MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So historians tell us that the seeds of the January 6th insurrection were sown well before the election. Indeed, historian Richard Hofstadter coined his famous phrase, the paranoid style in American politics back in the 60s. And the fires have been fueled ever since by growing income inequality, immigration, a nation confronting its past and building a different future. All those things and more supercharged by a far right media machine. The previous president just normalized fear and loathing, while, as we've heard in this week's hearings, profiting mightily from it. But while he may be the leading paranoia profiteer, he's certainly not the only one.
OWEN SHROYER Honor to introduce a man who was the genesis in many ways of this second American revolution
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Infowars employee Owen Shroyer introducing Alex Jones at an event on the eve of January 6.
ALEX JONES They are trying to steal this election in front of everyone. As I told them 20 years ago, I'd tell em again. I don't know how this is gonna end but if they want a fight they better believe they got one. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Alex Jones also helped plan and finance the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the insurrection, though he's yet to be charged and despite a subpoena that put him face to face with investigators, the conspiracy theorist hasn't been particularly forthcoming.
NEWS REPORT In fact, 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 100 times instead of answering questions.
NEWS REPORT His own employees face criminal charges from an Infowars editor who streamed the riot.
NEWS CLIP It feels good to be in the capital baby.
NEWS REPORT To Infowars host Owen Shroyer. Who was right by Jones' side. At least 20 of those arrested either worked under Alex Jones, appeared on his show or followed his content. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER All of this scrutiny comes at an especially difficult time for Jones because he's in the midst of another high profile case.
NEWS REPORT Families of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 have now rejected a settlement offer from radio host Alex Jones. Jones offered to pay $120,000 per plaintiff to settle a lawsuit stemming from his claim. Jones has been found liable for damages and faces a trial to determine how much you should pay. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER After begging his viewers to bail him out last month. The Southern Poverty Law Center discovered that Jones received $8 million worth of Bitcoin from an anonymous supporter, demonstrating the power of a largely invisible network of donors and staff that have so far managed to keep him on air. Josh Owens worked at Infowars from 2013 to 2017. In an essay published on CNN dot com this week, Owens described his deep regret over the past five years as he's grappled with the damage that his work caused. Josh, welcome to the show.
JOSH OWENS Thank you for having me.
MICAH LOEWINGER You said you first started listening to Alex Jones in 2008 when you were 19 and you wrote that you fell into, quote unquote, an alluring trap.
JOSH OWENS I lived my life through movies at the time, and Jones does a similar thing. He's almost living in a fantasy land, and he references movies a lot. And, you know, the world is complicated. Politics, it's all complicated. And Jones condensed it into this very simple version. It was binary. It was good and bad. There were bad people who wanted to do bad things and there were plots and conspiracies. I didn't have to think too hard. And the simplified version of the world he was portraying was appealing.
MICAH LOEWINGER So how did you go from just being like a fan to actually joining his staff as a cameraman and editor?
JOSH OWENS I graduated high school. I had no intention of going to college, and I decided to enroll in film school. So Jones posted a reporter contest online. I was becoming a little disillusioned with film school. I think I was floundering and I just thought, Well, let me give this a shot. And I got in the top ten of that contest. And then through that, Jones offered me a job and I had no other prospects, so I decided to give it a shot.
MICAH LOEWINGER He sent you out with reporters like all over the country, right?
JOSH OWENS He started putting out his supplements. So the first one was an iodine supplement called Survival Shield. I got together the ad for that and he sent me and a couple other guys out to Utah to the manufacturing facility. But his real goal sending us out there was to infiltrate the NSA's data center. And I just remember he–
MICAH LOEWINGER Did you know that what you had out there?
JOSH OWENS No, I didn't. No, I found that out once. I got there.
MICAH LOEWINGER What a ridiculous bait and switch.
JOSH OWENS Yeah. Yeah. I thought it was going to be a simple trip. And then it turned out, you know, I think Jones wanted us to get arrested.
MICAH LOEWINGER Because if you got arrested, then it would seem like the government was targeting these intrepid Infowars investigative reporters and. Is that the idea?
JOSH OWENS Exactly. It's all it's all performance.
MICAH LOEWINGER And so did you go to the NSA data center?
