Last year around election time, I sent a clip of Infowars lunatic Alex Jones to a friend. It was one of the ultimate Jones set pieces: his classic "gay bomb" rant, where the balloon-faced TV host turns baboon-ass red working himself up into a rage about Pentagon-designed hormonal weaponry that supposedly can "turn the frickin' frogs gay!"
"What do you think tap water is?" he croaks, in the broadcast. "It's a gay bomb, baby!"
My friend wrote back. "Who the hell is that?" he said.
Why, I responded, that's Alex Jones, one of the most influential people in the United States.
My friend didn't believe it. "Come on, this is a gag or something," he said. His actual quote was that the Jones show was like a Nazi version of Tommy Boy, which to him was too funny of an idea to have been generated unironically.
This isn't an uncommon reaction. Most sane people can't process Jones. Nor can they deal with the fact that he drew 83 million page views during election month last November, or that Infowars had 5.3 million unique visitors in May of last year.
Jones also has one very specific audience member: Donald Trump. The New York Times reported in February that Jones "is apparently taking on a new role as occasional information source and validator for the president."
Jones, who once insisted the Sandy Hook massacre was a "fake," has the kind of mind with which Trump connects. On November 14th, his Infowars site re-reported a claim that "three million votes in the U.S. presidential election were cast by illegal immigrants." Two weeks later, Trump clearly parroted the report, saying he won the popular vote "if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."
That influence is why it was so beneficial to see NBC's Megyn Kelly tear Jones to pieces on this past weekend's Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly.
There was a controversy about the show. Some of the parents of Sandy Hook victims were understandably upset that Jones was being given airtime on "legitimate" TV, and protested the interview.
But other groups objected to the report on the more general – and disturbingly prevalent – view that covering a noxious figure somehow equates to empowering that person. Incredibly, even other media organizations contributed to this chorus, with Huffington Post going so far as to denounce Kelly for giving Jones a "platform."
This new media version of the campus "no-platforming" movement believes that news organizations automatically help insidious figures by allowing them to speak extemporaneously, or even to be seen onscreen. In fact, groups like Media Matters went so far as to say that the best part about Kelly's report was that it showed Jones as little as possible:
"The segment benefited from devoting very little time to Kelly's interview with Jones, minimizing his opportunity to appeal to her audience. Instead, through strong voiceover, clips from Jones' program featuring the host spouting conspiracies, and interviews with a conservative commentator who opposes Jones' influence and the father of a child who died at Sandy Hook, Kelly explained how Jones operates, the harassment his targets experience, and his close ties to President Donald Trump."
This is a crazy conception of how media is supposed to work. Judging a report by how tightly it keeps control over whatever you think the desired message is supposed to be is pretty much the opposite of what we're taught to do as journalists. We're describers, not politicians, and the best way to convey the essence of Jones is to let him betray it himself.
Trying to "minimize his opportunity to appeal" to audiences also totally misunderstands how people consume media. If you bend over backwards to keep an interview subject from talking, and stack the deck in your report with negative takes and loads of derisive voice-over, what viewers will perceive – 100 percent of the time – is that you're afraid of your subject.
Kelly graphically demonstrated the benefits of not running from your interview subject. She challenged Jones over and over about Sandy Hook statements like, "The whole thing is a giant hoax."
Jones offered a stream of nonsensical answers to these queries, to which Kelly asked brutal and correct follow-ups, like: What happened to the children, if they weren't killed?
To which Jones squirmed and fidgeted and said ridiculous things like, "Listeners and other people are covering this, I didn't create that story."
After four or five exchanges of this sort, Jones in an offhand way suggested that maybe he was just playing "devil's advocate" when he said what he said.
Kelly pounced. "Was that devil's advocate?" She reread his direct quotes, repeating, "The whole thing is a giant hoax. The whole thing was fake."
Jones paused for about five seconds before he answered. You could tell he was trying to a) remember what he'd said then, and b) think of what exactly he could get away with saying now. He was cornered.
