SACHA PFEIFFER As recently as 2016, more than 50 percent of Americans believed our government had hidden important evidence about 9/11. On the Media reporter, Micah Loewinger dug into the roots of the 9/11 truther movement to understand how and why the conspiracy theories caught hold.
DAN TABERSKI It's so funny because Loose Change, and–and like 9/11 truthers and all that stuff, for me, it was always just a colossal joke.
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Dan Taberski, the host of a bunch of podcasts like Missing Richard Simmons, The Line and most recently, 9/12. A show about what changed in America the day after the Twin Towers fell.
DAN TABERSKI But in going back, I think I was more open minded and more interested in how many people really did think that something was up with 9/11. It's a lot of people that I know, a lot of people that I respect. Huge swaths of the country.
MICAH LOEWINGER This question, how did so many people come to believe 9/11 was an inside job? Is just one of many that Dan tackles on his podcast. But it's the question I was after, which is why I dove right into the episode in his series where he interviews this fascinating guy named Dylan Avery.
DYLAN AVERY First of all, I don't f*cking know what happened on 9/11. Second of all, I made it clear to you that I'm not doing this interview to have another one of those conversations that make me feel like I'm still in 2006. Like nobody is the same person they were 15 years ago.
DAN TABERSKI How are you different than you were 15 years ago? Well, I mean, I'm not an angsty teenager anymore, so that definitely helps.
DAN TABERSKI Well, you're a little angsty. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Who is this guy, and why is he so angry at you?
DAN TABERSKI He's not so much angry at me. He's just angry at the place that he's been locked into in the culture, I think. He can't escape it. He cannot escape 9/11.
MICAH LOEWINGER Avery is the director of a film called Loose Change, which he first posted online for free in 2005. Loose Change helped popularize the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was orchestrated or at the very least allowed by the Bush administration to justify our misadventures in the Middle East. It's also the first movie to go viral. A remarkable feat considering Avery was a teenager when he started putting it together.
DAN TABERSKI Narrates it himself, edits it himself, directs it. It's super, super indie. The initial version was pretty rough. He's re-edited the documentary a few times over the years, but the vibe is cool. His presentation just feels so laid back. So matter of fact, nothing but scorch and hot evidence set to French hip hop beats.
DYLAN AVERY By that evening, eyewitnesses and experts alike were rushing to defend the official narrative of events. Claiming that raging jet fuel fires melted the steel inside the Twin Towers.
WITNESS I saw this plane come out of nowhere and just ream right into the side of the twin tower, exploding through the other side. And then I witnessed both towers collapse one first and then the second. Mostly due to structural failure because the fire was just too intense. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Avery goes on to make the point that a jet fuel fire couldn't have gotten hot enough to melt the metal.
NEWS REPORT 10:00 Eastern time this morning just collapsing on itself. We have no idea what caused this.
WITNESS Almost looks like one of those planned implosions…
WITNESS As if a demolition team set off. When you see the old demolitions of these old buildings, it folded down on itself... [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This became a really popular talking point among so-called 9/11 skeptics, but as many experts have explained since, steel begins to lose its structural integrity well below its melting point. When I first saw Loose Change as a middle schooler, I found this next point the most compelling.
[FRENCH HIP-HOP BEAT ROLLS UNDER]
DYLAN AVERY In all the videos of the collapses. Explosions can be seen bursting from the building 20 to 30 stories below the demolition wave.... [points] here... [points] here. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER These smaller explosions, he says, resemble the sort of charges used in controlled demolitions. The magazine Popular Mechanics in 2005 debunked this and many other truthers, memes. They went out and interviewed demolition experts who argued that as the floors of the towers began to pancake, the collapse likely pushed air downward through the elevator shafts, which then burst out of the sides of the buildings below.
[AVERY POINT AND SAYS 'HERE']
MICAH LOEWINGER Though he raises a ton of questions, Avery doesn't try to put all the pieces together, which is the very reason he named the film Loose Change.
[FRENCH HIP HOP BEATS FADE OUT]
DAN TABERSKI There's something about the construction of it all that makes it seem larger than the little pieces are, which you may consider some sort of innovation.
MICAH LOEWINGER As Dan Taberski demonstrates in his podcast 9/12, when Avery and his friends began promoting the film in 2005, some members of the media totally gobbled it up.
FUNDRAISING HOST And we have something today that we're offering for a donation of 100 dollars, it's the 'Loose Change', the brand-new film by Dylan Avery. We are offering it here. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Lefty stations like KPFK in San Francisco and WBAI in New York used the film to raise money. Network TV shows dissected Avery’s theories for millions of viewers.
AJ HAMMER Maybe the airplanes did not take down the Twin Towers and maybe the government is covering it all up. SHOWBIZ Tonight investigates the startling allegations. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER And celebrity fans spread the word far and wide.
