As humans living in the modern technological world, we are awash in information. It would seem impossible to consciously be aware of all the information we are absorbing in a given hour, much less a week, month, or year. However, our brains absorb it all, sifting through the blitz of stimuli within an instant, creating a waking, continuous perception of reality. The depth of how this information affects us, therefore, remains even further buried in the non-conscious mind. So, on the conscious level, most of us try to select sources of information that we find to be the most reliable.
So, where do you get your information? I suppose most of us have put some measure of thought into this. We think about what websites we visit, what television shows we watch, what books we read (if we still read them)and what politicians we trust more than others to tell us the truth that only they might know.
What does this have to do with Jesse Ventura, you might ask? I wasn’t sure, myself, which is why I decided to watch and recap every episode of Season Three of his show, Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, for disinfo.com in an effort to find out.
Over the course of my life, Jesse Ventura has meant a lot of different things to me. When I was a child, he was the booming of voice of the bad guy, the heel announcer from the WWF professional wrestling TV shows. He was always there to explain why the bad guy (who the crowd was booing) was in the right, and how the good guy (who the crowd was cheering) was a false hero, weak and morally hypocritical. He had long hair and dressed flamboyantly, and had once been a wrestler, himself- hence his nickname, “The Body”. Nobody could sell the story of a match like Jesse, nobody.
I then knew him as a movie star, standing toe-to-toe and then side-by-side with my favorite action hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the late 1980’s films Running Man and Predator. Although his character is one of the first characters to get killed in Predator, he gets to deliver one of the juiciest lines in the movie: “I ain’t got time to bleed!” You’d figure Arnold would have saved that one for himself. For a 10 year-old, it didn’t get much cooler than Jesse.
Then, in an unexpected twist, this wrestling hero and action movie star of my youth ventured into the world of politics. Ventura first ran for public office in 1990 for Mayor of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota and was elected, serving from 1991 until 1995. Ventura then worked as a local radio host in Minnesota for a few years before returning to politics in 1998 as the Reform Party Candidate for Governor of Minnesota. He cut his hair, wore a suit, described himself as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” and vehemently opposed to the status quo of two-party system.
During the campaign he focused on his time as Mayor of Brooklyn Park and his military service during the Vietnam War as a member of the Navy SEALS, more than his time as a wrestler and wrestling announcer. His campaign was fueled by creative TV ads criticizing “politics as usual”, and the exploitation of a resource his fellow candidates had yet to embrace-the internet. Somehow Ventura had redefined himself as Jesse “The Mind” Ventura, leaving behind his old nickname of the “The Body,” and had become a legitimate threat in the gubernatorial race.
After running a low-budget, straight-talking, grass roots campaign Ventura defeated major party candidates Norm Coleman (Republican) and Hubert “Skip” H. Humphrey III (Democrat). Once he got into office, however, he faced the difficult challenge of shaping government without political consensus. He had no real voting base in the Minnesota State Legislature, so instead of presenting his own legislation for votes that he knew would ultimately fail, he often used his veto power as Governor to shape public policy.
His political views often violated the traditional dichotomy of “right” vs. “left”. While he believed in increasing spending in public education, Ventura also opposed the teachers’ union. He was outspoken in his support of gay rights and abortion rights, traditionally a position of the political “left”, but also pursued tax cuts and reform, traditionally a position of the political “right”. By the last year of term, the majority of Ventura’s vetoes were being overturned, calling into question his ability to govern effectively as a brash (and to some, arrogant) political outsider.
Ventura served from 1999 until 2003, but decided not to run for re-election, citing burnout and a desire for more privacy for himself and his family after four years of scrutiny while in office. During his four years in office as the Governor of Minnesota, Ventura had used the national attention he garnered from the election to promote his political/social cause and publish three bestselling books: I Ain’t Got Time To Bleed: Reworking the Body Politic from the Bottom Up, Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals, and Jesse Ventura Tells it Like it Is: America’s Most Outspoken Governor Speaks Out About Our Government. Ventura had become a symbol of 21st century American populism, and his background in the show business of professional wrestling seemed like a distant memory to those who were inspired by his rebellious, yet patriotic, spirit. To many of my generation, his presence marked a changing of the guard in the American political arena.
