Miller, who teaches media studies in the NYU Steinhardt School’s department of media, culture, and communication, was a colleague — I was teaching journalism at the time — whose dry one liners and quick-draw aperçus I admired, and whose desire, as a public intellectual, to reach not just the opera boxes but the cheap seats, too, I respected. Moreover, he was a fellow traveler, a Man of the Left who wrote for bastions of the libosphere like
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Miller, who teaches media studies in the NYU Steinhardt School’s department of media, culture, and communication, was a colleague — I was teaching journalism at the time — whose dry one liners and quick-draw aperçus I admired, and whose desire, as a public intellectual, to reach not just the opera boxes but the cheap seats, too, I respected. Moreover, he was a fellow traveler, a Man of the Left who wrote for bastions of the libosphere like Harper’s and The Nation, updating Adorno for the Reagan era and spiking the mix with sardonic wit. In “Big Brother Is You, Watching,” from his 1988 collection, Boxed In: The Culture of TV, he argued that TV “reduces all of its proponents to blind spectators of their own annihilation,” a line Andy Kaufman would’ve written if he’d read Dialectic of Enlightenment. “The Hipness Unto Death,” his takedown of the smirky knowingness of postmodernist irony, deserved a rim shot for its title alone.
Not long after, I left New York University for the life of a rootless scholar. I never did write that book about Barnum, but my memories of chatting with Miller about him stayed with me. Barnum’s virtuosic manipulation of the press, his winking attempts to get people to disbelieve their eyes — that ugly thing you’re gawking at isn’t a preposterous fraud stitched together from bits of orangutan and fish skin, it’s a Feejee Mermaid! — paved the way for our age of “alternative facts,” deepfakes, gaslighting, conspiracy theories, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Trump’s presidency made me think of Barnum, and Barnum made me think of Miller. I’d noted with growing unease the proliferation, on his Facebook wall, of anti-vaxxer misinformation, 9/11-truther screeds, and perfervid speculations about the motives of David Hogg, a survivor of the Parkland school shooting that left 17 dead and 17 more wounded. Miller even seemed to lend credence to the claim — which has gotten traction in MAGA Land — that the shootings were a hoax, a pretext for disarming the sheeple and installing the Orwellian regime of liberal-elite fever dreams. Linking to an AP story about the demolition of the school where the shooting took place, he quipped, “Out of sight, out of mind. (WHAT shooting?)”
Extreme disbelief — a skepticism so radical it dismisses nearly every official narrative as propaganda — can make for strange bedfellows. Since 9/11 (the official explanation for which he derides as “preposterous on its face”), Miller’s lefty skepticism about the lapdog corporate media and the machinations of the power elite, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills called it, has become increasingly indistinguishable from the right’s loss of faith in liberal democracy and its invincible contempt for the “fake news” media and experts of any sort.
He thinks there is “abundant evidence” that Biden stole the 2020 election; suggests the beheading of the journalist James Foley by ISIS combatants was faked; excoriates Black Lives Matter as a CIA-funded operation intended to “demonize white people” in order to “foment as much violent division as possible”; and cites, shares, and retweets right-wing propagandists such as Breitbart, The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, Tucker Carlson, and the conspiracy-mongering, Trump-aligned Falun Gong mouthpiece, The Epoch Times. (Like the feminist cultural commentator Naomi Wolf, whose calamity-howling about lockdowns, masking, and mandatory vaccination as police-state crackdowns on personal liberty has endeared her to right-wing broadcasters like Carlson and Dinesh D’Souza, Miller espouses right-wing bunkum that makes bien-pensant libs lose their minds. He also detests what he calls “‘woke’ ideology,” winning hearts on the right and among antiwoke “dirtbag Leftists” like Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan, hosts of the podcast Red Scare, who punctuated their fawning, softball interview with Miller with appreciative giggles.)
With the coming of the coronavirus pandemic, Miller has decried lockdowns as “corona-fascism,” thinks the mask mandate is “the most successful fear campaign in world history,” applauds antimask sentiment, wants you to know that coronavirus vaccines are a “rushed, inhuman witch’s brew of nanoparticles, human DNA (from fetal cells), and toxic adjuvants,” and is willing to entertain the notion that something called “mask mouth” causes heart attacks, and that flu shots are linked to Covid deaths (which, he suggests, are part of a covert effort to euthanize “useless eaters” in nursing homes).
