The perils of ignoring ideologues like Alex Jones

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Barbara Walters interviewed Saddam Hussein, so why can’t Megyn Kelly interview Alex Jones?

Monday morning, Kristin Lemkau, the CMO of JP Morgan, tweeted her disgust with Megyn Kelly’s choice to interview the controversial conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. “As an advertiser, I’m repulsed that @megynkelly would give a second of airtime to someone who says Sandy Hook and Aurora are hoaxes. Why?”

Lemkau’s tweet sparked outrage on social media, widespread condemnation, and resulted in Sandy Hook Promise’s decision to drop Kelly as the host of their annual gala. Much of the response echoed Lemkau’s sentiments — wondering how Kelly could give a fringe figure like Jones a mainstream platform like NBC to voice his revolting ideology. Although the elite media ignored and mislabeled Infowars, it is unfortunately a mainstream movement, and arguing that, “monsters are made” by engaging with ideologues like Jones fuels their appeal and deepens political rifts.

Despite having a large and sustained following, prior to Trump’s primary ascension in February 2016, Alex Jones and Infowars were entirely ignored, and have since been incorrectly labeled fringe. From June 2014 to February 2016, The New Yorker mentioned neither Jones nor Infowars, and the N.Y. Times wrote only one sentence of coverage in an article about militant Texans, where they cited a “report on Infowars, a website operated by Alex Jones, a libertarian-leaning talk radio host from Texas, [for suggesting] the name Helm was an acronym for Homeland Eradication of Local Militants.”

Elite media like The Times and The New Yorker ignoring a fringe conspiracy theorist creates little cause for alarm except that Infowars was anything but fringe. In June 2014, Infowars outranked The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and even Breitbart in Alexa’s (an Amazon Web Services internal web traffic system) proprietary traffic rank. Unlike other ‘fringe’ movements like Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute that reaches an estimated 16,000 unique visitors per month, Infowars.com boasts over 3.5 million unique monthly visitors in the U.S. alone.

Considering that nearly as many people visit Infowars as watch “Master Chef Jr.,” it should not be called fringe (and Justise deserved to win by the way — her cider braised pork belly made Jasmine’s jerk lobster tail look so weak). Rather than accepting the site’s prominence and addressing the complexities of the message, liberal media sources like the Huffington Post resort to neatly packaging his ideology into a laundry list of low-hanging transgressions.

Refusing to engage with an ideology that resonates with millions of Americans simultaneously distances party lines and fuels Jones’s talking points and hateful rhetoric. This, like similar outrage at Middlebury and Berkeley over Charles Murray and Ann Coulter’s respective appearances, brings to mind a bizarre, but poignant section from Act I of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” where he breaks from the action and lays out the play’s theme and allegorical exploration of McCarthyism, “… in America any man who is not reactionary in his views is open to the charge of alliance with the Red hell. Political opposition, thereby, is given an inhumane overlay which then justifies the abrogation of all normally applied customs of civilized intercourse. A political policy is equated with moral right, and opposition to it, with diabolical malevolence.” Miller argues that participants in American civil discourse tend to treat political views outside the norm with undue moral weight and fiery nastiness. No matter how preposterous, once an opinion reaches the kind of mass appeal demonstrated by Infowars, categorically dismissing it as deplorable proves counterproductive. Any compassionate, educated, and intellectually rigorous person should be able to listen to Jones’s opinions, and then articulate the logical, emotional and moral flaws in civilized discourse. Sandy Hook and 9/11 are two of those special gut-turning, words-don’t-really-capture tragedies, but Alex Jones spends a cuckoo-bananas amount of time on air (four hours per weekday), and excluding his participation in an important national conversation for a few select opinions (loathsome as they may be) creates a painfully simple black-and-white narrative. Far from silencing Jones, exclusion and divisive attacks embolden his pride, and provide layups with which to galvanize his fans.

Believing in and propagating conspiracies is offensive, ignorant, and abhorrent, but ideas alone are embers that can be extinguished through meaningful and engaging conversation: Peter Arnett’s 1997 interview with Osama Bin Laden provided valuable insights into al-Qaida’s impending jihad; Barbara Walter’s 1990 interview with Saddam Hussein shed additional light on the ongoing Gulf War; Truman Capote’s interviews with Perry Smith surfaced the brutality suppressed by 1950s idealism; and Alex Haley’s excellent 1966 Playboy interview of George Lincoln Rockwell (self-appointed fuhrer of the American Nazi Party) exposed a hatred many Americans ignored. These interviews did not lionize the subjects, but instilled a better sense of understanding and higher degree of concern.

Refusing to similarly engage with Jones produces additional propaganda fodder and assumes that the average viewer of Megyn Kelly’s show is as impressionable as a child in Hamelin. If Ms. Lemkau refuses to watch the interview because she finds the subject’s ideas offensive, I implore her to listen to (or re-listen to) David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address where he articulates the complexity of the issue with ease, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.” 

Either way, Megyn, I support your decision to go ahead with the interview, and if things get heated, just give him a jar of pickles.

Harrison, who currently lives in New York City, was student body president and graduated valedictorian from Flathead High School in 2010. Since then, he graduated from Dartmouth College and has built and sold two tech companies.

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