BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Thursday, what could be the last public congressional hearing on January 6th airedand streamed across the country. Its crescendo was preceded by a montage of the silent.
LIZ CHENEY More than thirty witnesses in our investigation have invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and several of those did so specifically in response to questions about their dealings with Donald Trump. This is Roger Stone.
ROGER STONE I will assert my Fifth Amendment right to respectfully decline to answer your question.
LIZ CHENEY General Michael Flynn.
GENERAL MICHAEL FLYNN The Fifth.
LIZ CHENEY John Eastman.
JOHN EASTMAN The fifth [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And then this.
LIZ CHENEY We are obligated to seek answers directly from the man who set this all in motion. And every American is entitled to those answers. So we can act now to protect our republic. So this afternoon I am offering this resolution: that the committee direct the chairman to issue a subpoena for relevant documents and testimony under oath from Donald John Trump in connection with the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol.
BENNIE THOMPSON Those in favor will say I.
[JAN 6 COMMITTEE IN UNISON SAY "I"]
BENNIE THOMPSON Those oppose this no. [PAUSE] In the opinion of the chair I’s have it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The vote was unanimous, but Trump's compliance is very much in doubt. Perhaps he'll take the approach of his more dubious colleagues and his buddy Alex Jones.
NEWS REPORT Alex Jones sat down before the bipartisan House committee investigating January six and, oh, to be a fly on the wall. He pleaded the fifth nearly a hundred times instead of answering questions.
NEWS REPORT So surprising to those of us who have been watching from afar, this Alex Jones, who really has been disregarded as this Internet clown, is how intricately he is involved in the financing, planning and the possibility the insurrection that took place on January 6.
NEWS REPORT His own employees face criminal charges.
NEWS REPORT The mother of one rioter told a judge her son believes everything Alex Jones has to say. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But silence didn't shield Jones, who made a fortune from his talk show and website Infowars. From a reckoning in a more traditional kind of court.
NEWS REPORT Alex Jones was ordered to pay nearly $1,000,000,000 in damages for the extraordinary lies he spread about the Sandy Hook massacre. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This week, a Connecticut jury ruled that Jones would pay the families of eight Sandy Hook victims, as well as an FBI agent, $965 million for spreading conspiracy theories around the December 2012 shooting that took the lives of 26 people at the school, including 20 children under the age of eight. His main lie was that the tragedy didn't actually happen. During the trial, parents recounted compounded experiences of horror and surreality.
SANDY HOOK PARENT I felt like I was underwater to have someone publicly telling the world that it didn't happen is incredibly disorienting.
SANDY HOOK PARENT My son existed. You're still on your show today implying that I'm an actress, that I'm deep state. Truth is so vital. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society. Sandy Hook is a hard truth. Nobody would want to ever believe that 26 kids could be murdered. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE One family, whose son was the youngest victim of the attack, says they were forced to move multiple times after their address was leaked and threats of harm multiplied.
NEWS REPORT They said they do not feel safe because so many people have believed Alex Jones lies. Of course, Jones has now apologized and has now walked back the claims that the shooting was a hoax. [END CLIP]
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Alex Jones has played a role in virtually every high profile conspiracy theory that has brought so much harm in the decade since Sandy Hook including Pizzagate and coronavirus myths and the conspiracy theories about the presidential election that brought a mob to the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth Williamson is features writer for The New York Times. She's also the author of Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth. Even after spending four weeks straight in that Connecticut courtroom hearing the searing testimony of Jones victims, the judgment was still a stunner.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON I actually couldn't really believe, at first, the numbers that I was hearing, because there were 15 plaintiffs in this case and the court clerk just went systematically through what the awards were for each plaintiff, and it just kept mounting. And there was this sort of stunned silence on both sides. People were really agog.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The largest award went to Robbie Parker. He received $120 million from the jury. We'll wait and see whether he actually receives it. Who was Robby Parker, and what was his role in this case?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Robbie Parker was really the centerpiece of this trial. He did not realize this at the time, but he was the first Sandy Hook family member to speak publicly after the tragedy. The night afterward, he had been getting inquiries from family and friends in Utah who were saying “Media keeps calling us, they want to comment. They want us to talk about Emily,” and Robbie and Alissa Parker, Emily's parents, said “We really want anything like that to come from us. We want those reminiscences to be our own.” And so he said to a friend very close to him in Utah, “Send an affiliate reporter from this outlet to my church in Newtown. I'll meet them outside, and I'll speak with them. And then that message can go out to our family and friends back home in Utah.”
