In what may be only the first of many legal shoes to drop, the controversial conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, who operates the fake-news website Infowars, has been ordered to pay more than $4 million in damages to the parents of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting, which Jones claimed to have been a hoax.
The trial served up a lot of highlights and fodder for legal commentators to tear into, including the revelation that Jones’s lawyer had sent a copy of his client’s phone records to the plaintiffs in the suit. But what stood out for me was what one of the plaintiffs had to say when she addressed Jones directly:
“It seems so incredible to me that we have to do this — that we have to implore you, to punish you — to get you to stop lying,” Scarlett Lewis, whose son was killed at Sandy Hook, told Jones.
On the face of it, this does seem incredible. Jones was lying and knew he was lying, yet continued broadcasting his shtick about how the massacre had been a “false flag” operation with “crisis actors” performing in front of a green screen despite being told to stop. Why? The bottom line was that his lying was profitable. Jones apparently made tens of millions of dollars off of such nonsense, mainly through selling supplements and survivalist gear from his Infowars store.
I’m reminded of how Donald Trump, when told about the danger of his joining the marchers on the Capitol on January 6, as he publicly declared he would, excused himself by saying he “didn’t mean it literally.” Jones has since stated that the Sandy Hook massacre was “100% real,” essentially cloaking himself in the same defence. He said things because they were what his audience wanted to hear, not because he thought they were true. He wasn’t a reporter any more than Trump was a president; both were just entertainers, making a buck. To suggest that what they were doing was right or wrong, good or bad, was to be met with a blank stare of incomprehension, as though one were speaking a foreign language.
This link to the world of entertainment also made me think of something I’ve railed about for going on twenty years now. In terms of arts criticism (mainly book and film reviewing) negative voices have been drowned out by what’s been dubbed poptimism: the argument that any book that’s a bestseller, or movie that’s a blockbuster, or TV show with high ratings, is effectively beyond criticism because it has been successful at the only thing that counts, which is making money. Criticism isn’t just superfluous (this has always been the case when dealing with mass entertainment) but wrongheaded. A reviewer literally doesn’t have any right to be critical, the media having given in to what I described in Revolutions as “a sort of celebrity worship wedded to market fundamentalism, one that makes popular/commercial success the only criterion of aesthetic value.”
For “aesthetic value” we can substitute truth or morality. Faced with Lewis’s incredulity, I imagine Jones feeling only bafflement. Any messaging or conduct so profitable, “bought” by so many people, can’t be wrong, can it? There is no other legitimate standard of value. If it makes you money, it can’t be that bad. In becoming rich and famous Alex Jones put himself beyond good and evil, and very nearly above the law.