After leaving office in early 2003, Ventura signed a television deal with MSNBC for a show called Jesse Ventura’s America, that would be aired weeknights and shot from Jesse’s home state of Minnesota. However, network plans changed and the show would only be aired once a week, on Saturday nights. After a short run, the show was cancelled in late 2003. While executives at MSNBC cited prohibitive production costs as the reason for the show’s cancellation, Ventura has speculated that the show was cancelled due to his controversial views on the War in Iraq and the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.
Towards the end of his term as Governor of Minnesota and into his post-political life, Ventura’s views in opposition to the two-party system of American government had become more extreme and conspiratorial in nature. Ventura was an early outspoken critic against the War in Iraq, expressing his doubts as to why the U.S. was invading a country that had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, and voiced his opinion that evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was dubious.
His views on the events of 9/11/2001, specifically, continued to get more outside the mainstream as time went by, and in an interview on the Alex Jones Radio Show in September 2006, he expressed his belief that 9/11 may have been a false flag operation conducted by the U.S. government in order provide justification for invasion of the Middle East.
In 2008, Ventura took his views a step further with his book, Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me, in which he raises the possibility that the destruction of the towers on 9/11 may have been the result of a controlled demolition. During a 2011 interview with Piers Morgan, Ventura stated that he believes that, at the very least, the U.S. government knew about the imminent attacks of 9/11, and allowed them to happen so they could pursue their globalist agenda in the Middle East.
While Ventura’s more extreme views caught the ire of mainstream media pundits such as Sean Hannity, they were aligned with the growing conspiracy theory culture of the internet and the sentiments of many alternative media companies, where discussion of 9/11 and other potential conspiracies were more freely explored. Whether pursued consciously for commercial purposes or not, Ventura had tapped into a growing demographic of disgruntled citizens and conspiracy theorists that would support media ventures such as books and television shows from the “alternative,” unfiltered perspective.
And so, December 2, 2009 marked the debut of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura on the reality TV-based TruTv channel. According to a press release at the time, TruTV promised that “Ventura will hunt down answers, plunging viewers into a world of secret meetings, midnight surveillance, shifty characters and dark forces.” The first season featured episodes examining conspiracies entitled HAARP, 9/11, Global Warming, Big Brother, Secret Societies, Manchurian Candidate, and Apocalypse 2012.
Whether Jesse “hunted down the answers” regarding these conspiracies or not, he certainly brought in the ratings. Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura had the largest series debut ratings for a show on TruTv, and also helped TruTv bring in the highest primetime ratings in the history of the network at the time, over 1.6 million viewers. The show returned for a second season on October 15th, 2010, featuring episodes entitled Plum Island, Area 51, Wall Street, Police State, JFK Assassination, Great Lakes aka The Worldwide Water Conspiracy, The Gulf Oil Spill aka The Louisiana Oil Spill, and Pentagon. After several delays on production, some possibly due to Jesse’s inability to fly due to his lawsuit with the TSA, the third season premiered on November 7th, 2012. Ratings have remained steady throughout the course of the series, averaging about 1.5 million viewers per episode premiere.
Since the show began, Ventura has co-written three additional books with collaborator Dick Russell, two of which deal directly with conspiracy theories: American Conspiracies and 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You To Read. Their third, most recent book, published in June 2012, DemoCRIPS and ReBLOODlicans: No More Gangs in Government, could be considered part of this same government conspiracy genre.
It could be argued, then, that Jesse Ventura is the most well-known and listened to representative and salesman of the conspiracy theory world today. Oliver Stone helped bring conspiracy theories into the mainstream with his films in the 1990’s, reframing the JFK Assassination conspiracy for a new generation and illustrating the menace and paranoia of the Nixon years for those who didn’t live through it, but his influence has waned in recent years and he can be too easily dismissed by those on the “right” as a wacko on the “left”. Alex Jones may still be the reigning king of conspiracy theory culture online, but he’s not nearly as well known as Jesse and doesn’t have the mainstream media access that Jesse has. Jesse appeals to the everyman. And he’s known how to work a crowd for a long time.
