Tony Norman: Alex Jones and the vibrant entertainment-conspiracy complex
April 18, 2017 12:00 AM
Ilana Panich-Linsman/The New York Times
Alex Jones, conservative conspiracy theorist and operator of Infowars.com, in the control room for his right-wing radio show, in Austin, Texas.
By Tony Norman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the spring of 2001, Vince McMahon, the chairman and owner of what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation, did something that was once considered unthinkable for carnival barkers — he admitted that what millions of WWF fans experienced on the big screen and in arenas across America every week weren’t really competitive contests.
Vince McMahon admitted that wrestling was closer to soap opera and sitcoms than it was to whatever appeared on America’s sports pages, although he used the euphemism “sports entertainment” to maintain some dignity. He added that his company wasn’t interested in insulting its audience’s intelligence by refusing to acknowledge the obvious.
After pulling back the curtain on the uniquely modern spectacle of studio wrestling, a funny thing happened — the WWF’s ratings soared. Far from being resentful at being played for suckers, audiences appeared to appreciate finally being let in on the joke.
Free to ignore even nominal contact with reality, the WWF grew its audience on the backs of the most absurd narratives imaginable. It turns out wrestling fans weren’t drawn to the WWF — now known as the WWE — for “reality-based” programming.
Consequently, the long-dreaded mass alienation of disenchanted wrestling fans privy to the truth never materialized.
I suspect that’s why divorce lawyers for Alex Jones, America’s most influential conspiracy theorist, are suddenly using a variation of Vince McMahon’s “wrestling is fake” tactic to position their client in his child custody battle with his ex-wife.
“He’s playing a character,” attorney Randall Wilhite said during a pretrial hearing. “He’s a performance artist.” Mr. Wilhite asked the judge to give Mr. Jones, 43, the same creative leeway he would give, say, Jack Nicholson taking on the persona of the Joker in a Batman movie. Judging Mr. Nicholson’s parental fitness on the basis of his performance as Batman’s deadliest foe would be analogous to Mr. Jones’ situation, his lawyer insisted.
If Alex Jones’ lawyer is to be believed, the founder of Infowars has merely taken on the persona of a crazy person without actually being one.
We saw a hint of this strategy taking shape in late March when the host of “The Alex Jones Show” apologized to the owner of Comet Ping Pong in Washington, D.C., for promoting a story that the family pizza restaurant was a front for a child sex trafficking ring that engaged in satanic rituals.
In early December, a 28-year-old father of two from North Carolina named Edgar Welch had taken the broadcast about the child sex ring seriously and showed up at the pizza restaurant with an AR-15 ready for war, like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” He even shot a round into the ceiling to prove he wasn’t just a Robert De Niro wannabe.
Fortunately, no one was hurt and Welch was taken alive into custody. He credited Mr. Jones’ show with inspiring him to act. This prompted the conspiracy theorist to disavow the story he once championed. He even called “Pizzagate” a hoax, although he’s likely to face some legal liability if the restaurant owner sues him for harassment.
Still, Mr. Jones finds himself in tricky territory. His entire business model depends on listeners believing he is “sincere” about the positions he advocates. If his lawyers argue that Mr. Jones’ Infowars persona is pure fiction, then what are his gullible listeners supposed to make of his core arguments?
Alex Jones said that the mass killings of Sept. 11 were a “false flag” operation — a government-staged special-effects extravaganza meant to obscure the demolition of the World Trade Center with strategically placed munitions by Bush administration “globalists” needing a pretext for war.
As far-fetched as the theory is that Osama bin Laden actually “worked” for George W. Bush, Mr. Jones has also convinced thousands of people that the 2012 massacre of 20 grade-schoolers and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., never happened.
According to Mr. Jones, who has danced around but never renounced the theory, every corpse at Sandy Hook was an actor hired to generate enough sympathy to justify the confiscation of guns and the repeal of the Second Amendment. All the actors are very much alive at an undisclosed location — probably the same military base sheltering the victims of 9/11.
President Donald Trump claims to be a fan of Alex Jones’ paranoid style and appeared on Infowars during the run-up to the election. Mr. Jones is a fierce supporter of Mr. Trump and regularly identifies so-called “deep state” conspiracies against the president.
For his part, Mr. Trump, a known ingrate, has made no effort to declassify the intel that would prove Mr. Jones “correct.” Then again, maybe Mr. Trump has been in on the joke from the beginning. Along with “fake news,” there’s obviously a thing called “fake views.” Ask Vince McMahon.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter @TonyNormanPG.