driven pawns in the proliferation of fake news during the 2016 election. But, with little fanfare, that’s exactly what these streaming services are doing now by placing the likes of a tested-and-true documentary next to the work of smutty, conspiracy-peddling hacks.
The answer to this contemporary quandary for us, the viewing public, isn't to demand censorship of these works or to remove them from their services — though, it's fair to ask that the most egregious examples be classified as something other than documentary. But in an era in which people are being taught by the White House to question the media, the American public actually needs to question everything they consume, from statements from the White House to the movies we watch after a long day at work.
As for the streaming services themselves, it wouldn’t hurt to demand a little corporate responsibility of them. After all we fund them. So a warning label on crazy conspiratorial content may be a solution. Or at the very least, maybe they could consider not placing the work of an award-winning historian next to the work of a guy who thinks an alien has overtaken Oliver Stone and is assisting him in secretly overthrowing the new world order.
Most of us in the expanding world of media will outlast the scrutiny of fact checkers, and to those who don’t: Good riddance.
Matt Laslo is a reporter who has written for NPR, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and VICE News, among others. He's also an adjunct professor teaching regularly at The Johns Hopkins University and has taught at Boston University and The University of Maryland.