So, with the Season Three premiere of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura approaching, I thought it might be interesting to watch the episodes and write about them for disinfo.com. Having an interest in conspiracy theory culture, I had seen a few episodes from the first two seasons, and while I can’t say I was a fan of the show, I thought it might be a useful exercise to examine each episode in detail to see what’s there, to see what the man with the largest audience in conspiracy theory culture is really communicating about the conspiracy theories he investigates.
In my previous experiences watching episodes from Season One and Season Two, it seemed like the information was flying by at such a rate that I couldn’t possibly keep track of the names and details while keeping my eye on the big picture. I thought, then, that this could be a useful resource for those who were interested in the show and hoped to try to make some sense of it for themselves.
However, it wasn’t my goal to fact-check every element of every episode, or to tell the readers whether they should think a specific conspiracy theory has any validity, or if the show, in general, is silly and should be disregarded or if it demands to be taken seriously. I simply wanted to recreate the episodes in words, documenting the information that was delivered and in the style that it was delivered. I wanted to write the details down, track the story and methods of storytelling for each episode, and be able to examine quotes from the participants, word-for-word. My hope was to inspire those reading to take on the task of investigation and analysis, themselves, as if they had just watched the show and were made curious enough about the conspiracy theory presented to do their own research. I wanted to lay out the facts to be checked for the fact-checkers, and keep my opinions, for the most part, to myself.
Season Three of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura presented conspiracy theories on a wide variety of topics, touching on some of the lesser-known conspiracy theories teasing the minds of today’s more devoted conspiracy hunters. Season Three featured seven, hour-long episodes entitled Reptilian Agenda, Death Ray, Time Travel, Ozarks, Skinwalker, Manimal, and Brain Invaders. While I still haven’t seen all of the episodes from the first two seasons, Season Three seemed quite similar in style, structure, and format to the episodes I had previously seen.
Each show begins with an introduction from the narrator, who alludes to the basic tenets of the theory while hinting at the disastrous implications the theory, if real, might have, while images depicting the possible horror flash across the screen. Then, Jesse takes it from there, providing his own voice-over narration, like a detective in a mystery novel, explaining how he came to investigate this particular conspiracy theory.
Jesse meets his first interview subject, and usually the meeting’s set at a strange location, such as a poorly-lit parking garage. Jesse interviews his first subject, who often seems to be a fairly credible person with a seemingly legitimate background, warning Jesse of the impending doom that this conspiracy might bring if not stopped. Inevitably intrigued by what he’s heard, Jesse heads back to his investigative team’s headquarters to lay out what he’s heard.
The team collects in a shadowy room, like something out of a government black-ops control center. Jesse explains what he’s learned about the conspiracy theory from his first interview subject, and begins to discuss with the rest of the team what they know about the theory. This season the team was comprised of four individuals other than Jesse: his son, Tyrel Ventura, and Oliver Stone’s son, Sean Stone, who are new members of the team, and investigator June Sarpong and Jesse’s “advisor” Braverman, who are returning members of the team.
By the time Jesse’s arrived at headquarters, it seems everyone on the team has already heard of the theory, done a little background research, and developed some leads to investigate on their own. Jesse lays out the plan and overall objective, and the team is ready to officially get out in the field and begin the investigation.
The team splinters off into separate groups. Usually Jesse starts out on his own, with Sean and Tyrel working as a team, June out in the field on her own, and Braverman, presumably, sitting at home, not doing much of anything. What role this “advisor” Braverman plays is unclear. Braverman is also known as Michael Braverman, but is only referred to by his last name in episodes from Season Three.
