The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we learned from enduring a week-long news cycle about Alex Jones

Placeholder while article actions load

Alex Jones covered his interview with Megyn Kelly as he covers most things these days — via a live stream. The segment on “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” lasted about 17 minutes, but Jones’s live analysis of it began two hours before Kelly’s show started and concluded a half-hour after her entire, hour-long show had ended.

Jones — along with Mike Cernovich and Andrew Torba, who founded a social network that has been courting Trump supporters as a Twitter alternative — provided their running commentary on the interview to approximately 20,000 live stream viewers from the Infowars studios, as NBC’s feed aired on a big screen behind them. If the televised interview was a heated argument between Kelly and Jones over some of the conspiracy theories Jones has amplified over the years, then the live stream was Jones, Cernovich, and Torba arguing with the arguments.

Facing Alex Jones, NBC’s Megyn Kelly manages to avoid a worst-case outcome

They pointed out every “jump-cut” they could spot, theorized that Kelly was trying to use the edited interview to get President Trump to “disavow” Jones and even complained about the way Jones was lit.

Infowars host Alex Jones goes after Megyn Kelly. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The lighting was unflattering. In Jones’s own words, the NBC segment made him look like a “wet walrus.”

The sweat, the lighting, the cuts — for Jones and his fans, this was all evidence that the famous conspiracy theorist was the subject of an edited “hit piece.” But they knew that already: Jones had been telling his audience for a week that NBC had come for him to take him down, and that he had a plan to “expose” them, by releasing hours of secretly recorded footage of Kelly’s visit to Infowars HQ.

“This is their big gamble, this is their big take Alex Jones down.” he said earlier in the week. “This is pathetic. The only way I could fail was not doing it.”

Watch a week of this programming, and you might come to believe that the Jones/Kelly interview was an epic battle for the soul of the country. Jones, as he often does, spoke in terms of war, his thoughts running into each other in his trademark aggressive ramble. In the mainstream world that Jones opposes, this interview also took on some urgency of its own: was it ethical to even give Jones a platform like this? How could NBC justify airing an interview with a man who repeatedly questioned the reality of the Sandy Hook shootings, on Father’s Day of all days?

Together, the media and Jones fed a week-long news cycle about a short newsmagazine segment that turned out to be neither totally revealing nor totally damning to anyone. Jones came off sounding like a conspiracy theorist. Kelly looked like an interviewer questioning the facts of what Jones believes for the benefit of her audience. The week of speculation about what would happen on Sunday night turned out to be more interesting, and telling, than the interview itself.

The constant collisions between the mainstream media and the Trump-friendly quarters of the Internet have picked up since the inauguration. With a president in office who regularly calls the mainstream press “fake news,” the Trump-friendly Internet claimed partial credit for getting him there in the first place. Humiliating the mainstream press — in real or perceived ways — has become a meme on the right. The Kelly piece, as a story about one of the Trump-friendly Internet’s key figures, was an easy target from the moment NBC requested an interview.

There’s a popular theory about Jones and the Trump-friendly Internet, that they’re all winning a difficult game of six-dimensional chess against the entire establishment. The past week suggests another, simpler, possibility: Jones has suddenly found himself in a position, whether by accident or design, where he feels it could be possible to kill the mainstream media by drowning it out, and he’s pursuing that possibility as hard as he can. It’s a war by volume, one that he, Cernovich, and many others in the Trump-friendly Internet wage constantly.

“Alex Jones is milking every possible angle, and if one sticks then he gets to say he’s a genius,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Mercer University and co-author of The Ambivalent Internet, in an interview before the Jones segment aired. “Whatever thing ends up sticking after Sunday, that’s the narrative that gets to be regarded as the truth.”

“It frames everything as being infallible,” she added. “Whatever ends up happening plays into his hands. That makes it really hard if you’re coming from it from a fact-based position.”

Trying to fact check Jones is kind of like trying to fact check a horoscope.

The story Jones told before the interview even aired left plenty of room for him to be right, no matter what. Jones said the interview was a trap meant to discredit him, but he knew this and was going to use the interview to trap them. He compared Kelly to Medusa and himself to Perseus, the mythic hero. He released a 30-minute phone conversation in which Kelly pitched the interview to Jones and his team, and played and replayed it on Infowars’s live shows. He teased releasing eight hours of recorded conversations from Kelly’s visit to his studio. That tease became a minor right-wing meme, amplified by conservative media figures like Sean Hannity:

As we wrote in the middle of the week-long news cycle about the Jones interview, the Trump-friendly Internet seems to have one tactic that keeps working for them: inversion. In this case, it is an inversion of authority, of who should be viewed as responsible for telling stories. It doesn’t matter whether Kelly edited Jones fairly or not; what matters is the fact that they edited him at all, and Jones’s objection to NBC having the authority to do that. This tactic is simultaneously easy to spot and difficult to handle, if you’re a reporter trying to figure out how to write about the Trump-friendly Internet.

How Alex Jones is preparing his base for the Megyn Kelly interview

I asked Phillips what she made of the struggle to find an effective approach to covering this phenomenon. Her answer included a long, drawn out sigh. “The trick, the problem of coming up with an easy answer, is that we’re dealing with such broader problems,” she said. The week of controversy that benefited Jones also benefited the media. Even if Kelly’s ratings weren’t stellar for Sunday night, the controversy became valuable fodder for the journalists who jumped in to cover the whole thing. There’s a symbiosis.

The Trump-friendly Internet would tell you to look for proof of that symbiosis in the constant coverage of their antics in the mainstream press. In advance of Kelly’s interview airing, Cernovich tweeted (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that Alex Jones did “Megyn Kelly a great act of charity” by going on her show, that his presence “legitimized her.” But the symbiosis is also visible in the hours of footage that Infowars produces every day. The biggest event of the week for Jones was his reaction to a mainstream media story about himself.

More reading: