How right-wing commentators like Alex Jones ride mainstream media outlets to fame and fortune
When mainstream media outlets decide to interview right-wing trolls like Jones, they're paving the way for the fringe's future success.
I was on mushrooms the first time I heard Alex Jones’s voice.
It was the Summer of 2005, and I was living in a house with some friends in Decatur, Ill. Sprawled out on a couch in my living room and worried about the possibility of a bad trip, I stared intently at the TV. Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Walking Life was on.
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“That’s Alex Jones,” someone said, pointing to the screen. “He’s a talk radio guy. Smart. Funny. Not afraid to question the narrative.” Apparently, this movie was his introduction to Jones, as well, which led him to check out more of Jones’s work.
“Uh-huh,” I replied, still focusing all my energy on the screen to stay grounded. I was 19 and had never done drugs before. On screen, Jones’s character (credited as simply “Man in Car with P.A.”) sat behind the wheel of a car, ranting into a microphone. As the scene goes on Jones’s face goes from a light pink to a bright red as he rages about the “corporate slave state” and about the 21st century being “the age of humankind standing up for something pure and something right.”
“Cool. Yeah. I’ll check out more of his stuff, for sure,” I said. But the next thing I knew, we went down to the Sangamon River for a swim, where Oh, I sure hope I can keep my shit together by watching the TV turned into I sure hope I can keep my shit together despite being in the middle of a river. In short, I totally forgot my promise to “check out more of his stuff,” and didn’t think much about Jones for a few years.
In a 2017 interview with Matt Wilstein at The Daily Beast, Linklater addressed casting Jones in Waking Life and again in 2006’s A Scanner Darkly:
Long before he was the preeminent conspiracy theorist of the Trump era, Alex Jones was a lowly public-access TV host in Austin, Texas.
“He was this hyper guy that we’d all kind of make fun of,” celebrated director Richard Linklater tells The Daily Beast, wincing a bit when the InfoWars founder’s name comes up. “But he wasn’t so virulent, he just had all that energy.”
It was 17 years ago when Jones walked into an audition for Waking Life, Linklater’s beautifully animated mediation on dreams. He walked out with a small part as a version of himself. “I just thought he was kind of funny,” Linklater says, laughing uncomfortably.
Linklater would later add that he found it strange to see Jones “taken seriously on a national level,” after then-candidate Donald Trump appeared on InfoWars in December 2015.
In 2011, ABC’s The View invited Jones to appear on air to discuss Charlie Sheen getting fired from CBS’s Two and a Half Men. While there, Jones went on a rant that included a mention of “Tower 7,” a reference to a 9/11 conspiracy theory. Cool. Great. Awesome. Really insightful stuff, everyone.
In 2013, just weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, CNN had Jones on because… Jones… started an online petition saying that host Piers Morgan should be deported from the U.S. for “attacking the 2nd amendment.” (Morgan is an egomaniac, so of course, he took the bait and had Jones on his primetime show.)
What followed was a somewhat deranged interview. Jones got heated and started yelling at one point (“1776 will commence again if you try to take our firearms!”). Still, throughout, a banner promoting Jones’s InfoWars website appeared on the screen.
Morgan was interviewed by Dylan Byers for Politico soon after his interview with Jones aired.
“The best thing about Alex Jones is that 8 million people watched that video on YouTube,” Morgan told POLITICO in an extensive interview at his CNN office in New York. “I would suggest it’s the smartest booking we’ve ever made. The attention that interview got exploded this issue back onto the agenda for the entire week leading up to what Obama did today.”
“The president of the United States espoused exactly what I’ve been saying for the last five weeks,” Morgan continued, referring to the President Barack Obama’s proposed ban on assault weapons. “No one can tell me we haven’t had an influence.”
I’ll say it: Morgan’s delusional if he thinks that it was the commentary on his show that led the Obama administration to issue a set of executive actions aimed at curbing gun violence and calling on Congress to take action on the issue. The actual catalyst for these actions was the Sandy Hook shooting itself. Days after, then-president Obama announced that then-VP Biden would “lead an effort to develop a set of concrete policy proposals for reducing gun violence, due no later than January.” Absolutely nothing to do with Piers Morgan. Also, unless there’s another video he’s referring to, Morgan’s interview with Jones currently sits at just over 2.6 million views on YouTube, not 8 million (2.6 million is still a lot! Plus all the people who actually watched it when it aired or during replays).