His emails to me during the writing of this article were full of such contrarian news flashes, among them the revelation that the “recent spike in active cases has demonstrably resulted” not from the virus but “from the ‘vaccination’ drives themselves.” “Those ‘vaccines’ are killers,” he declared in one email, admonishing me to heed the warnings of Michael Yeadon, a former Pfizer employee who has performed a reputational self-immolation by decrying mass-vaccination drives as “crimes against humanity” that may well be part of a master plan for planetary genocide. “If someone wished to harm or kill a significant proportion of the world’s population over the next few years, the systems being put in place right now will enable it,” Yeadon told America’s Frontline Doctors, an antivaccination group with ties to the far right. “It’s my considered view that it is entirely possible that this will be used for massive-scale depopulation.” Miller, who is Jewish, compares Yeadon and rogue doctors like him to “similar ‘outliers’ throughout Hitler’s rise,” those who “strove desperately to make the world aware of the ongoing extermination drive — to no avail, because their claims seemed (to the NYTimes, for instance) ‘self-evidently’ false.”
Even as he doubled down on positions like this on social media and in the many interviews he gives, he was teaching his undergraduate course “Mass Persuasion and Propaganda,” which, according to its syllabus, “is intended … to improve [students’] analytical and critical thinking skills.”
On September 20, 2020, the tweet hit the fan. Julia Jackson, a student in Miller’s course, unloaded on Twitter. In the first of a series of tweets, she wrote, “An MCC [Media, Culture, and Communication] tenured professor spent an entire class period telling students that wearing masks doesn’t prevent the spread of Covid-19, and that hydroxychloroquine trials were made to fail so more people would be given the vaccine and have their DNA changed. … He followed up that class by sending us links [to] … many far-right and conspiracy websites, such as The Charlie Kirk Show, Zero Hedge, … WorldNetDaily … It is not acceptable for NYU representatives to dismissively state that this professor is ‘entitled to his views,’ … when he is spouting dangerous rhetoric that serves to cultivate fear and confusion during a pandemic.”
Miller is adamant that he was merely challenging the students in his propaganda course to question “the case for universal masking as defense against transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” as he said on his blog, urging them to weigh the evidence to the contrary (“the randomized, controlled tests … finding that masks … are ineffective at preventing such transmission”) and to pay special attention to the “possible financial links” between those who defend masking and “Big Pharma and the Gates Foundation.” Jackson “was so outraged by [him] even mentioning those studies,” he says, “that she called on NYU to fire him.”
Wrapping himself in the mantle of “academic freedom, as well as free speech overall,” Miller exhorted all “who believe that higher education must be free from censorship of any kind, whether by the state, corporations, foreign interests, pressure groups, or by the university itself,” to rally around his standard — by signing a Change.org petition. In the comment thread on his petition page, many of the 37,000 (and counting) who’ve signed hail him as a standard-bearer for free speech, pouring scorn on the self-appointed Stasi of cancel culture who can’t handle “critical thinking” that challenges their politically correct beliefs.
From there, things escalated quickly. On September 21, the day after Jackson’s flurry of tweets, Rodney Benson, the chair of Miller’s department, was on Twitter, doing damage control: “Julia, thank you for reporting this issue. We as a department have made this a priority and are discussing next steps.” A month later, 25 of Miller’s department colleagues wrote a letter to the dean of the Steinhardt School, Jack H. Knott, and Provost Katherine Fleming, deploring the views Miller allegedly espoused on his “highly visible website” (the “characterization of transgender surgery as a eugenic form of sterilization, direct mockery and ridicule of transindividuals, and denial of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting”) and “the way in which he engages discussion around controversial views and non-evidence-based arguments” (a breach of academic ethics that is the subject, they say, of persistent student complaints). (Miller vociferously denies all of those charges.) The letter ends with a call for an “expedited review” of Miller’s “intimidation tactics, abuses of authority, aggressions and microaggressions, and explicit hate speech” and, in the event, whatever “disciplinary measures are deemed appropriate.”
