The media has been abuzz in the past few days about conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s admission in a child custody case that he considers himself to be “playing a role” on his popular Infowars show. The admission has prompted extreme scrutiny in both left and right-slanted media, with commentators speculating either that the comments are a lie, or that this conclusion is obvious and the natural consequence of shows like the Colbert Report that straddled the line between real and fake news.
Jones, who is currently locked in a fierce battle for custody of his daughter, is obviously trying to play down the aspects of his personality that have made him reviled among a large swath of the population. His show has risen to prominence in the past few months thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump’s embrace of many theories proferred by Jones and his team. Now, with Jones throwing his own credibility into question in a desperate attempt to refute his ex-wife’s claims that he is unhinged, how much of Infowars coverage can be believed? And what responsibility does a commentator expressing personal views on the news have with regard to true facts?
The difficulty that many people have distinguishing between fake and real news is a hallmark of this time in media consumption. The deregulation of media sources and the widespread use of the internet mean that traditional media sources have lost their monopoly on the truth. This also means that people are functioning in the same society while believing several incompatible things to be true. “Alternative facts” are taking over the airwaves in the present in a way that seriously hampers the ability of the American democracy to survive. Democracy relies on an informed citizenry – the destabilization of the media is a serious impediment to that goal.
Performers like Alex Jones have given no indication that their views are satire, or that their theories and facts are fabricated. Their shows are not on professed comedy networks, and their viewers are likely to subscribe fully and non-ironically to the things they are saying. To claim that Infowars or any right-wing talk show is exaggerating information, or that the hosts are playing characters, is to be fundamentally and dangerously dishonest with the audience. Jones’s relentless coverage of the now-falsified Pizzagate scandal caused an armed attack of innocent people. What further violence might be triggered by the words and actions of these zealots?
Alex Jones and others of his ilk have cultivated reputations as fearless truth-tellers in a world that is being whitewashed by liberal-leaning mass media. The truth, it appears, is that some of them are merely opportunists with audiences willing to believe anything out of their mouths. The way forward will be difficult for people who genuinely care about real facts, and progress will continue to be obstructed by right-wingers who hide behind the veneer of satire whenever the going gets rough.