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Fake News

Conspiracy theories

Kurt Cobain

Image by Sally, used under the creative commons license.

We've all heard them -- Lee Harvey Oswald didn't shoot JFK, Oswald did shoot him but with assistance from a 2nd gunman, the moon landings were faked from sound stages in L.A., the Bush Administration was behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon... In some ways, the easiest part to understand of how a news story gets established as factual and truthful is how fringe the alternate interpretations of those facts wind up being.  These fringe interpretations are conspiracy theories.

An in-depth example shows how the Seattle Police Department confirmed, and then later reconfirmed, that Kurt Cobain's death was a suicide, in the face of long running conspiracy theories that he was murdered.  As the singer and guitarist for Nirvana, Cobain struggled with, and ultimately succumbed to, his dizzying rise rise to rock stardom.  He committed suicide at his home in Seattle on April 5th, 1994, and his body was discovered April 8th of that year.  The Seattle Police Department ruled it a suicide early into their investigation, and while there were some lingering questions, further investigation did not change this ruling.

Twenty years later, prior to the anniversary of Cobain's death, the police reinvestigated and reconfirmed the ruling, in part to clear up lingering theories that the death was a murder as opposed to a suicide.  These theories are primarily driven by former Los Angeles Police Department officer Tom Grant and by conspiracy theorist Richard Lee, who in 2014 filed a lawsuit against the city of Seattle claiming that the city had withheld reports and photos that included evidence of murder.  Reporting on the reinvestigation and reconfirming of the ruling, the Seattle Times writes,

The police investigation determined that Cobain had committed suicide three days before, on April 5. Despite that finding, there are some who have theorized the troubled Nirvana frontman had died as the result of foul play.

Reviewing the case file, Seattle Police detective Michael Ciesynski found some undeveloped film (which, yes, was the target of Lee's lawsuit) taken during the 1994 investigation:

On Thursday, Ciesynski said that he decided to go ahead and have the film developed to put to rest conspiracy theories and speculation about what was in the rolls of film. But nothing new was disclosed, Ciesynski said. He said his review left him convinced that the original investigators did a thorough job and that Cobain’s death was a suicide.

In 2016 the same detective released photos of the gun Cobain used to commit suicide in response to a public records request:

Seattle police made the evidence public after CBS News said it requested the images to help quell a conspiracy theory that the gun “had been melted down in a supposed SPD cover-up of a potential murder.” Previously released photos and records from the high-profile death investigation do not show the gun in full view, CBS News reports. The case has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories over the years, including that Cobain was actually killed through a secret plot involving government officials.

While he still believes in a murder theory, Grant conceded that the release of these photos does upend a central tenet of his argument as to why such a theory is justified.  A judge has also thrown Lee's lawsuit out on procedural grounds.


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