ROBBIE PARKER My daughter Emily would have been one of the first ones to be standing and giving her love and support to all those victims, because that's the type of person that she is. Not because of any parenting that my wife and I could have done, but because those are the gifts that were given to her by her Heavenly Father. She was the type of person that could just light up a room. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE How old was Emily?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Emily was six. She was an avid artist, a little girl who got calluses on her hands because she spent so much time painting and drawing. She was an empathetic big sister, a sweet girl who made greeting cards for people who she sensed were down. And so Robby just shared all of these reminiscences. But as he stepped to the lectern in the church parking lot, he realized that this wouldn't be one reporter as he had imagined. But there was a sea of cameras and microphones and reporters. And so he gave a kind of shocked half laugh and a smile as he stepped to the lectern. And then realizing, you know, exactly what he was about to do, he got very emotional and delivered what was a very heartfelt and saddening tribute to Emily. Well, Alex Jones seized on that split second where Robbie Parker smiled and laughed, and he replayed that section only of this press conference for years. And he accused Robbie Parker of being an actor. He said that that tribute to Emily that day was disgusting because it demonstrated that the Sandy Hook families were faking their loved ones’ deaths and that this was all a government hoax aimed at gun control. So the family immediately got a flood of threats and abuse online. Emily's funeral hadn't even taken place. Five minutes before the service was to begin, Robbie found Alissa Parker, Emily's mom, hiding in the closet, just not sure if she could even go through with that. And there began the torment that lasted for years. The death threats, letters to their house, etc..
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you say that formed the centerpiece of the case?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Yes. Because Robbie had been so relentlessly singled out by Jones, and because he had been mentioned by name, and because this video had been played so many times on Infowars over the years, he became kind of the face of that false claim that these grieving parents and relatives were actors.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, Robbie said every day in that courtroom, we got up and we told the truth. Telling the truth shouldn't be so hard. It shouldn't be so scary. And then he said to Jones, his followers, “For anybody that still chooses to listen to that man, just ask yourself, what has he ever given you?”
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What did he mean?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Alex Jones, for years and on his show, portrays himself as a truth teller, as someone who, at great personal cost, delivers the real story. So what Robbie was saying was, “He's lying to you. He's doing this to sell you products. He's keeping you on the hook until he can deliver the sales pitch.” That was what he meant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm. As the verdict was being read, Alex Jones was live on Infowars. And his big takeaway:
ALEX JONES Ain't going to be happening. Ain't no money. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, according to the coverage, he doesn't have anywhere near that much money. And what he does have, he's been actively trying to shelter because he knew the jury would go against him just as an earlier jury had in Texas. But how much does he have? And what are they going to do to try and get it?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON So we've received only hints as to what Alex Jones' net worth and the worth of his empire has been. And some of that was revealed in the first damages trial in August in Austin, Texas, where the jury awarded $50 million to Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis, who are the parents of Jesse Lewis, who was killed at Sandy Hook. And there the families produced a forensic economist who said that, at the outside, Alex Jones and Infowars were probably worth around $300 million at most. So, yes, you're absolutely right. This is a fraction of what these judgments are. The families acknowledge that. They really do feel like what they've won here is a battle for truth. They've taken back their own story. They've shown Alex Jones for what he is, which is a profit-driven huckster who is just selling these diet supplements and survivalist gear and dried food and quack cures on his online and radio show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He's also earned money from the trial by getting his followers to send him money for legal fees and so forth. That's a familiar strategy, but he put his parent company Free Speech Systems, into bankruptcy, claiming that he owed a debt of 54 million. But that debt is to a company he controls. Can he get away with any of this stuff?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON That remains to be seen. The families and their lawyers have said that he's not really bankrupt and that, as you say, you know, these companies are means for him to siphon money out of the business to himself and to his family so that the families can't collect it. So the families will be playing a game of cat and mouse with Alex Jones. But that is something that they're used to because this litigation has gone on for four years. He lost all four defamation cases that the families originally filed against him by default because he wouldn't surrender business records and financial statements and analytics and all of the things that the families by hook or by crook were able to secure, at least partly, and demonstrate that he was using these Sandy Hook lies to boost his online sales. So the families have decided that they'll just pursue, and, if they have nothing else, they have patience. And Brooke, in talking with them, they've already been through the worst that anyone can imagine. And they've sort of been through it twice because they've lost their children and their loved ones to a gunman. And then they've had people attack them saying that they lied about it and that it never happened. And so if that does anything to a person, it steels them for a big, long fight.