Miller returned fire with a libel lawsuit alleging that his colleagues’ “scurrilous and maliciously intended letter” had caused him “embarrassment, humiliation,” and “a loss of professional standing” and demanding $750,000 in damages. As of this writing, his lawsuit is plodding along, NYU’s review of his conduct is ongoing, and Miller, who is 71, is on a medical leave (necessitated, he has said, by the stress caused by recent events).
“Academic freedom protects any faculty member’s right to raise these doubts outside the classroom, in their capacity as citizens, and to do so free from sanction by their university,” noted Brian Leiter, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, in an email interview. That’s extramural speech — public speech about public matters, in which professors are free to lob the cherry bomb of controversial opinion into the public sphere. (In theory, at least; Steven Salaita — whose tenured-faculty appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was yanked in 2014 when his tweets lambasting Israel for its treatment of Palestinians outraged wealthy donors — might disagree.)
But when they opine publicly on matters related to their disciplines, says Michael Bérubé, a professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, they may test the limits of academic freedom. “If Miller were simply challenging the science” on questions related to Covid-19, Bérubé told me by email, “he would have more protection under the [American Association of University Professors’] understanding of academic freedom, since his extramural speech would be unrelated to his area of scholarly expertise. But insofar as he is making a broader claim about propaganda, he is clearly drawing on his expertise. So this is a very difficult case, though I have to say that the only way someone can defend Miller without qualification is by deliberately conflating academic freedom with free speech.”
Freedom of teaching, another pillar of academic freedom, is notably more rule-bound. “Academics may raise doubts in the classroom,” Leiter said, “only if other experts in the professor’s discipline would view this as appropriate and relevant to the subject matter of the class” — a tricky proposition in the highly subjective humanities, let alone a genre-hopping, metadiscursive field like media studies. To be sure, “the standards for determining whether those doubts meet disciplinary standards will vary depending on the discipline,” Leiter noted. “A professor raising the issue in the context of a class on propaganda is doing something different than a professor in the school of public health; my guess is the latter could not get away with this, the former, more likely, but arguable.”
But even if the disciplinary standards and boundaries of media studies were well established and clearly demarcated, one’s colleagues would have to know what’s going on in the classroom in order to enforce them, and none of Miller’s colleagues, as he told the hosts of the podcast Red Scare, has ever seen him teach. “Teaching is not transparent, so it’s very hard to know what’s happening inside of classrooms,” said Keith E. Whittington, a professor of politics at Princeton and the chair of the academic committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance, a nonpartisan “alliance of college and university faculty members” dedicated, as its website states, “to upholding the principle of academic freedom.”
“There is a cartel-like quality to academics in that not only do they not want to be observed themselves, but they don’t want to observe others, and they don’t want to hold others to account; it’s unpleasant, it’s time-consuming,” Whittington said, by Zoom. He went on to say:
There’s a lot of activity inside of a lot of classrooms that would be pretty troubling if it was exposed to greater scrutiny. As academics, we ought to be more willing to scrutinize some of that behavior in order to make sure that classroom teaching is professionally competent. In Miller’s case, you’d want to know not just what material he’s exposing students to but how it’s being conveyed. If he’s conveying things that we think of as being clearly factually mistaken as if they were true and rigorously demonstrated, then that would be a problem even from the perspective of his own discipline. But that requires pretty careful factual inquiry into what is happening in the classroom.
As it happens, we do have an inkling, at least, of some of the material Miller is exposing his students to: Del Bigtree, a prominent antivaccination activist and Covid-conspiracy theorist, has been a guest speaker in Miller’s propaganda class several times, and Miller has shown his students the anti-vaccine “documentary” Vaxxed, directed by the former physician Andrew Wakefield — “former” because he was removed from the medical register in Britain for falsely claiming, in a 1998 Lancet paper, that he’d discovered a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine and autism. Vaxxed and Bigtree’s podcast, The Highwire, are textbook examples of pseudoscientific fear-mongering — propaganda, by any other name — so perhaps Miller was using them as case studies? That seems questionable, given the verbal fist-bump he gave Bigtree when he appeared on his show (“Right back atcha, I’m an admirer of yours”) and his blog posts promoting Wakefield’s bogus claims.