Later in the year, Morgan declared his interview with Jones to be the top moment of 2013 on his show, adding that it was the most popular segment he did.
In 2017, Jones was interviewed by fellow conservative commentator Megyn Kelly on her short-lived Sunday evening show on NBC. While the interview itself was widely considered a flop ratings-wise, it still attracted 3.5 million viewers. The interview was also posted to YouTube, where it’s been viewed more than 4 million times.
And while the segment itself wasn’t terrible, it was yet another publicity bonanza for Jones. As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted on Twitter at the time, this was “a win for him; boosts his profile.”
That. That is the message that seems to be lost on Jones’s many “I may disagree with him, but…” defenders. It doesn’t matter if 90% of your audience thinks he’s a nutcase. He doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter if you “win the issue” or “expose” him as a liar. None of that matters at all to him because he lives in an alternative reality. All that ABC, CNN, and NBC did in these cases was help make Jones a household name, guaranteeing him more subscribers and a larger profile moving forward. It’s a numbers game, and Jones knows it. If he goes on TV and gets “exposed,” that’s fine, too, as it gives him something he can go back to his viewers with. Remember: these are people who hear the lies and nonsense he peddles and watch him, anyway. He’ll do what he always does in these situations and go back to them so he can claim that “corporatists” and “globalists” sabotaged him; it will only harden his viewers’ resolve to trust him and only him.
It’s a game, and as long as you invite Jones to play, he wins.
But this is not just about Jones. In fact, it’s not about him at all.
Power and influence in the world of media come down to one thing: exposure. You can’t become powerful or influential if nobody knows who you are. Let’s go through an example that I think back to on a somewhat regular basis: Tomi Lahren.
You probably know who Tomi Lahren is. Maybe. Possibly. Well, you’re more likely to know who she is (or just generally being aware of a person named Tomi Lahren existing, at least) than you were back in 2016.
See, back in 2016, Lahren hosted Tomi, an online opinion show on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network where she would absolutely rage about anything and everything. And in the world of right-wing media, Tomi was pretty popular! Her videos would rack up millions of “views” (Facebook’s metrics were flawed and would count a video auto-playing on mute for three seconds as a total view) on Facebook. But that’s where it ended: conservative media. Lahren’s over-the-top rants about Colin Kaepernick and LGBTQ rights were perfect for The Blaze, but a more mainstream venue? Nah.
Until… The Daily Show came along.
In September 2016, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah ran a segment titled, “Tomi Lahren’s Anger Lights Facebook on Fire.” The segment itself started off by highlighting how popular Lahren was among right-wing Facebook users (this was before it became widely known that Facebook’s video view metrics were garbage), but that “a lot of viewers like you at home might never have even seen her.”
There are a number of ways this could have addressed important points about filter bubbles, but instead, host Trevor Noah just sort of played a handful of her clips while saying things like “If you haven’t watched one of Tomi’s videos yet, you are missing out,” calling her “crazy talented” and “so good at what she does,” and jokingly referring to himself as “one of her fans,” and pretending to hand her a bouquet of roses.
And then, in December 2016, Noah had Lahren on the show for a 14-minute discussion. It’s not even that this was a bad interview. Lahren came away looking like the right-wing rage-a-holic she is (she claimed that the Black Lives Matter movement was pro-murdering police, which is obviously false), Noah made a bunch of valid points. Okay.
But absolutely none of that matters. What matters is that these two segments helped introduce her to a much, much, much larger audience outside of the right-wing echo chamber.
Days later, The New York Times published a profile of Lahren, calling her “the right’s rising media star.” The Times even had a photographer snap some photos of her for it.
And then ABC’s Nightline ran a very friendly profile of her.
By March 2017, Lahren had achieved the level of mainstream notoriety that got her a booking on ABC’s The View. There, she shocked hosts by mentioning that she was pro-choice.
Lahren got suspended and fired by The Blaze. She says it was for her pro-choice stance (she would later clarify that by “pro-choice,” she means first trimester abortions), and the Blaze said that it was because of “inappropriate and unprofessional” conduct at work. Honestly, I can’t bring myself to care about the “why” in this case.
ABC’s Nightline then ran another positive segment about Lahren.
By August 2017, she had been hired by Fox News, a big step up from The Blaze (or OAN, where she was before that).
