Jurisprudence

Why the Alex Jones Verdict Felt So Unsatisfactory

Alex Jones, host of Infowars, an extreme right-wing program that often trafficks in conspiracy theories, speaks during a rally against the results of the U.S. Presidential election outside the Georgia State Capitol on November 18, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Nobody can actually take away this man’s bullhorn. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

The Alex Jones defamation and emotional damages trial in Texas, the first of three such cases brought by dogged Sandy Hook families, ended on Friday with an impressive $49.3 million punitive damages tag for Jones, following a $4.1 million compensatory damages award. Despite the satisfaction one could take in Jones’ compounding woes—including a dustup over his lawyer’s transfer of years of emails and texts to plaintiffs’ counsel that now exposes Jones to yet more liability and sweeps him directly into the Jan. 6 hurricane—it feels not nearly enough. Despite his much-shared public spankings by opposing counsel, the trial judge, and perhaps most memorably by Scarlett Lewis, the mother of six-year-old Sandy hook victim, Jesse Lewis, the general vibe, post-trial, is still very much “yes-but.”

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It is true that Jones finally faced some music, on camera for his years of risible efforts on Infowars to claim that Sandy Hook was a “false flag” hoax, that the 20 dead children and six adults killed in the 2012 mass school shooting were crisis actors, and that their parents who have faced unimaginable suffering were part of a conspiracy plot to take away guns. Due to Jones’ defamation, these parents have been harassed, threatened and even forced into hiding. But despite Jones’ concession that he knows that Sandy Hook was “100 percent real”—it all feels inadequate to both the grievous harms done, the booming economics of grifting off lies, and the permanence of the problem of post-truth. On top of everything, a cap on punitive damages in Texas could significantly limit the ultimate amount Jones is made to pay Jesse Lewis’ bereaved parents.

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So, “yes, but” this will do nothing to correct for the rampant spread of misinformation. And “yes, but” the mainstreaming of Jones’ paranoid style of infotainment is in no way curtailed by this verdict. And “yes, but” Jones is not even remorseful. He emitted a meager note of contrition, citing affliction with ‘a form of psychosis,’ as Pamela Paul wrote. It was a non-apology to outdo all non-apologies, constructed in the “mistakes were made” patois of our times.” But did anyone believe for a second that Jones would be remorseful? Dan Friesen, co-host of the podcast Knowledge Fight, has been valiantly bird-dogging Jones for years. As Friesen told my colleague, Aymann Ismail last week, it’s important to recall that Jones “doesn’t care.”

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He’s rewritten his own history in his mind like a child might, in order to absolve himself of any blame for any of his actions. He can abstractly maybe think like, ‘Oh no. Their kid died. That’s real sad. That doesn’t have anything to do with me. I was just asking questions!’ and go about his life.

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If the net result of this grueling, years-long, media spectacle of a Sandy Hook trial is indeed that InfoWars continues to broadcast; that Jones continues to rake in spectacular amounts of revenue while shielding himself through bankruptcy; that misinformation spreads, harassment by listeners goes unchecked, the victims receive no meaningful apology or reckoning, and defamation trials largely leave fake news untouchable, then what is the point? Are we simply doomed to live in a world of split screens, wherein Jones says precisely what he must say in order to minimize jury damages, while simultaneously broadcasting the precise opposite to his adoring listeners?

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Of course, any expectation that any given legal proceeding—such as the Mueller probe, Trumps two impeachments, and even the very effective Jan. 6 committee hearings—might lift us out of the misinformation quagmire in which we find ourselves has proven again and again to be too fanciful.

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But unlike those other proceedings, the Alex Jones trial offered one important thing: It forced Jones to inhabit the same space as his victims, to at least pretend to listen to them and to feign respect for a judge. It showed us all what a genuine encounter with the “other side”—a side that couldn’t be dismissed, threatened, and insulted with impunity, at least just this once—actually looks like. Thin gruel in the grand scheme of post truth, maybe, but still instructive and illuminating in the extreme.

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This trial was fundamentally different from the Jan. 6 hearings or two impeachments in that the defendant had to sit in the room, look into the eyes of his victims and hear their truths. It’s easy to say “yes, but” to this as well. Expecting Jones to grow, or change, or stop would be insane. He is one of a handful of men who has built an empire around his delusions. He will not stop doing what he does any more than Roger Stone, or Donald Trump, or Marjorie Taylor Greene might stop their own runaway trains of money-printing fantasy. They are incurable, they are indefatigable, and the movement they have built transcends any one of them, anyhow. To quote Friesen, they don’t care. They won’t care.

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But the point is not to make them care. These people will never change but some still might. And everything we now know about deradicalization suggests that it demands face to face encounters with those you have deemed less than human; those you believe to be crisis actors and paid operatives.

It will remain true that Alex Jones sees the entire world as a series of crisis actors and operatives and fake conspiracies that magically center him. This was fully on display at trial, Jones having attacked the victims, the judge, and the jury mid-trial. So, yeah, no. Alex Jones is not sorry and no, he doesn’t care. Every person in the courtroom is a player in a fantasy conspiracy to get him. But the ultimate project here cannot have been that a legal process would meaningfully damage the hazy reality of a post-truth ecosystem. The most and least satisfaction we were ever going to receive from Jones himself out of these proceedings came when Travis County District Court Judge Maya Guerra Gamble memorably got him to shut up, even if only for a few moments:

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You believe everything you say is true, but it isn’t. Your beliefs do not make something true. That is what we’re doing here. Just because you claim to think something is true does not make it true. It does not protect you. It is not allowed. You’re under oath. That means things need to be true when you say them. Don’t talk.

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It also still matters immensely that he had to sit face to face as Scarlett Lewis lectured him for 90 minutes about truth and in the importance of shared truth. “You’re still on your show today trying to say that, implying, that I’m an actress, that I’m deep state. You have, this week. And I don’t understand,” Lewis told Jones Tuesday. “Truth is what we base our reality on and we have to agree on that to have a civil society. Sandy Hook is a hard truth.”

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Lewis pressed Jones relentlessly on whether he still believed that she was an actor. “No I don’t think you’re an actor,” Jones replied, before the Judge instructed him to stop speaking until it was his turn to testify. “My son existed,” Lewis said in a clip that has been viewed more than 100,000 times. She added, “I know you believe me and yet you’re going to leave this court house and you’re going to say it again on your show.”

And he did. Because nothing is going to change Alex Jones, who sees speech as a cash-generating and cash-reducing product, and not as a means to an end connected to truth. The catharsis of the trial, to the extent there could be one, is not about repudiating lies-for-dollars or conspiracy theorists, or even in checking those who would incite physical violence by “just asking questions.” It was about putting these people—who live their lives in air-conditioned studios staffed by hollowed-eyed minions and fluffers—into the same physical space as those upon who they prey. Such moments, in our bubbled world —the bubbled world about which Jones himself complains relentlessly—are few and far between.

“My son existed” Lewis told Jones. To his face. It was both everything and also, in this present moment not enough. But for those of us who watched, it offered at least the possibility that someday, with enough such brushes with the reality and humanity of people we have written off, something more than catharsis may come, and that at least some of the reachable might someday come home.

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