Talk Radio Can't Handle the Truth

By Casey Lartigue Jr. and Eliot Morgan
Sunday, August 5, 2007

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.

In "A Culture of Conspiracy," the Syracuse University political scientist Michael Barkun writes that "a conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness." He notes that three principles are found in virtually every conspiracy theory: "Nothing happens by accident." "Nothing is as it seems." "Everything is connected."

We quickly learned there is a fourth factor: If you question a conspiracy, you might be a part of it.

"Information is power." That was an early mantra of the black-owned, Lanham-based conglomerate Radio One, which runs XM's Channel 169, "The Power." Over the past two decades, Radio One has been a resource for black people who may not have the financial means or wherewithal to highlight an injustice. Recently, hosts on the station have taken up the cause of a young black girl sentenced to jail time for pushing a hall monitor (the charges were dropped) and the case of a black 17-year-old boy in Georgia sentenced to 10 years in prison for having consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl.

We were eager to reach that audience, and on April 21, 2007, we launched the show.

Morgan is from the South Side of Chicago and a former Trotskyite who currently studies environmental issues at Harvard. Lartigue is a native of Missouri City, Tex., who spent time working as an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute and the advocacy group Fight for Children. Together, you can find us on any end of the political spectrum on any given issue. Our biggest goal of the show was to challenge orthodoxies of whatever stripe.

Our theme song was Prince's "Controversy," and that's exactly what we often created. The economist Walter E. Williams, who has been a guest host on "The Rush Limbaugh Show," irritated some of our listeners by denouncing reparations for slavery and dismissing the need for a minimum wage. On the 82nd anniversary of Malcolm X's birthday, we dared to ask, "What did Malcolm X do?" Judging from the response from callers, you would have thought we had confessed to assassinating the Nation of Islam leader.

We did get occasional warnings from others at the station, but we dismissed them as office scuttlebutt. We received plenty of feedback from listeners who found our program refreshing. This was the provocative Wild West world of XM Radio, where shock jocks such as Opie and Anthony typically roam unchecked. No reason to be concerned, right?

It may be that Memorandum 46 is just too good to be false. It could be the "smoking memo" that activists have been seeking to prove that the U.S. government is still plotting against black Americans. At the very least, it's a ready-made excuse for every disappointment or ill plaguing the black community.

The prominent psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing has suggested that blacks should hang a framed copy of the document in their homes. Joe Madison, XM's lead talk show host and a longtime activist, spread the idea that Memorandum 46 was genuine as well. After a show in May that explored the topic, he noted that he'd received 600 e-mails asking for copies of the document.

On June 2, we shared our exchange with Brzezinski about the memo on the air. A few days later, Lartigue was in the studio recording a promotional teaser for a second show that would explore the topic in more detail. The production director was incredulous: "Are you telling me it's fake?"

We sent the production director some links to the Carter library Web site, which were passed along to Madison. Over the next several days, Madison took to the airwaves to blast those who questioned the veracity of Memorandum 46. Morgan called in to Madison's show to ask him for proof. We heard the response on the air: We were engaging in counter-intelligence, he said.

Armed with our research, we returned to the issue on Saturday, June 23. We tried to dispel other urban legends, such as claims that the first U.S. president was black and that fashion designers Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger didn't want black customers. In the final hour, we made our case that the anti-black Memorandum 46 never existed.

The following Monday, the station's programming director berated Lartigue in a phone call, threatening to suspend the show or pull it off the air. We agreed that we wouldn't "attack" other hosts again, if that was to be the station's policy. The programming director made it clear that he suspected that every source we cited was part of the cover-up. The tense discussion grew into a heated argument, and the programming director yanked the show off the air.

So ended our careers in talk radio. Looking back, we take our cue from Malcolm X, who said he wasn't afraid to just "tell the truth." We weren't afraid to tell the truth or to challenge sacred urban legends. Now that we have been dismissed, the station has resumed its regularly scheduled programming.

Casey Lartigue Jr. is an education consultant based in Virginia. Eliot Morgan is a Boston-area writer and a graduate student in environmental science at Harvard University.

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