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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Chris McGreal

‘It got vile very quickly’: how Alex Jones turned a tragedy into a battleground

Man with back to camera
Dan Reed, the director of The Truth vs Alex Jones: ‘He totally stomped on and trashed the memory of this six-year-old girl.’ Photograph: HBO

There is a statistic dropped into the middle of the new HBO documentary about Alex Jones and his conspiracy-theory-laden campaign to deny the Sandy Hook school massacre that is so startling it changes the complexion of the film.

It’s tempting to see the blustering alt-right Infowars host as little more than a charlatan selling snake oil conspiracy theories to the fringes of American society. But then The Truth vs Alex Jones tells us that one in four Americans believes Jones’s claim that the 2012 murder of 20 small children and six staff at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, never happened.

Within hours of the massacre, Jones was on air describing the killings as a “false flag” operation by the government to justify restrictions on gun ownership. The families grieving over unimaginable loss are made out to be actors. Their children are portrayed as imaginary or alive and well or anything but dead.

What followed for the families was a decade of torture on top of the horror of losing their children as ever more Americans said they were frauds. Some parents were recognised in the street and told to their faces that their grief was a lie. Jones and Infowars did more than anyone to push that fiction but it turned out that the victims were not as broken or powerless as he imagined.

The film-maker, Dan Reed, spent four years following two sets of parents who turned to the one place where most Americans still believe they might find truth – the courts. By the end of this fascinating and powerful documentary, the real Alex Jones is laid bare. A grifter who knows it’s all made up is left snivelling to the bereaved parents he has spent years torturing that he didn’t mean it, only to return to his monstrous ways when he is back behind the microphone.

“What really attracted me was the opportunity to see the clash of these amplified lies and the whole theatre of disinformation with the processes of the court of law because the judicial system is the last place where you can actually determine truth to the best that we can,” said Reed. “I thought that dragging Alex Jones into a court of law for telling lies, for monetising lies, about the murder of children would be an extraordinary thing to make a documentary about.”

Jones got his start at 22 on public access television in Texas, a precursor to YouTube on local cable channels that one of his former colleagues, Russell Dowden, describes as hosting everyone from “a guy talking serious political issues with a toilet seat around his neck” to Satanists.

“Alex eventually stood out as he got a thicker skin,” Dowden tells Reed. “You watched because you didn’t know what the guy was going to say next … He was fucking hilarious man. He’d rant and rave. There’d be times when he’d get red faced and start spitting.”

Jones founded Infowars in 1999 and two years later built a following by claiming that the government either perpetrated the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen. Soon he was on air six days a week, pushing one conspiracy theory after another.

But Jones’s own staff at Infowars saw what he was really about. After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, Jones despatched a crew to California to find high levels of radiation swept across the Pacific ocean. Except they didn’t.

An Infowars camera operator, Josh Owens, said Jones was furious when the geiger counters detected nothing out of the ordinary. Jones was using his show to sell an iodine supplement as a protection against radiation and wanted to scare Californians into buying it.

“Did we think he wanted us to lie? Yes, it was obvious,” said Owens.

Then came Sandy Hook. Just two hours after the shooting, Jones was on air observing that it happened in Connecticut, “one of the states that has draconian restrictions on gun ownership”.

“I said that they are going to come after our guns, look for mass shootings. And then, magically, it happens,” he told his viewers. “This is staged.”

Jones latched on to a brief moment when one of the bereaved parents, Robbie Parker, smiled before making a statement to the press about the loss of his daughter, Emilie.

“He walks up like he’s an actor and then breaks down on camera,” Jones claimed.

Parker said it was a nothing more than nervous smile.

“It got vile very quickly. Emilie’s memorial Facebook page became inundated. It was: ‘Fuck you, motherfucker’ and ‘I know where you live, I have a gun’,” he said. “He totally stomped on and trashed the memory of this six-year-old girl.”

A digital glitch in a CNN interview with Noah Pozner’s mother, Veronique de la Rosa, was seized on by Jones as evidence of fabrication and went viral. To give the claims an air of forensic analysis, Jones roped in a former school security administrator, Wolfgang Halbig. He described a grieving father as “playing the role of the parent who lost a child”, claimed Emilie Parker wasn’t murdered and said that “nobody died” at Sandy Hook.

“I think Emilie is alive and well and doing good,” he said at the time.