The interview subjects selected by Jesse and his crew vary from more mainstream, conventionally credible sources to people that seem extraordinarily bizarre and less credible. Some subjects claim to have knowledge of the conspiracy, some claim to be victims of the conspiracy, and some claim to have participated in the conspiracy.
Jesse and June seem to handle more of these mainstream interview subjects- scientists, journalists, former government officials, etc., while Sean and Tyrel seem to deal more with the fringe-type characters associated with conspiracy theories. Sean, specifically, seems more open to the extremes of conspiracy theory culture, and is often the team’s middle man for psychics and tweaked-out conspiracy victims. Tyrel, however, much like his father, usually plays the role of a skeptic, demanding to see hard evidence of the conspiracies they investigate. June’s views aren’t expressed as other much as the other team members on the show, but she does seem to be rather delighted by and open to whatever testimony she picks up along the way.
Often one interview leads to the next, the team relaying information back and forth and sometimes reconvening at headquarters to reassess. Often times, Jesse will join Sean and Tyrel for specific interviews and assignments, usually later in the investigative process and show.
Meanwhile, throughout the show, the narrator fills in the blanks, providing details and context for the information the team discovers through their interviews and research. This narration often offers the most sensationalistic view of the information and implications of the theory, even if those views aren’t being expressed by those conducting the investigation. The narrator also summarizes each concluding segment before commercial breaks and introduces the next segment after each commercial break, never allowing the theme and message of each episode to get lost. Jesse adds additional voice-over narration along the way, dropping in colorful one-liners that project his tough, no-nonsense demeanor and approach to investigating the conspiracies, while tying the loose ends together into a fluid story.
Along the way, the information builds and one interview leads to the next, ultimately culminating in a final showdown between Jesse and his last interview subject. This is the interview that takes place in the last segment of the show, and promises to answer Jesse’s remaining questions about the conspiracy and, ultimately, determines whether Jesse believes in the conspiracy or not. This is when Jesse cuts to the chase and puts the pressure on whomever he’s interviewing to stop hiding and avoiding the truth about the conspiracy.
Finally, each show ends with Jesse’s final comment, in which he summarizes what the team has learned during the investigation and how it all adds up in his mind. Sometimes he ends up a believer in the conspiracy, sometimes he ends up as a skeptic out to debunk the theory, and at other times he settles in the middle. Either way, Jesse usually ties it all back to the personal responsibilities of being an American citizen, and tries to empower the people watching at home to fight the grander conspiracy and take back control of their lives and personal liberties.
Having watched every episode several times and then written a recap for each episode for Season Three of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, I was left with a few clear observations and conclusions about the nature of the show, itself, while many aspects of the show remain unclear and troubling to me.
First, it is clear in my mind that the show is designed as a piece of entertainment, first, and as an informational resource, a distant second. If the show was designed primarily as an informational resource, it would have a much different feel and structure, more of a conventional documentary than a typical crash-boom-bang reality show. The information would be delivered more clearly, at a more deliberate pace, and would be less interrupted by the sensationalistic observations and contextualizing of the narrator and Jesse, himself. It would allow the audience to reach their own conclusions based on the testimony of the interview subjects and evidence presented, instead of always pushing them to the most extreme interpretations of the data presented.
Also, if the show was intended primarily as an informational resource, those involved would probably get much more of that information right. Several of the episodes contain major factual errors, which I have highlighted at times during the episode recaps, but also have left many of these errors unmentioned for the audience to discover during its own fact-checking process. Some of them are so egregious, one wonders if the show has any research staff or fact-checking procedures in place at all.
Examples of this include a description of John Hutchison’s “Hutchison Effect” videos as “vetted” in the Time Travel episode, when even a rudimentary examination reveals at least some of them to be fake, the misattribution of a quote to Judge Judy regarding her gibberish attack that was said by someone else who had suffered a similar attack in the Brain Invaders episode, and the misidentification of Steven Huff as current owner of Overwatch Systems in the Ozarks episode, a company he had sold several years earlier to Textron Systems in 2006.
