Hatewatch

The Unlikeliest Conspiracy-Monger: Colorado Public TV

Law-abiding U.S. citizens who express politically unpopular views are at risk of being rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps by a tyrannical government.

That’s according to a conspiracy theory that has long been popular within the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. Although recently debunked by Popular Mechanics, Newsweek (which called it “too silly to discuss”), CNN’s “American Morning,” the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report and even (after promoting it on several shows) FOX News host Glenn Beck, the myth that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is creating detention facilities for political dissidents is gaining traction on the far-right fringe.

Now, however, a mainstream media source is providing an uncritical platform for FEMA camp lore: KBDI Colorado Public Television aired the video “Camp FEMA: American Lockdown” twice last weekend and has scheduled another showing for March 13. The 90-minute film opens with newsreel footage of Japanese-Americans being forced into internment camps during World War II and then trots out conspiracy die-hards who suggest that freethinking Americans today may face the same fate. Those featured include syndicated radio host Alex Jones, who frets about one-world government at Infowars.com; longtime Patriot broadcaster John Stadtmiller, who insisted after the Oklahoma City bombing that the U.S. government was behind the mass murder; and James Lane of the Patriot group We Are Change, which does not believe that al-Qaeda perpetrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Not unreasonably, “Camp FEMA” producer Gary Franchi sees the recognition from a major PBS market as a coup for believers in the camps. “I think it definitely lends credence to the issue,” he told Hatewatch. (Though some Patriot movement beliefs have roots in white supremacy — including the FEMA camp story, whose early proponents included the anti-Jewish Posse Comitatus — Franchi said his group is not anti-Semitic, racist or antigovernment.)

Since its release last year, “Camp FEMA” has been available for purchase on its website (cost: $14.95). But during its March 6 public television debut as part of KBDI’s current fundraising campaign, the film had the potential to reach over 200,000 households, mostly in the Denver metropolitan area, according to KBDI Membership Director/Executive Producer Shari Bernson. In addition, Franchi, who heads the Illinois-based Patriot group RestoreTheRepublic.com, traveled to KBDI’s studios to discuss his film on air with Bernson and Denver-based talk show host Mike Zinna. “It was our most successful pledge program since we rolled out this pledge drive last Thursday,” Bernson said. “We were flooded with calls.”

Those calls were overwhelmingly positive, Bernson said, but some people took issue with KBDI’s decision to air the show. “I’ve had people say it’s not news, it’s not journalism,” she said. “Does everything that airs on TV fall into that category? The bigger story is why are there so many conspiracy theories and why are so many people interested in them right now.”

Bernson said KBDI is dedicated to airing a broad range of perspectives and frequently features independent programming outside the PBS pipeline. (The station also runs disclaimers with shows saying they don’t represent the views of KBDI, its board of directors or employees.) “I think that people deserve access to information,” she said. “I believe people are smart enough to make their own decisions about what they see and hear.”

Moreover, airing the show helped bring in donations. “It was also a fundraising success,” she said, “and fundraising is really tough right now. You’ve got to find something that’s resonating with a large enough niche that it’s really going to create some momentum to help us make our financial goals.”

“Camp FEMA” was shown alongside another video, “America: Freedom to Fascism” by the late Aaron Russo, who founded Restore the Republic (now run by Franchi). That 2006 film contends that a powerful group of bankers took control of the U.S. government by perpetuating “two frauds”: the federal income tax and the central banking system known as the Federal Reserve. The New York Times debunked the film’s arguments in a July 2006 article and reported that the IRS had filed $2 million in tax liens against Russo. The alternative weekly Portland Mercury went further, calling the film “half-baked” and “hole-ridden.” The film also peddles the popular Patriot conspiracy that the government could use tiny microchips to track people.

Yet KBDI has shown “Freedom to Fascism” several times since 2007, when one of the station’s viewers walked in with a copy. “It was one of our top-performing programs for over two years,” Bernson said. The station invited Franchi to its studio last year to discuss the film during a fundraising drive; a local banker was also brought in to present the other side.

KBDI drew criticism from The Denver Post for airing that film, along with two documentaries promoting Sept. 11 conspiracy theories, during a pledge drive last summer. “9/11: Press for Truth” and “9/11: Blueprint for Truth,” which suggests that Sept. 11 was an inside job, both did well as fundraisers, Bernson said.

But not everyone was happy. Jacob Gore of Aurora, Colo., who had been a small contributor to KBDI for a couple of years, told Hatewatch he stopped watching the station after it aired the Sept. 11 programs. “I can’t believe I’m seeing this on public television,” he recalls thinking at the time. In a comment posted on KBDI’s website, he also asked to be taken off the station’s mailing list.  “I’m sure when sanity returns to KBDI,” he wrote, “I will hear about it through the usual channels (the microchip implanted into me by the government, of course.)”