JOSH OWENS Yes, we did. We pulled into the parking lot there. Signs everywhere do not film. The cops came out. They were very angry. We live streamed the whole thing to Jones's show and they wanted us to delete the footage. Long story short, I pulled out the card, pretended like I didn't know how to work the camera, and I left with the footage and I was able to upload it. And I think from that experience I earned Jones's trust. That's when he started sending me out on the road. So there were two things happening, I think. I think a lot of my brain was just focused on moment to moment. It was, go do this trip. Let's file this report. This is a problem. This is great. You know, it was just there was so much going on that I wasn't able to step back to see what we were doing. And it also escalated, not to jump forward too much, but when Trump announced, you know, he was running for president and then Jones kind of got on board with Trump, I was on the floor at the RNC when Trump said, you know, Americanism not globalism will be our credo. And, you know, Jones is right next to me with tears running down his face.
MICAH LOEWINGER You wrote "Over time as I stood behind a camera and watched Jones ignore, conflate, misrepresent and fabricate information, my critical thinking skills improved. Unfortunately, my education in media literacy came from learning how to circumvent it in others." So what did you mean by that?
JOSH OWENS Well, so I was standing behind the camera most of the time. I wasn't an on air personality, and I got to see, you know, out on the road. Jones would say we had intel that, you know, this was going on. We had a source.
MICAH LOEWINGER Where he would use like the language of like broadcast journalism to sound credible, to sound like that reporting had been done.
JOSH OWENS Yeah, it was almost like he was protecting sources. And that was his excuse of saying, well, we have intel that this is going on. But we didn't, and it wasn't true. And that happened a lot.
MICAH LOEWINGER Speaking of fabrications, you joined in 2013. So that would have been shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre in which a gunman killed 20 children and six school staff. What did you make of the story that Alex Jones told?
ALEX JONES Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured. [END CLIP]
JOSH OWENS At the time. I wasn't fully aware of what Jones's story was. I mean, I on some level, it feels like I'm making an excuse. And I think that I am to a degree, because I should have had the discernment to see the damage that could cause the danger that that would cause. But I didn't, because Jones said that about everything, you know, everything was a false flag. Everything was crisis actors. It didn't really happen. I'm just asking questions. I think in retrospect now, you know, when you can see the videos of Jones saying multiple times that it was a complete fabrication, it never happened, and then walking that back and then, you know, coming back around and saying it didn't happen again. I mean, it's all over the place. Like I said, it was like taking a a fire hose straight into your mouth. It was just nonstop chaos. There was a Hillary Clinton speech where she said something like Jones had a dark heart because he had used, you know, Sandy Hook as an opportunity basically to boost his own audience by, you know, pushing these conspiracy theories about it out. And that was I feel like the first realization had they're like, oh, okay, well, this is real. I was also around the Pizzagate time. It was Jones is pushing these baseless conspiracy theories and people were taking action like that guy going to the comet ping pong pizza place with a gun. It was learning about what these families had to endure. But that was after the fact. You know, I can't say that that was the reason that I left or anything, but I definitely became acutely aware of the dangers and the repercussions of some of those ideas.
MICAH LOEWINGER In your New York Times Magazine piece, you've said your coverage of this Muslim town in upstate New York. Islamburg was a turning point for you.
JOSH OWENS We started having meetings, you know, where Jones can give us directives for what the goal was, what you know, what we were hoping to get out of the trip. So Islamburg Jones brought us in a room and he was we're going to send you guys to Muslim majority communities. He wanted to call it an investigation into the American caliphate. There were some baseless claims circling the Internet that this mostly African-American group of Muslims who was just families living in a community, that they were somehow terrorist. Jones was like, 'Go there and check it out.' That's what we're hoping to find. We got there. There was nothing. We spoke to the sheriff. We spoke to the mayor of Deposit, New York. And all they had to say were positive things. That the people were kind, that their children went to school together. They never had an issue, they had never had suspicions, there was no reason to be concerned about anything. But that's not what Jones wanted. That's not creating content. That's not what we're there to do. So the reporter filed reports and I filmed them and posted them online that were just blatant lies, that there was an Islamic training center, that they were promoting Sharia law, which is a dog whistle. The intention of saying that was there's danger here. On the flight back, I was seated next to a muslim woman and her young child, and I can't explain it other than there was just something that kind of clicked in my head. It was like, these are just people and there are repercussions to what we're talking about, like going from the macro to the micro of seeing real human experience and just putting a face on it. I feel like I started to shift, to stop thinking about these big grand ideas that Jones had been pushing for so long that were not about the people. It was about a political agenda.