Key facts are also left out, and unrelated things are conflated. The conspiracy theory is presented, but without the “cover story,” leaving the audience to assume the worst without knowing what the surface information might indicate. For example, at the end of the Ozarks episode, Jesse and/or the narrator forget to mention that the alleged underground base they’re exploring is by all mainstream accounts simply an underground refrigeration facility. Even if one didn’t do their own research to find this out, or if they heard about the cover story but still believed the conspiracy, one must wonder why, if this underground base was so secret, how were they able to gain such unlimited access to the place?
If the show was primarily intended to be a viable source of information, I also believe more effort would also be put into trying to find the best sources of information. Instead of the most colorful, bizarre interviews subjects, more care would be taken to truly find the people most able to shed light on the reality or unreality of the conspiracy being investigated. Psychics probably aren’t the best interview subjects when trying to find an objective truth, and neither are anonymous figures known as “The Man in the White Van” or “White Rabbit.” Perhaps they were unable to secure the participation of more credible individuals, but the paranoia-riddled folks they routinely meet with as part of their investigation serve to undermine the credibility of the investigation and any legitimate efforts at getting to the truth.
Also, it is undeniable that the show appears to be largely scripted. Every episode has a similar structure, and the conversation often flows like scripted dialogue, with the end of each scene cleanly leading to the next. It also feels seems like certain lines of dialogue are pre-written, specifically Jesse’s one-liners, which, although amusing, have the feeling as if they are crowbarred into the proceedings to give the audience a little chuckle. My favorite Jesse one-liner from this season was from the Reptilian Agenda episode, when he warns Tyrel and Sean that “I want to blow the lid off this thing. And if it’s not true, I’m not only going to blow the lid off this, I’m going to blow the lid off you two!” At times, it seems as if the producers are winking at the audience, warning them not to take any of this too seriously.
Jesse has encountered some criticism and controversy in the mainstream media regarding questions of factual errors and misrepresentation in Conspiracy Theory episodes. In the episode entitled Police State from Season Two, Jesse’s investigation suggests that FEMA camps are being built around the country for the future internment of U.S. citizens against their will as part of a totalitarian police state plan. This assertion was strongly criticized by U.S. representative Steve Cohen from Tennessee, who was interviewed for the episode and later came out against it, calling for it to be pulled from the airwaves. Cohen called the episode “an outrageous distortion and outright lie” and “dangerous and irresponsible.” TruTv buckled to the criticism, and pulled the episode after only one airing. A Turner Broadcasting representative (which owns TruTv) responded to the criticisms of the show at the time by stating that the show was “an entertainment show that appears on an entertainment network.” Ironically, the TruTv’s slogan is “Not Reality. Actuality.” Jesse has maintained his stance that the show was pulled due to the explosive nature of the conspiracy it unveiled.
Therefore, my conclusion is that the objective of the show is not to educate its audience and to prove or disprove a particular conspiracy theory, but to keep the audience entertained, enthralled, confused, and fearful enough to keep watching until the end of the show. It is a television show, so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but given Jesse’s history of public service and stated dedication to truth, justice, and the American way, it remains a disappointing conclusion to reach, and creates a certain amount of confusion as to who Jesse Ventura really is and why he would be involved with an entertainment show like Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura. Is Ventura doing more harm than good to the cause of transparency in government and social justice with his flashy, slick, showbiz approach to conspiracy theories? Can or should a lifetime of public service be invalidated by some inaccuracies and fakery on a dopey reality show?
Perhaps Jesse cares about the conspiracies he investigates, but not as much as he cares about making exciting, profitable television programs, and the quality of the presentation is compromised to make it all more entertaining? It is a common practice in reality TV production to make such bargains with the truth for the sake of a better story, and much of TruTv’s other “reality” programming seems to make this bargain on a regular basis.
