Confronting democracy’s demons

A fortnight ago in a Texas courtroom, a woman looked Alex Jones in the eye and said: “I want you to hear this. I think you know that Sandy Hook was real, that it happened… But I don’t think you understand the repercussions of going on air with a huge audience and lying.”

Softly-spoken Scarlett Lewis, mother of Jesse, was delivering a victim statement to Jones, founder and proprietor of a lucrative online enterprise called InfoWars. The name suggests he fights for truth, but that’s a lie.

From small beginnings as a self-styled “free speech” website in 1999, InfoWars became a leading US vehicle of made-up “news”. In a secret studio in Austin, Texas, Jones and others employed actors to put together visuals supporting fake news items and alternative versions of events like Sandy Hook.

Jesse was six years old in 2012 when a 20-year-old armed intruder at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shot him through the head, just after he yelled “run” to petrified classmates. Nine children did just that and escaped, but 20 others and six teachers died on that horrifying day. In Jones’s telling it was a staged hoax designed to “take away our guns”.

At his defamation trial Jones had avoided a direct confrontation with Jesse’s parents by leaving the court for his studio and live-streaming video of their testimony. He added his commentary about Jesse’s father Neil Heslin, who he said appeared to be “on the spectrum”, and about jury members, whom he represented as ignorant and working class.

He returned after a lunch break expecting to make a statement, only to find Scarlett Lewis had not left the witness box. For the first time in his career he was forced to face the consequences of his actions. The video of that confrontation is utterly compelling.

In the liberal-democratic world of the 1960s, when I started out as a cadet newspaper reporter, journalism was a solid, established profession complete with rules about what you could and couldn’t say, and how you should approach your news story.

Among these were guidelines aplenty around fairness and impartiality. Bias, or reporting just one side of an argument, was an absolute no-no. Words like objectivity, balance and neutrality were bandied about a lot. I learned that as a journalist you could not be a joiner.

Oddly I can’t recall anything in my training about not telling lies. Accuracy, yes – “get your facts straight” – but not the much bigger, wider concept of being truthful. Perhaps it was just too obvious to bother about. What else would a reporter do but tell the truth?

What else indeed? Alex Jones is properly called a conspiracy theorist, just one of a whole, vast, shadowy world of disinformation, but to his loyal followers, numbering in the millions, he speaks the truth. For them he’s in the same ballpark as journalists, but better.

The journalism we expect from established newspapers, broadcast networks, and public-good podcasts and websites tries to ensure all statements are checked for accuracy. If an error is pointed out it’s corrected. Jones felt no such compuction because his stories were figments of his fevered imagination.

But here’s the thing: where valid, honourable news sources often struggle to make ends meet, he has landed squillions from disinformation projects such as Pizzagate, the Great Replacement Theory and Donald Trump’s Stop the Steal (google them). A penalty of A$65.4 million for his lies about Jesse Lewis is not going to bankrupt him. 

Last week the FBI (headed by Trump appointee Christopher Wray), after negotiations and a legal subpoena failed to secure government documents Trump had secreted at his Florida compound, undertook a court-approved nine-hour search. The FBI said it took possession of “a number of boxes” (27 in total) containing 11 sets of classified information including files with a security rating of “top secret” or above.  

On cue, a host of angry commentators spoke of “deep state” conspiracies and “war”. Nineteen months after America’s Capitol was besieged by a mob, US citizens were again shocked to see a time-honoured government institution come under physical attack. Days after the Florida raid an armed man responding to Trump’s words was killed after he attacked an FBI field office. 

Open, honest, stable democracy – the most complex, difficult kind of government – means nothing to Donald Trump and Alex Jones. While claiming to defend law and order they undermine both, aiming always for democracy’s weakest points.

But there’s no place for pessimism. We must continue the hard work, holding democracy’s enemies to account and checking the facts, steadfast in the belief that truth will prevail. There’s no other way.

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