DAVID LYNCH At the World Trade Center, three buildings came down like demolition. And those things bother me. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is David Lynch, director of Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks, speaking on a Dutch TV show in 2006. The first time I heard this, I didn't even think it was real. He and the interviewer watch a clip of Loose Change on air.
WERELDGASTEN Do you think it's convincing what they tell in the film?
DAVID LYNCH It's not so much what they say, it's the things that make you look at what you thought you saw in a different light.
WERELDGASTEN And the suggestion that the American government is behind it?
DAVID LYNCH That's too big for people to think about. It's-- it's too big. It's like something no one wants to think about. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER I have another theory about why Loose Change may have caught on.
DAN TABERSKI Hit it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Which is that it was at a sweet spot in the development of the Internet.
DAN TABERSKI Sure.
MICAH LOEWINGER It came out the year Google Video was launched.
DAN TABERSKI Mhm
MICAH LOEWINGER YouTube had just been created. Internet video that could go viral-
DAN TABERSKI Yeah
–Was relatively new.
KOREY ROWE ...but loose change was successful only because it was released in the moment in time that it was
MICAH LOEWINGER Korey Rowe was a producer of Loose Change.
KOREY ROWE It was a perfect storm at a time in history when technology had evolved to a point where you could get a handheld camera, you could get a laptop with editing software, and for the first time maybe ever, the normal person had the ability to create a film.
MICAH LOEWINGER During its first year on the platform, Loose Change reached 10 million people on Google Video in 2005 alone. By Avery's estimate, the film has now reached 100 million viewers in total, which would make it maybe the most viewed independent doc ever.
KOREY ROWE What Google Video enabled people to do across the world was take something from the Internet, download it, redub it in their own language, or add subtitles to it and then reupload it. And so for at least a year, we were number one through number 18 on Google Video. We were the top video in every slot in different languages all around the world.
MICAH LOEWINGER Because of its success online, Mark Cuban offered to produce and distribute the film. Give it a proper nationwide theatrical release.
KOREY ROWE And Charlie Sheen, who was the highest paid TV actor at the time, had voiced an interest in narrating that film. Charlie Sheen was in the middle of syndication of Two and a Half Men, which was a billion-dollar deal for the networks that he was involved with. And then somebody leaked the story that we were in pre production with them to The New York Post, Page Six. And then it got picked up by Bill O'Reilly on Fox News.
BILL O'REILLY Billionaire businessman Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, is putting up money to distribute a 9/11 conspiracy film. One which says Americans were behind the terror attacks. Actor Charlie Sheen will apparently narrate this opus. And it's awful, you know that. [END CLIP]
KOREY ROWE And before the end of the day, the deal had been dropped.
MICAH LOEWINGER And after that fell through, they brought on Alex Jones as an executive producer. Needless to say, the film has garnered, you know, a lot of negative attention, which might be why Avery declined my request for an interview. And he only agreed to talk with Dan Taberski after the two of them cut a deal.
DAN TABERSKI That was the only way he agreed to talk to me. Is if I said I wouldn't ask him about the content of the film.
DYLAN AVERY Why? Why wouldn't he want to talk about the movie he made?
DAN TABERSKI Because then he has to defend it, and I think A) he's sick of defending it. B), it's all wrong. There's not a lot of truth in it.
MICAH LOEWINGER According to a recent New York Times article, Loose Change supplied the modern template for disinformation. Coaxing its viewers to do their own research on fanatical forums. Quote, they disappeared down rabbit holes and emerged days or weeks later, as if not full-fledged 9/11 truthers, at least passionate skeptics. Nowadays, Dylan Avery and his producer Korey Rowe feel they're under attack. That they've been blamed for unleashing a flurry of other conspiracy theories, most of which they want nothing to do with.
DYLAN AVERY Everything that's happening now is bananas. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER This is Dylan Avery and a clip from 9/12, Dan Taberski's podcast.
DYLAN AVERY Sandy Hook is bananas, flat earth is bananas, QAnon is bananas, and I realize there's some people that are probably like listening and rolling their eyes like, 'oh, yeah, how convenient that you think all those other conspiracy theories are bananas, but you don't think your own pet theory is bananas.' [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI Do I think he deserves to be let off the hook? Absolutely not. Connecting him to how conspiracy theories have grown, and all that for sure. Go for it. To me, what was more interesting was the fact that he actually did make a film that really documented a feeling of the time and not just a feeling that he was starting. It was a feeling that was out there. Dan is actually touching on an interesting debate in the field of media studies. Is this type of popular misinformation the cause of, say, widespread fringe theories about 9/11? Or does a film like Loose Change go viral because it quenches a thirst in the culture? I think it can be a mixture of both. And in this case, the context in which the film was made and released offers some powerful clues.