MICAH LOEWINGER After your New York Times piece came out, there were all kinds of responses. The New York Times article had over a thousand comments, and I did recently come across the response from some Muslim-Americans. And they said that in a couple of cases that what you wrote was too little, too late, and that the damage and what you had participated in had already been done to these communities.
JOSH OWENS I think that's a completely valid response, and I understand it. But I had been there, I had done these things, and I felt like the responsibility fell on my shoulders, too. I don't want to say correct it because I don't think you can. I think the damage has been done. But I do think that there is a culture of fear at Infowars and a lot of people are afraid to talk about their experiences and a lot of people, when they leave, want to forget it. And I was carrying a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, and it just felt like the right thing to do.
MICAH LOEWINGER To speak out.
JOSH OWENS To talk about my experience and how that experience changed me. Because, look, I'm not an expert on Alex Jones. I'm not a social psychologist. I'm not someone that can look at these statistics and say, look, this is who? Listen to conspiracy theories. All I can do is talk about my experience. I certainly didn't want it to come off as if I was some acrimonious employee who was looking for revenge. I chose to quit. You know, Jones begged me to stay, and I left that job because I was trying to be a better person. So I'm incredibly sorry for the things that I've done. I'm also not here to say that Jones is responsible for the things that I did, because ultimately that responsibility falls on me. I don't think that it's fair of me or right of me to sit and ask for someone's forgiveness, because those people, there's no expectation that anyone will give me forgiveness.
MICAH LOEWINGER In 2018, Alex Jones saw his podcast and social media accounts kicked off of Spotify, Facebook, YouTube, Apple. And I think that was the moment that like a lot of people who are listening to this, stop thinking about him. But you don't think that de-platforming him hurt his show and his cult of personality quite as much as it seemed then?
JOSH OWENS Well, look, Jones has spent 20 plus years cultivating this audience. I don't want to say that it hasn't affected him. I just think that I don't want to be trite. But Jones is like a cockroach. I don't think he's ever going to go away.
MICAH LOEWINGER As the January 6th committee continues to reveal its findings, at least for me, it's hard not to feel a bit pessimistic. That feeling that the people who need to be watching it aren't or are getting some sanitized, spun version from Fox or other right wing media outlets. But reading your recent CNN piece, it seems like you really do believe that reaching across the divide is not only important, but is possible.
JOSH OWENS I have to believe that it's possible because on some level it worked for me. Not everyone can go spend four years working for Jones and I certainly don't want them to. But yeah, I have to believe that there is hope in having conversations and people talking to each other. Maybe that's being idealistic. But what else do we have? De-Platforming people like Jones is a start, but I think there is false comfort found in that de-platforming because those messages still spread. Those people are still out there. They're still saying the same things. And are more people listening? I don't know. I mean, it seems like maybe.
MICAH LOEWINGER Based on what you've learned, what worked for you? What would you say to somebody who is deeply convinced of the big lie or entrenched in any number of these constellation of beliefs and conspiracy theories?
JOSH OWENS Well, I think if we stop taking these politically motivated ideas and we just look at how does overturning Roe v Wade affect real people? Like, what are the real effects that that has on people? You see that at the border. I saw it in Islamburg. I saw this hate filled rhetoric have a real world impact on individuals.
MICAH LOEWINGER We've been talking for a while. I guess I'm just trying to figure out where you think this conversation ends.
JOSH OWENS Okay. Let me ask you this. What was your point in having me on?
MICAH LOEWINGER That's a great question. Well, we have been talking about the hearings. And so we're coming to you somebody who worked to help furnish the machine that creates disinformation and harmful conspiracy theories. Someone who's come out the other side. What you might have learned about why the Alex Jones of the world are as effective as they are, and what can be done to help the people who are being hurt by him?
JOSH OWENS Well, I think everyone's circumstances are different. But what I can sit here and say is that I was part of that machine. We lied and it was intentional. Alex Jones doesn't care about the people that he speaks to on a regular basis. And I don't know if a lot of those people are looking for that community that I was looking for. They're looking for that validation. But all I can say is, I can promise you you aren't going to find it there.
MICAH LOEWINGER Josh, thank you very much.
JOSH OWENS Thank you very much.
MICAH LOEWINGER Josh Owens wrote about his experience working for Infowars for CNN.com in an article titled I Escaped Alex Jones's World: This Is What I Learned.