Further complicating matters is the shadow cast over the Miller affair by what we’ll have to call, for want of a better term, identity politics. Why did his colleagues, in the letter that provoked his lawsuit, focus not on his seeming disregard for core academic values like intellectual rigor and objective fact, at a moment when the very notions are under assault, but rather his alleged “hate speech,” “microaggressions,” and transphobia? (Miller categorically denies the last charge but readily admits his wariness regarding what he calls the “transgender ideology,” a wariness which the fringe website Activist Post explains, in its profile of him, has something to do with “the potential eugenics implications of the transgender movement.”)
“The real problem is Miller’s disdain for the epistemological norms of his discipline,” Bérubé told me. “The side focus on transphobia is unfortunate because it needlessly muddies the question of whether Miller is teaching and writing things on the Covid ‘hoax’ that would call into question the fitness of any professor of media and communication. Transphobia is as common as rain, and not in itself a firing offense. Nothing about it — assuming Miller is not abusing or harassing students — indicates unfitness to teach. Nonetheless, it’s easier to deal with a student (or a faculty colleague) who complains about a professor’s bigotry than with a student (or colleague) who complains about a professor’s Covid trutherism and imperviousness to ordinary standards of evidence and argument.”
Miller, for his part, would say that he is abiding by the academic tenets of empirical rigor, reasoned debate, and skeptical inquiry. “My view is that any official narrative is open to question,” he told me in the first of two lengthy Zoom interviews. “I see absolutely nothing wrong with circulating reasonable questions about incidents, the official story of which is, everywhere we turn, the same story; all the media are all together, broadcasting, printing the same narrative.” His focus, like that of any media critic, “is always on the media spectacle,” he said, “and if there is a consensus that is hammered repeatedly within that spectacle and then someone credible and credentialed makes a credible counterclaim, I think that that counterclaim should get a hearing.” Take the 9/11 Truth movement, as its defenders call it: “It’s one of those subjects that has been dismissed out of hand by the media as ‘conspiracy theory,’ and so I am willing go to bat for the people who’ve done very solid research on it.”
He pushes back vigorously when I suggest he’s biased against consensus and in favor of lone gunmen, even in fields where he’s ill-equipped to evaluate the legitimacy of their counterclaims, like virology, vaccinology, and epidemiology. Still, it’s difficult to square his scrupulous-sounding rhetoric about vetting counterclaims to ensure that only the “credible and credentialed” get a hearing with his apparent willingness to recirculate widely rejected, even reviled viewpoints because they’ve “been dismissed by the media as ‘conspiracy theory.’”
The trouble, here, is weasel words like “credible” and “credentialed.” Miller is reflexively skeptical of authorities but seemingly willing to swallow in great gulps the pronouncements of discredited figures like Wakefield and Yeadon and pseudonymous YouTubers like “Dutchsinse,” whose only credentials appear to be a willingness to believe the flatly incredible — for example, that “directed energy weapons” were behind the apocalyptic wildfires in California and Oregon.
Many of the “reasonable questions” Miller raises are poorly evidenced if not conclusively disproved; some are morally grotesque. During our second interview, I pressed him about his blog post casting doubts on whether Noah Pozner, a 6-year-old boy shot to death along with 19 other Sandy Hook Elementary schoolchildren and six staff members, had really died (“Sandy Hook Show Trial: Two forensic experts found that Noah Pozner’s death certificate is FAKE — and so the judge suppressed their testimony”). Did he believe he was acting responsibly as a university professor and public intellectual by pumping oxygen into the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook slaughter was a false-flag operation, staged to provide a pretext for rolling back gun rights — a deranged claim that inspired conspiracists hell-bent on finding out “the truth” to torment the Pozner family for years, barraging them with death threats, demanding that they admit their son’s death was faked, and hounding them from one home after another?
“Well, how do we know that’s not true?” Miller snaps. “Have you read Fetzer’s book [Nobody Died at Sandy Hook: It was a FEMA Drill to Promote Gun Control, by James Fetzer and Michael Palecek]? It’s rather compelling. It’s troublingly compelling.” Is he unaware, I wonder, that Leonard Pozner, Noah’s father, was awarded $450,000 in a defamation lawsuit against Fetzer in which the court ruled that Noah’s death certificate was not fabricated? Or is he just another Sandy Hook truther, beyond the reach of argument or evidence? Many things are troublingly compelling, I tell him, but isn’t it a media critic’s job to come to a conclusion — to make critical judgments about the truth or falsity of the stories the media tells us? What’s his conclusion?