CHARLES B STROZIER What's so remarkable about the 9/11 conspiracy movement is that it was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent for the first couple of years.
MICAH LOEWINGER Charles B. Strozier is a psychoanalyst and the author of a recent academic article tracking public polling data to figure out exactly when 9/11 conspiracy theories broke into the mainstream.
CHARLES B STROZIER In December of 2001, George W. Bush's approval rating was 91 percent.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida, terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER By 2002, a book that featured the bulk of the theories that would end up in loose change had become a bestseller in France. But Americans weren't taking notice. We were looking for blame elsewhere.
CHARLES B STROZIER Dick Cheney and neoconservatives who had been wanting to fight a war against Iraq for many, many years. And in the course of the next year of 2002, they campaigned relentlessly for buildup to the war in Iraq, which had nothing to do with Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaida. Nothing.
DICK CHENEY Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. [END CLIP]
CHARLES B STROZIER By the fall of 2002, some 66 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for 9/11. The grief, anger and blind patriotism that defined the months following 9/11 were unsustainable. The clearest cracks began to show when America began to confront the cruelty of our new wars.
NEWS REPORT The Iraqi prisoners were hooded, stripped naked, forced into sexually explicit poses or human pyramids. And there are the American soldiers, male and female, smiling, pointing, humiliating the prisoners. [END CLIP]
CHARLES B STROZIER When the scenes from Abu Ghraib, when the torture became available, when it was clear that Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons, that that was false intelligence. Then there was this surge of opposition to the Iraq war, which was not there initially. The year those pictures went public, 2004, turns out to be a big year for the truther movement. The same year the Abu Ghraib story broke, we learned that The New York Times had been duped big time. The paper had run a series of bad stories featuring leaks from anonymous sources from within the Bush administration. Stories which were then used by the administration to justify the war in Iraq. In a 2002 interview, Vice President Cheney said, quote, There's a story in The New York Times this morning. Saddam has been seeking to acquire and we have been able to intercept and prevent him from acquiring through this particular channel the kinds of tubes that are necessary to build a centrifuge. No weapons of mass destruction were found.
MICAH LOEWINGER Then that summer...
COMMISSIONER We found a high level of dysfunctionality almost across the government. The CIA and the FBI did not communicate with each other as well as they should have. [END CLIP]
DAN TABERSKI And even when that 9/11 Commission report came out in 2004, which was a big deal and it said it was not an inside job and that the government completely screwed up in terms of letting this happen.
MICAH LOEWINGER Dan Taberski.
DAN TABERSKI Even now you look at it, you're like, well, these are the people. They're creating their own alibis. Nobody got fired, right? Nobody got sacrificed on the altar. It doesn't sit well. And I think, I think going to war in Iraq and the betrayal that that really felt like for a lot of people really made it possible to be like...
MICAH LOEWINGER What else have they lied about?
DAN TABERSKI What else that they lied about? And I don't think that question was a bad question.
CHARLES B STROZIER That's when the 9/11 conspiracy movement gained traction.
MICAH LOEWINGER Charles Strozier points to what might be the earliest poll on 9/11, trutherism, which found that in August of 2004, almost half of New Yorkers believed the U.S. government had known the attacks were coming and consciously failed to act. Which is to say that a year before loose change had even been uploaded to the Web, there was a demonstrable appetite for it.
CHARLES B STROZIER I mean, I think Loose Changes is an important part of the story, but its role is to amplify, not to create.
MICAH LOEWINGER When I brought up Loose Change in an editorial meeting a few weeks back, I framed this as a story about an early example of the Internet breaking our brains. And maybe there is something to that. But it's just one piece of a bigger story.
CHARLES B STROZIER 9/11 was a complete shock to America. In the context of the 1990s, you know. We had won the Cold War, Russia was in shambles after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were relatively more dominant in the world in the 1990s than we ever had been as a country or ever will be again. We had vast wealth. China had not yet risen to the kind of prominence it was now, and nothing symbolized that power then, those two gigantic towers reaching to the sky. So to have America be devastated, to be attacked on our own ground, and to have the towers not only attack but collapse, to have thousands of people die. To be humiliated was a shock that didn't, it didn't fit into any traditional kind of historical narrative. That kind of historical moment is ripe for a grand conspiracy theory.
MICAH LOEWINGER What's clear to me now is that the propaganda pushed by the Bush administration broke our brains. Images of those far off wars broke our brains. Disastrously bad journalism broke our brains. 9/11 broke our brains. In part, because it rightfully shook our faith in the myth that America was exceptional, that America was invincible. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
SACHA PFEIFFER Coming up, how one drug came to signify so many different things to so many different people. This is On the Media.