Talk Radio Can't Handle the Truth
For nearly three decades, the memo has been passed around by word of mouth, the Internet, on nth-generation photocopied fliers, making the rounds among African American activists, politicians and talk-show hosts.
In "Black Africa and the U.S. Black Movement," also known as Memorandum 46, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser outlines a sinister 1970s government strategy to undermine black leadership in the United States and sow discord with Africans abroad.
It's a fantastic story, and on June 23, we devoted an entire edition of "The Casey Lartigue Show," our weekly political talk show on an XM satellite radio channel aimed at black listeners, to debunking it and other urban legends.
Everywhere we looked, we found evidence that the document was fake: a 1980 news clipping in which the Carter administration denounced it as a forgery; a September 1980 National Security Council memo noting that the "scurrilous document" referred to nonexistent entities such as the "NSC Political Analysis Committee"; 1982 testimony by the deputy director of the CIA presenting Memorandum 46 as part of a dozen suspected forgeries by the Soviet Union; a 2002 article by Paul Lee, a consultant to the Malcolm X movie by Spike Lee, dismissing Memorandum 46 as a fraud; and the real Presidential Review Memorandum 46, a bland call for a bureaucratic review of U.S. policy toward Central American issues, which is available on the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum's Web site.
We also contacted Zbigniew Brzezinski, the liberal lion who supposedly authored the memo. Not only did he say he had nothing to do with it, but the former national security adviser pointed out that in one of the versions circulating on the Internet, "the idiot-forger could not even spell my name correctly."
But if you think that was the end of the story, you don't know the world of black talk radio. These are the airwaves in which the first president of the United States was a black man, in which AIDS was cooked up in a government laboratory to decimate the black population and in which major corporations lace their food with chemicals to make black men sterile.
Colleagues at the station accused us of performing "counter-intelligence." Stalwart callers cried that the station was being "infiltrated." Harsh words with a station manager were exchanged. And we found ourselves booted out of the talk-radio business.
Americans love conspiracy theories. We question official accounts about the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, as well as the (alleged) deaths of Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes, Tupac Shakur and Kenneth L. Lay. Some people have doubted whether Neil Armstrong really walked on the moon. But conspiracy theories take on a life of their own in the black community.
Often, just one word can silence those who doubt the conspiracy theory of the day: COINTELPRO, the FBI's notorious anticommunist program that was used against groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Ku Klux Klan. From the Scottsboro Boys to the Tuskegee syphilis study, our government has displayed a willingness to conspire against its citizens.
Likewise, truth-squadding becomes difficult when such theories are linked to hard data: Black Americans constitute about 12 percent of the U.S. population but about half of the nation's AIDS cases. That sets up the conditions in which, according to researchers Sheryl Thorburn Bird and Laura M. Bogart, more than 20 percent of black Americans think that HIV was created to restrict the black population.
A 1990 survey by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference found that one-third of black American churchgoers believed that AIDS was a form of genocide. One-third also believed that HIV was produced in a germ-warfare lab, and 40 percent of black college students in Washington, D.C., agreed. An even higher percentage of blacks polled said they thought that crack cocaine was custom-made to be planted in African American communities to keep them crime-ridden and poor and that the government deliberately targeted black elected officials to drive them from office.
These beliefs keep some black Americans from having their children vaccinated, from receiving AIDS tests and early medical treatment, and from practicing safe sex or using clean needles, as Patricia A. Turner and Gary Alan Fine note in their book, "Whispers on the Color Line." They also make seeking the truth an uphill battle.