His tone, unshakeably self-assured until now, becomes suddenly subdued, almost faltering. “I think that that incident was, um, I think that it was” — the briefest of pauses, then he plunges in — “I suspect it was staged. It’s some kind of an exercise. That’s my suspicion. I have no reason to believe that” Noah and the other children “really were there, or were killed. Listen, I’m not happy to say that, OK?”
“How does one go in that direction? Slowly,” said Charles Seife, a professor in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and wryly sharp critic, in books like Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?, of the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that plagues our moment. Seife believes algorithm-driven social media rewards controversy, which generates buzz, which attracts fans who may lure you further out, onto the hairy fringe. “There’s a feedback mechanism that draws people to the extremes,” he told me. “You see it very strongly on social media where, as you get rewarded for more and more extreme thoughts, and as you gather more and more fans who are introducing you to things further beyond the Overton window in a certain direction, it’s very easy to take those steps toward the extreme, bit by bit. It’s like the proverbial frog in boiling water.”
“Part of what made Miller particularly vulnerable is that in the circles he was most concerned with, there were conspiracies. I mean, you cannot study the CIA without thinking that they were utterly crazy people who were trying to control the world in the strangest possible ways: MK-Ultra, people being fed LSD and jumping out of windows, is true. And this stuff was covered up. For people who look at propaganda and government malfeasance, once you start recognizing that some of this stuff is true, you’re going to gather fans who believe even more extreme stuff that isn’t true.” For some, the temptation to see how deep the rabbit hole goes blurs the line between scholarly inquiry and beady-eyed conspiracism. As Seife says, “It’s a small step from MK-Ultra to Project Blue Book and UFOs to Area 51 to Jewish space lasers.” (Now might be the time to mention that Miller believes the moon landing was faked.)
The Miller affair is uncannily reminiscent of the tale of James Tracy, a professor of media studies at Florida Atlantic University who, as Anna Merlan writes in Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, went from close and careful readings of “the role of conspiracy theories in public life” to “spreading some of the most egregious ones,” including — wait for it — the allegation that the Sandy Hook massacre was staged, and that the Pozners were “profiting handsomely from the fake death of their son.” Although Tracy said that he never discussed Sandy Hook in his classroom and that he confined his theorizing to social media, where he was “just asking questions” the media strenuously avoided, FAU gave him the sack for not disclosing his blog as an “outside activity” that could tarnish the university’s reputation.
Was there always a conspiratorial undertow to media studies, a paranoid style of mind that might make the transition from “media monopoly” to “deep state” easier than it seems? In his introduction to a 1996 special issue of The Nation on “the national entertainment state” (whose cover featured the monster octopus of corporate consolidation, tentacles rampant), Miller bemoaned “a culture gripped in every sector by an ever-tightening convergence of globe-trotting corporations, whose managers believe in nothing but ‘the market’ über alles.” Accompanying his jeremiad was a four-page ownership chart detailing which conglomerates have which media outlets in their sucker-clad grip. It looks a lot like the chart Miller posted on his blog in 2020, its crisscrossing cash flows revealing the shadowy actors — the Trilateral Commission, the CIA, the Council on Foreign Relations, Yale’s Skull and Bones fraternity, George Soros — who “fund phony ‘Left’ media.” Looking at these networks of power, it’s hard not to see visual echoes of the “crazy walls” that have become a well-worn trope in conspiracy-culture thrillers like Homeland — collages of photos and clippings push-pinned to a wall, their cat’s cradle of sinister connections traced in string.
Miller bristles at the term “conspiracy theory,” dismissing it as a “meme” used to “discredit people engaged in really necessary kinds of investigation and inquiry.” But he’s heartened, as he told The New York Observer, by what he sees as “a real sea change in the way people think about issues that have always been successfully dismissed as … conspiracy theory.” Wrapping up his speech at a 2016 symposium convened by Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, he ended on a hopeful note: “I can tell you as a professor that my own students are no longer intimidated by the ‘conspiracy theory’ meme. It isn’t working anymore.”