Halbig repeated this to a Newtown school board meeting two years after the massacre as its members stared at him in disbelief. He interpreted their refusal to engage with his spurious theories as evidence of them “hiding something”.

When Reed confronted Halbig about the pain he is causing people mourning their lost children, he responded: “If I’m that wrong, and if I’ve hurt people, probably I need to go to a mental hospital.”

All of this might be dismissed as the rantings of a deluded few but then we hear that one in four Americans believes the lies Jones has unleashed. Reed has no doubt that Jones does not believe his own claims.

“Alex is bright and cunning. He knows that what he’s saying is a tissue of lies. He has an onstage persona which conveys the intense belief in the lies that he tells. He’s making money. You can almost hear the cash register,” he said.

“I think part of his successes is his ability to meld, anger and comedy. It’s sort of angertainment. He’s very watchable. As one of the parents says towards the end of the film, you can’t take your eyes off him.”

Some of the parents thought that if they ignored the noise it would eventually go away. Others tried to engage with the growing ranks of denialists but realised they were not interested in reason. Those promoting the hoax claims asked for birth certificates to prove the children even existed and, when shown them, dismissed the documents as forgeries. They asked for photographs and then claimed they were staged. Some even demanded to exhume the bodies.

Finally it was too much for Neil Heslin after Jones ridiculed an interview in which he described holding his son, Jesse, who had a bullet hole in his head. Heslin and Jesse’s mother, Scarlett Lewis, sued Jones in Texas for defamation and emotional anguish. A few weeks later, a group of families filed a similar legal action in Connecticut.

Jones lost both legal cases by default after repeatedly defying court orders to hand over material but juries were convened to consider how much to award the parents.

Reed – whose other documentaries include Leaving Neverland, about two men who allege they were sexually abused as children by Michael Jackson, and Four Hours at the Capitol, about the January 6 insurrection by Donald Trump’s supporters – persuaded the judge in the Texas trial to allow him to film in court. So we see how Jones reacts to the evidence that he is little more than a grifter making millions by stalking the grieving families to stoke his audience and sell dietary supplements on his show.

One of the most telling sequences in the film comes as Jones’s bluster evaporated in the witness box in Texas after he is read the graphic statement of a police officer who found the bodies of the Sandy Hook children. Jones acknowledged, under oath, that the massacre was real.

Asked if he’s sorry for his lies, Jones said he “did all this from a good place in my heart”.

He pleads, “I’m a good person,” and tells the parents, “I never intentionally tried to hurt you.” But then he blames the “establishment” for undermining confidence in the truth.

During a break in proceedings, Jones shakes Heslin’s hand and says: “I believe that your son died.”

But it’s no surprise to anyone that once he is on air again, he is back to his old ways. Reed said he spent years trying to get Jones to do an interview.

“He kept on swerving and evading, and I went to see him at Infowars. It was weird. He’s quite shy and didn’t really make eye contact, a bit of a limp handshake. He wasn’t what I expected. You see this massive, gruff, shouty persona on screen, and he was much shyer than that in the flesh,” he said. “He puts on a big act, but it I think he knows that it’d be difficult to get away with everything he does get away with all the time in front of someone else’s camera.”

The Texas jury awarded six-year-old Jesse Lewis’s parents $50m. But it’s the Connecticut jury that might finally break Jones. On air, Jones called the hearing “the biggest show trial in US history”.

“Come on, crucify me,” he taunted.

The jury obliged by awarding the families nearly $1bn, the biggest defamation judgement in US history. How much of that money the Sandy Hook parents actually see remains to be seen after Jones and Infowars declared bankruptcy. But Reed said the court hearings were “incredibly cathartic” for the families.

“They are ordinary people who lived in a small town in New England who believe in law and order and believe in the rule of law. And for them court is a very important place where truth can be told, evidence can be heard and and arguments can be proven,” he said

“All of them, I think, got closure from the 10-year onslaught campaign of lies by Jones. It’s really worked and it really helped them.”

As for Jones, by the end of this nuanced and gripping film, whatever amusement there may have been at the beginning in watching his frenetic rantings gives way to revulsion at a man prepared to knowingly cause so much pain, and all for money.

“In the end, he is a monster,” said Reed. “He is a particular type of monster that has emerged from the internet age. He has this massive status online and that’s what’s driving the grift. The grift is the monetisation of the parents’ grief. And that is a monstrous, cruel thing to do.”

  • The Truth vs Alex Jones premieres on 26 March on HBO with a UK date to be announced

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