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You mentioned Robbie Parker, who lost his daughter in Sandy Hook and was one of the first people to be called, quote, “a crisis actor” by Jones. This week, we also heard that the jury in the Parkland shooting case recommended life in prison without parole for the perpetrator. You wrote that the Parkland case also played a role in the Sandy Hook trial, or at least for Robbie Parker.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Yes. For years, the Parker family stayed silent as these threats mounted, as people stalked them. And even in 2016, Robbie was confronted on the street in Seattle; a man recognized him from that video and followed him for blocks, just hissing venom into his ear, saying, “How much money did you make from the government? What did you get paid for faking your daughter's death?” And the two of them almost came to blows. He went through that, and still he remained silent because he didn't want to poke the bear. You know, he didn't want there to be more abuse heaped on them. And so in 2018, the Parkers were asked to counsel and speak with a couple whose daughter died at Parkland. And in doing that, the father of the girl described a scenario very, very similar to what Robbie had been through. This dad spoke publicly and afterward was subjected to all kinds of abuse because he was called out online as a liar and as an actor. And it was then that Robbie realized this is not going to end. You know, these people won't go away or move on to the next target. In fact, they do move on to the next target, but they retain all the targets that went before. And so he just felt like he owed it to other parents and to, actually, Americans in general to stand up for this because it had become a phenomenon. Today, nearly a fifth of all Americans believe that every high profile mass shooting is faked, usually by the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Astonishing. You said the outcome of this trial likely won't actually change the way Jones functions. He makes a lot of money off of the model he uses, but he does have copycats who have created talk shows, YouTube channels, podcasts and so forth that are similar to his and profit from the conspiracy theories that he spawns. What impact do you think this verdict will have on those secondary characters – at least?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Some of my colleagues might disagree with me here, but I really do hope that it makes people who want to be the next Alex Jones think twice. It shows them that there are crippling consequences for spreading this type of disinformation so harmful to vulnerable people. I think most Americans are good people and they looked at this situation once it became more public through filing the lawsuits and said, “What kind of a country are we? What's gone wrong in a society in which you have a substantial number of people who are hounding the parents of dead children who are murdered in this way and telling them that they're liars?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your book, Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy in the Battle for Truth, you have a chapter on a lady who devoted herself to these conspiracy theories with the kind of vigor that both she and her children concede harmed her children because she didn't pay any attention to them and may have not done her husband any good who later died from alcoholism. When Americans ask themselves the question that you just framed, do you have an answer for them?
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON These conspiracy theories and the people who embrace them are driven by factors that don't have to do necessarily with the content. So, Kelly Watt, who is the person you're referencing — she had a house cleaning business in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She had a lot of disappointments in her life, and she ended up embracing conspiracy theories as a way to sort of make herself necessary, to kind of elevate herself and be that person who has the inside knowledge and is educating other people as to what the real story is. So back in the nineties, she was convinced that liberals in the Department of Education were indoctrinating Tulsa's public school children. And so she was attending school board meetings and PTA meetings and trying to alert people to this danger that she imagined was lurking in the curriculum. The local newspaper didn't pay attention to her. The school board kind of shut her down. And in the process, her family was kind of imploding. So her quest came to an end. But when she embraced Sandy Hook, she had the Internet, and that turned Kelly White, who was, as she described it, a janitor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, into a crusader. A citizen journalist who contributed a chapter to a book called Nobody Died at Sandy Hook. What I said earlier that a fifth of Americans now believe that every high profile mass shooting is staged by the government — there was never that kind of theorizing around the Virginia Tech shooting, our worst school shooting. And part of it was because social media wasn't at the rate of adoption that it was at the time of Sandy Hook just five years before. But it's given Kelly Watt a whole new world. It's given her a collection of new friends. It's put her in company of people that she considers smart and educated and questioning and skeptical. And so she's never going to give this up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON Brooke, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elizabeth Williamson is author of Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and The Battle for Truth. Coming up, a peek under the Infowars hood. This is On the Media.
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