"Yes," he finally answered, and quickly rifled through the drawers of his mind to shake loose something like a plausible explanation for that "yes":
"Because I remember, even that day, to go back from memory, then saying, 'But then, some of it looks like it's real..."
Jones couldn't defend his work in a legitimate setting. He wasn't able to argue, as he once did in a child custody hearing, that he is just a "performance artist." Forced to come up with a non-ridiculous explanation for his rants, he was completely exposed.
It's ironic, given that she worked for so long at Fox, but Kelly's report on Jones pulled the lid back on the easiest and most profitable con in our business: winding up angry middle-aged white guys. Jones is just the latest model in a long line of bloviating conservative media hucksters whose job it is to stoke middle-class paranoia for fun and profit.
The original offerings in this product line, like Bob Grant and Barry Farber, were too polished, over-subtle and often too-transparently schticky. Many were former actors, scholars or comedians who took up being shouty drive-time douchebags only as lucrative late-career options.
Until the Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987, remember, anchors and disc jockeys couldn't get hired by just by being vituperative finger-wagging blowhards. A lot of those people had gotten on the air because they had good voices, or the gift of gab, or senses of humor.
Rush Limbaugh, who was a little-known Pittsburgh top-40 DJ working under the name "Jeff Christie," was an early example. (Listen to Rush/Jeff slickly intro-ing Stevie Wonder's classic "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" on this clip, for a laugh.)
The problem is that whatever sliver of talent or humor or erudition gets these characters on the air in the first place ultimately betrays them in the hate-vendor game.
If there's no real monster underneath, and you're instead just a financially desperate comedian or actor spinning up audiences with wild tales about scissors-bearing feminists or hordes of diseased Mexicans Headed This Way, sooner or later, listeners who want the real thing will be able to tell.
Take Glenn Beck. He made an all-out assault on the angry-dude market by selling breathlessly baroque conspiracy theories miles beyond what the likes of Bill O'Reilly would ever have the brains to invent.
But Beck just wasn't quite mean enough underneath. His insult-and-rage game was weak. Listen to him scream, "Get off my phone you little pinhead!" in this clip.
That's 100 percent a put-on riff by a professional radio guy who's been in the business since he was 15 (I can almost hear him saying, "Hey, did you like my hangup in hour 3 today?"), not a genuine rage addict. Beck was far more likely to fall to pieces and start crying on the air than blow his dome and start punching walls.
Not Alex Jones. He is the inevitable end to these decades of mis-evolution, the Nexus 6 of tantruming conservative spleen merchants.
Unlike Rush, who clearly wanted to be a comedian – Limbaugh's riffs on Louis Farrakhan-style numerology were wannabe Poconos material all the way – Jones has no sense of humor, as in literally none. Sean Hannity is funnier than Jones, which is really saying something.
Jones is not an aspiring linguist like Farber, or an ex-lefty intellectual like Mike Savage, or an actor like Fred Thompson, or a wannabe rock star like Mike Huckabee.
Jones is just angry. There's nothing else to his act. There's no riffing, no jokes, no cleverness: just pure, uncut middle-aged bile for his 78 percent male audience, to whom Jones hilariously hawks masculine supplements.
He's an epic dingbat, but one of tremendous power and influence. People need to understand how acts like his work and why. No effort to consign him to the margins is going to be successful, because he's already burst way beyond those parameters.
I understand the Sandy Hook parents wanting him off the air. But media figures should know that the fastest way to heighten the influence of people like Jones is to boycott them from "polite" company. In exactly the same way even the dullest book becomes a smash hit once it's censored, we make inadequate losers like this look like giants by pretending they don't exist.
Props to Kelly for showing that challenging jackasses works. And God help us if the press ever stops believing that.
‘Infowars’ host Alex Jones claims he recorded pre-interview chat with Megyn Kelly to protect himself from misrepresentation.