Now, you may be thinking, “But Parker, even if the Facebook numbers were off, she was still getting millions of views on her videos! She was clearly popular and influential, and yadda yadda yadda.” To that, I ask, but was she?
While her “Final Thoughts” videos were supposedly racking up tens of millions of views on Facebook, her videos struggled to actually make it out of the realm of the tens of thousands in views on YouTube.
Here’s how some of her videos performed on YouTube. Data as of August 5, 2022:
I want to help put this in context:
Here’s a section from the fluffy NYT profile of Lahren in December 2016 (emphasis mine):
A segment from August featuring an incendiary address to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been watched on Facebook 66 million times. Ms. Lahren criticized Mr. Kaepernick, who had been protesting racial oppression by kneeling during the national anthem before games, pointing at unemployment and homicide rates, and saying that black people should take responsibility for their communities being run “into the ground.” Ms. Lahren has also been critical of prominent black people like President Obama and Beyoncé in commentaries that have gone viral.
Wow! 66 million views! Huh! I wonder if maybe the Times (and Trevor Noah and any other media personality who felt the need to talk about how amazingly popular her videos were) should have dug into that a bit more. I mean, just a month earlier, the Times wrote a whole story about how absolutely wild it was that more than 40 million people watched my beloved Chicago Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians (now Cleveland Guardians) in game 7 of the 2016 World Series, marking the highest ratings for a baseball game in 30 years. Was it actually plausible that Lahren’s rant where she screamed about Colin Kaepernick was viewed by… 26 million people more than that? And what about the fact that her videos didn’t seem to be able to gain traction anywhere other than Facebook? Shouldn’t that have been a red flag?
This cycle, which I plan to write about again soon and in more detail, plays out over and over and over again. A right-wing pundit type — whether Jones, Lahren, or anyone else — will be propped up by algorithmic luck or ad dollars, a mainstream outlet will go, “Oh wow, we need to talk about this,” and will repeatedly tell audiences that if they want to get out of their bubble, they need to check out this rising star. Eventually, the narrative manifests itself into a reality, and that person becomes the rising star.
Remember when Donald Trump announced his run for president in June 2015, riding down his golden escalator to a packed room wildly cheering him on? At the time, Trump didn’t have any real supporters, so he hired a bunch of actors to pretend to support him. They’d cheer him on while he smeared Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and drug dealers. The cheers sent the message to viewers, “Hey, it’s okay to be open about this sort of bigotry. Give it a try.” Had he delivered that line to an empty, silent room, maybe things would have been different. Or maybe not. Fast forward to a few months later, and there certainly wasn’t a need to hire anyone to attend Trump rallies. Narrative had manifested itself into a reality.
The press is powerful, and when it elevates people with abhorrent views, it provides them with an opportunity that very, very, very few people get.
I’m not asking anyone in media to stop covering important individuals.
I’m not asking anyone in media to “ban” anyone.
I am asking people in media to understand that their editorial decisions, from who gets invited to appear on talk shows to what topics we actually hear about in the news (and how often), are not value-neutral. Want to invite the next Tomi Lahren or Alex Jones to appear on your show? Fine. But just know that you’re not “exposing” their bad ideas or “showing the public who they really are;” you’re giving them an opportunity, which they will be lucky to have (even if they pretend to be upset about it, as Jones did about his Megyn Kelly interview.
In short: make good choices.
Had Trevor Noah not elevated Lahren (again, she was only popular on Facebook, using Facebook’s video metrics, which counted 3 seconds of hovering over a muted autoplay video as a “view,” something that probably had more to do with her being a young, conventionally attractive, blonde woman than it did with the content of the videos themselves), maybe she’d have landed at Fox News anyway.
Or maybe she’d still be the person working at The Blaze, with booking producers who misspell the name “Glenn Beck,” leave form-letter lines in copy/pasted formatting like “We love you over here and would love to have you on the show!” when emailing a person they very clearly hadn’t heard of (and certainly didn’t “love”) until 10 minutes before sending an email trying to book them on her show.
But we’ll never really know, will we?
(I turned this appearance down. While I wasn’t familiar with Lahren at the time, I looked up her videos, and realized that it wasn’t worth it.)
This has been an extremely lengthy piece, and if you’ve made it all the way to the bottom, thank you. Sorry about there not being a weekly recap email this week. I’ll make sure next week’s is a good one!