Perry Mason is not exactly a realistic portrayal of how courtroom trials and lawyers work. The mid-century TV character played by Raymond Burr would often exonerate his clients in a dramatic last-minute reveal while conducting a cross-examination. In a world where 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved through plea deals, and cross-examinations are rarely so theatrical, Perry Mason moments are all but fictional now. But for one brief, shining moment in a Texas courtroom this week, they became all too real.
Alex Jones, the far right conspiracy theorist, was on the stand earlier this week in his defamation trial. He is facing multiple lawsuits from the families of people who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. During the trial earlier this week, the families’ lawyer dropped a bombshell while cross-examining Jones on the stand: One of Jones’s lawyers had accidentally sent a copy of Jones’s phone records and data to opposing counsel, then failed to take the proper steps to exclude it as privileged after learning of the mistake.
“Mr. Jones, did you know that 12 days ago, your attorneys messed up and sent me an entire digital copy of your entire cellphone with every text message you’ve sent for the past two years?” Mark Bankston, a lawyer for the families, asked him while he was on the stand. Bankston alleged that Jones had perjured himself based on what was found in the records, which weren’t turned over during the discovery process. Jones eventually replied, “This is your Perry Mason moment.”
It is as satisfying as it is surprising to see the Infowars radio host held accountable in any meaningful way for his corrosive activities. For the last two decades, Jones made a lucrative living on selling a paranoid, alienating worldview to disaffected and troubled listeners, telling them that the “new world order” was behind almost all of their woes in everyday life, and casting himself as a lone truth-teller in a world of malicious frauds and shadowy puppeteers. Oh, and he wanted you to buy survival supplies and diet pills that hawked along the way.
Describing Jones as a “radio host” only really describes the technical means by which he makes a living. More accurately, his vocation is misleading, deceiving, and outright lying to people. He has claimed that “sources inside NASA” had told him that the space agency faked aspects of the Moon landing, and that “thousands of astronauts” secretly died along the way. (Only about 300 to 400 people have ever served as astronauts at NASA.) He has asserted that the U.S. government bears responsibility to varying degrees for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the September 11 attacks in 2001. The War on Terror, the Great Recession, the Covid-19 pandemic—these things didn’t just happen, Jones tells his audience. Someone orchestrated them for reasons that only he can explain and can never seem to prove.
It would almost be easier to list the conspiracy theories and denialism movements to which Jones does not subscribe. The only major one that he does not align himself with, as far as I can tell, is Holocaust denial. But giving him credit for this would be a little like praising Ted Kaczynski for not using overnight delivery. Jones claimed in 2016 that there is a “Jewish mafia” that partially runs the world in a “global, corporate combine,” echoing antisemitic imagery of a global Jewish conspiracy. After the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Jones told listeners that “Jewish actors” posed as Ku Klux Klan members to discredit the white supremacist protesters there. Some white nationalists have described him as a key influence on the road to their ideological development, and Jones is an influential figure in his own right on the far right edges of American society.
It would still be a mistake to view everyone who dabbles in a little suspicion from time to time as Alex Jones’s ilk. A majority of Americans consistently tell pollsters, for example, that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone when he assassinated President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In the late 1970s and early 2000s, as many as eight in ten American adults told Gallup that they didn’t believe the Warren Commission’s version of events. For younger folks, there’s even a (mostly ironic) conspiracy theory that claims birds aren’t real. Many, if not most, Americans who dabble in unorthodox beliefs are probably closer to Fox Mulder than to Alex Jones.
Egged on by the Infowars empire, however, Jones’s adherents tend to take things beyond idle amusement or generalized suspicion. After he told his audience that Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was a child sex-trafficking hub, one of his listeners drove from North Carolina to the restaurant, barged in with an AR-15, and opened fire at the walls and ceiling in an apparent effort to liberate the children. (None were found except among the diners.) In the wake of the incident, Jones retracted his allegations against Comet Ping Pong and its owner on air.
Those legal troubles did not deter him, either. When a State Department employee named Brennan Gilmore captured footage during the 2017 Charlottesville protests of the car that fatally struck protesters, Jones identified him by name on his radio show. He described Gilmore as a CIA operative who was paid $320,000 a year by George Soros, the prominent Democratic donor who is a staple of antisemitic conspiracy theories. Gilmore told me in 2018 that after Jones and others vilified him, he and his family were inundated with threats and abuse from far right adherents. Earlier this year, as part of a settlement in Gilmore’s defamation lawsuit against him, Jones admitted liability for his role in it.
Nothing has really shown the depths to which Jones would sink like his decades-long harassment of the Sandy Hook families. Jones has long described mass shootings as “false flag” operations to convince Americans to give up their guns and make it easier to impose tyranny. To explain them away, he has described survivors of school shootings as “crisis actors” and suggested that no children actually died in Newtown. As a result, his acolytes have often harassed the family members of deceased children and teachers since the shooting took place. On the stand in Texas earlier this week, Jones finally admitted that the school shooting was “100 percent real.”
While grieving families found themselves harassed by his listeners and some of his followers embraced violence, Jones built a stupendously profitable empire of radio shows, podcasts, websites, and more. He became an occasional ally of the Trump administration, even hosting the then-candidate on his show during the 2016 election. And he poured more and more venom into the American body politic along the way, telling listeners that Covid-19 vaccines couldn’t be trusted and that the 2020 election had been stolen. Jones was in Washington on January 6 and in communication with key Trumpworld figures about the day’s events; the House January 6 committee is reportedly salivating over the prospect of obtaining his missent phone records.
As a result, Jones now finds himself in peril on at least three fronts. He faces the possibility of significant financial losses in the Sandy Hook trial in Texas, with the jury already awarding the families more than $4 million in compensatory damages on Thursday and $45 million in punitive damages on Friday. If the phone’s contents show that he lied on the witness stand, Jones could face perjury charges in Texas. And he must now worry about renewed attention from the January 6 committee and the Justice Department now that his phone records are more easily obtainable. Not bad for a Perry Mason moment.