It was midmorning in August when the producers of truTV show Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura arrived to speak with Robert Glennon, the Morris K. Udall professor of law and public policy in the UA's Rogers College of Law, and a nationally renowned water expert.
But this meeting did not occur in the air-conditioned halls of the university. Instead, Glennon and the Conspiracy Theory crew ventured to the quiet, isolated sanctuary of the Sweetwater Wetlands, a city water-treatment facility—and not exactly a Chamber of Commerce-featured location.
But when there's a water crisis, and the crew of Conspiracy Theory needs to warn the world of this week's impending doom, a little heat stroke is a small sacrifice to make.
"They were absolutely professional," said Glennon of the crew. "We spent a long time talking. The only thing that seemed very clear is they wanted to (ask), 'Where should they go next?' and I was to reply, 'The Great Lakes,' so I knew that part was done in advance. Other than that, I didn't think it was different than a lot of interviews I've done. They were bright, good questions. I thought they were probably going after bottled water, and that's fine. I was the first to point the finger in a book called Water Follies in 2002. I took dead aim at Nestle, because the pumping is affecting local springs."
Glennon was a transitional figure in the hour-long episode which aired in December, entitled "Great Lakes." His comment was designed to look as though it sent Ventura's stalwart investigative journalists to an area dramatically affected by water depletion.
"They took my Unquenchable book script and said it's occurring in Lake Mead, and it's occurring at the Great Lakes. That's right out of my book, and it's really the structure of the show," said Glennon. "Where they go off (track) is making it a conspiracy."
But that's the point of a show called Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura, and Glennon got to experience firsthand how conspiracy narratives have crept their way onto the fringes of the media-information landscape.
A guilty-pleasure confession: I love this show, which was in its second season—from its production values to its story structure to Ventura's outraged references to his days as a Navy SEAL and as Minnesota's governor.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the whole conspiracy-theory yarn is watching to see: At which point does the conspiracy thread unravel? Whether the theory is politically motivated by the right to damage the left, or the left to damage the right; or whether anti-government/anti-corporation entities are upset with the current power structure; or whether the theory is presented by the likes of Michael Moore, by nationally syndicated Coast to Coast radio host George Noory, or—on a local level—by my long-time friend Chuck Aubrey on his Gnosis program, which airs Saturdays KJLL AM 1330, it's fun to see: Where does sound reasoning give way to insane babble?
Conspiracy Theory, the show and the concepts, seem largely structured by the premise of tabloid science. In the case of the "Great Lakes" episode ... is there a water problem? Yes. Has that problem been caused by a variety of factors, some of which involve preferential treatment toward specific organizations? Yes. Is Glennon an expert on these issues? Yes.
But there's an inevitable point in every episode when the program crosses the fine line from legitimate concern to lunatic rambling. And in this case, that point involved the theory that lithium was being added to water supplies.
"I'm answering a question they didn't ask," explained Glennon. "... The question was: They want to put lithium in the water (as a method of controlling the behavior of the population). ... If they had asked me the question, 'Do you want to put lithium in the water?' I would have laughed hysterically and said, 'What are you talking about?' That's just nonsense. It implies I know or think someone wants to put lithium in the water. I say it's a bad idea, suggesting at least I know someone wants to do that. In fact, I don't think anyone wants to do that, and I think it's quite kooky.
"There are two absolute whackos on the show: one who trumpeted lithium, and another woman who said ships were taking big bags of water and shipping them to China. She belongs in an institution. This is someone who is not stable—so to be on the same show with these whackos is sort of guilt by association. They didn't point the finger at me. In fact, they said I was one of the world's experts, entirely inflating my credibility, but that helps them."
Glennon's legitimate credentials have given him plenty of experience in media forums, from interviews with The Washington Post to conversations on NPR to a July 2009 appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
"It went incredibly well. I couldn't have been happier with the experience," said Glennon of his six-plus-minute stay (during a scheduled five-minute segment) on one of Comedy Central's benchmark programs. "The reaction was all over the map. I can't tell you how many people contacted me. I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart. Being on his show was not an ego trip, but instead, it was a great opportunity to put the issue of water on the national agenda. That's what's important: If Jon Stewart has you on the show, that just changes the nature of the debate."
The impact of Conspiracy Theory? Well, that remains to be seen.
"The crisis is real, and I'm delighted to have participated in their show, but the attribution of motivation is bizarre," Glennon said. "Lithium, shipping water to China and international relations and control—and that's the point where the men in the white coats could take them all away. I don't have any sense of the influence of the show or who's watching it.
"Do I regret doing it? No, yet had I known then what I know now, (would I appear on the show)? Probably not. I would have no assurance or trust in what they were doing."