Perhaps Jesse cares about the conspiracies he investigates, but simply doesn’t have the intellectual ability and leadership skills to run a serious investigation, which leads to the factual errors and sensationalism found in Conspiracy Theory episodes? If true, that would certainly frighten the constituents he formerly represented as a mayor and then later as a governor, and would also be a serious red flag for anyone considering him as a candidate in a future Presidential campaign, which he has hinted at as a possibility throughout the years while promoting different projects.
Perhaps he honestly supplies his fans and fellow citizens with erroneous information, and neither his team, the producers of the show, nor the network, provide a net with which to protect Jesse from making mistakes handling the complexities of the conspiracies he investigates? Perhaps he’s been able to get this far on charisma, and the laziness of the people who have faith in him? One would also then be forced to examine his books and other projects more closely, to see if similar problems plague those works as well.
Otherwise, the worrisome qualities of the show might indicate that Ventura is just a cynical conspiracy theory profiteer, simply tapping a market that trusts him for a few easy bucks. That wouldn’t make him that unusual of a character in the conspiracy culture market, but it would go against decades of work building the Jesse Ventura brand, and would speak rather poorly of the people who make it to elected office in America today. However, it would fit nicely with Jesse’s background in professional wrestling, where fooling the fans or “marks” is part of the art of the business.
Some may suggest that Jesse isn’t ignorant and incapable of a real investigation, or lazy, or a cynical profiteer, but an agent of those he claims to want to bring down- those in power to whom any real revelation of a conspiracy might cause serious problems. Perhaps his interest and involvement in conspiracy theory culture is part of a disinformation campaign seeking to discredit certain conspiracy theories? Some might think that is less likely for an individual to be a Navy SEAL, a mayor, a governor, and then later a political outsider, than it is for them to still be working for the same network of power and influence that they have served for most of their life.
Either way, I think I took on the assignment and wanted to watch the shows because in my heart I wanted to believe in Jesse, even if my brain told me I shouldn’t. I wanted to believe that one of my childhood heroes, a real outsider with guts and charisma, a man of the people, actually had the courage to take on the real conspiracies existing in the world today, without compromise. However, instead of belief, I’m left with questions. Who is Jesse Ventura? What master does he serve? Does he serve the people, himself, or someone or something we don’t know about it- a faction of the government and financial power structure that guides his actions? Or is he simply that voice of the bad guy, now functioning as the voice of the good guy, because that’s the angle- that’s where the heat and money’s at?
Jesse continues to insist that he is the real deal- a patriot and truth-seeker truly bucking the establishment in an effort to spread truth to the American people. Just like us, he’s a victim of the conspiracy, and even claims a conspiracy exists involving his show and the very network that airs it, TruTv. After an episode on the TSA that was supposed to be included in Season Three was pulled from the lineup, Jesse suggested that TruTv declined to air the episode due to pressure from forces that, so far, he’s been unable to identify, as he claims was the case with the Police State episode from Season Two. No one is safe from the hands of the conspiracy- not even Jesse Ventura.
So, in the end, the question remains- where do you get your information? What sources do you consciously pursue to amend the information you unconsciously absorb, and how do you go about investigating the sources that provide the information? Can commercialized forms of conspiracy culture ever be trusted? My assumption is that the majority of people who watch Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura simply let it roll over them, and make a determination on the validity of each conspiracy based not on their own research, but on their prejudices and how the show fits or contradicts what they already know about their reality.
Is there a Reptilian agenda? Is the existence of time travel technology being hidden from us? Are our minds being controlled by brain invaders, who secretly plan for a future without us and attack us with death rays? In my estimation, all of the conspiracies presented in Season Three of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura are worth examining, because they present useful opportunities to determine for oneself what is real or unreal, or what is more likely or less likely to be real. Blindly trusting any source of information is a hazardous proposition, whether that source is Jesse Ventura, Alex Jones, or MSNBC. And while I might be a little confused or disheartened by what I discovered while writing about Season Three of Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, I am also buoyed by further confirmation that faith and belief can be a bad thing, and when left unchecked, leads to ignorance. The key is to recognize your prejudices enough to put them away for awhile, and open up your mind. The only information that can hurt you is the information you take for granted.