Is There A Right Way To Interview Someone Like Alex Jones?
A critique of Glenn Greenwald’s approach
Recently, there was an event in Austin celebrating the release of Alex’s War, a new documentary directed by Alex Lee Moyer that just came out on iTunes. Glenn Greenwald moderated a conversation between Moyer and Jones himself on stage. You can watch the whole video here. (Moyer also directed TFW No GF, which I liked a lot. I watched a screener of Alex’s War but I need to digest it a little more, and possibly watch it again, if I’m going to write about it.)
Glenn Greenwald is catching some flack for his moderation job — specifically his approach to Jones, who is a chronic liar and disseminator of false conspiracy theories. I have thoughts! Because I think the question of what a journalist should do when they have access to Alex Jones is genuinely interesting.
Unfortunately, we’re going to have to slice off some fat before getting to the tender, meaty center of this debate. The first piece of fat is that a ton of people hate Greenwald, and there are a lot of critiques of him that are opportunistic and driven by personal beef (lotta food imagery today). To be fair, it’s a two-way street — Greenwald is very combative online. But all that personal, or at least parapersonal, stuff tends to turn the temperature higher than it should be. (I think that parapersonal should be a word. “Social” involves social relations, “parasocial” involves your relationship to a distant celebrity you don’t interact with, and “parapersonal” involves your relationship to people you don’t or barely know in person but interact with online.)
The second piece of fat is that in progressive spaces, “platforming” or “legitimizing” discourse is just profoundly stupid. You’ll recall that a lot of people got mad at Bernie Sanders for going on The Joe Rogan Experience, giving Sanders direct access to millions of exactly the sort of voters he could potentially convince to vote for him. This was sort of a radicalizing moment for me, just watching how many big-name journalists, activists, and academics were defending an indefensible point — arguing that a politician should turn down a meaningful publicity opportunity that could help him win a crucial election because… Rogan had said offensive stuff? His guests had?
That was just the biggest example, but the fact is that the politics of moral contagion are rampaging through some progressive spaces, and things have gotten more insane over time.
Plus, every day the number of things that are seen as offensive increases (in 2013, no one was arguing “biological sex” is offensive, or that using “black” as a racial descriptor without capitalizing the b was), so this means that over time, the number of people you’re “allowed” to talk to or “platform” or “legitimize” only goes down. If you have any sort of worthwhile political or intellectual goals, this is a suicidal approach. You’ll be left with a movement of the five purest souls in existence and no actual power. (And then, inevitably, it’ll turn out that all five are serial killers, because anyone who can project so much purity and who has succeeded in never saying anything offensive ever probably has a heart of pure evil.)
Okay, maybe too much throat-clearing, but I felt like it was necessary given that on the subjects of both Greenwald and “platforming,” there is often far more heat than light.
Not here, though. I think Greenwald did a really poor job.
My general view is that journalists can disagree, in a good-faith way, about how to engage with unsavory subjects. But what we should all agree on is that we want our work to nudge people toward truth and understanding and away from falsehood and misunderstanding. Of course, even this seemingly simple sentence is very complicated to apply in practice! People disagree all the time about what is true and what is false.
But we can sketch some useful outlines that most journalists would probably endorse. If you interview (a somehow still alive) Osama bin Laden, you’re not adding any truth or understanding to the world if all your interview accomplishes is getting him to regurgitate his grievances against the West and the Great Satan. In a case like that, you really are just acting as his megaphone. You are adding truth or understanding to the world if you can get him to actually explain how he justifies the mass murder of civilians, or if you can challenge him on a contradictory aspect of his interpretation of Islam he hasn’t previously been forced to address publicly, and so on. Your goal should be to produce something that is new and that adds to our understanding of Osama bin Laden and the brand of terrorism he embodied.
Alex Jones isn’t Osama bin Laden. Not by a long shot. But he is an absolutely chronic liar of the most brazen and audacious sort — someone who will say just about anything to scare people into viewing him as a wild-eyed prophet who can explain the government’s secret plots to kill ordinary hardworking people like them. All the better if some supplements are sold along the way. He’s genuinely one of the worst conspiracy-mongers we have, and he’s been rewarded for it with an audience in the millions, even after he was yanked off most of the major platforms.
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