In the spring of 2017, I was in Austin, Texas, reporting a long profile on Alex Jones and Infowars, and a number of my sources told me about a video editor who’d grown deeply disillusioned working for Jones and quit. I was told that he had all kinds of horror stories about working in Jones’s media empire. I prodded my sources to reveal his identity but was told that he wasn’t ready to talk. It wasn’t until two years later, when I was back in Austin, that Josh Owens DM’d me out of the blue and asked to speak.
We met at a café on South Congress, and he told me story after wild story—about being an angry young person and listening to Jones, winning an Infowars video contest that eventually led to a job working for the company, Jones’s erratic and egregious personal behavior, and the pressure to spin lies and make up news stories to please Jones. He told me that he was trying to make sense of what had happened to him and attempting to help others see Infowars and Jones for what it all was: a dangerous, morally bankrupt conspiracy-media company run by a reckless narcissist.
Owens wanted to tell his story himself and did so in 2019 in a long New York Times Magazine essay titled “I Worked for Alex Jones. I Regret It.” We’ve continued to speak intermittently since, often when Jones is in the news. Owens isn’t doing many interviews, but he agreed to speak with me about the experience of watching his former boss on trial, what it was like to work with Jones as he concocted lies in real time, and what, if anything, might be done to hold the nation’s second-most prominent conspiracy theorist to account.
Warzel: You’ve described working for Jones as this extremely volatile experience where, in the office, he’s in complete control all the time. Has it been surreal to watch Jones in a courtroom these past few weeks? What have you made of watching this trial?
Owens: It’s mixed emotions, I guess. First off, I’m happy the jury seemed to see through Jones’s typical tactics of manipulation. There were some aw-shucks moments Jones tried to create where he’d talk about not having any money and being unfairly persecuted. And I worried the jury might be swayed by his lies. It’s hard to explain this to people who only know him via his broadcast, but when you’re face to face with Alex and he puts on the charm, he can, momentarily, come off as not so horrible. He can just turn on this charm. Thankfully, they didn’t buy any of it.
Warzel: When I saw him on trial in 2017, he seemed quite literally unable to control himself on the stand, and he’d burst into yelling rants. He seemed a little more subdued this time. Do you think he’s learned from that last experience and toned it down inside the courtroom?
Owens: Perhaps it’s that trope of when a sociopath goes to therapy and learns very little about themselves except how to manipulate people better using the language of therapy. If you ask me if he’s learned anything of value from his time in the legal system, the answer has to be no. And what I’ve found frustrating me is how parts of the media have portrayed some of what he’s said on trial. There’ve been a lot of headlines saying “Alex Jones Admits Sandy Hook Was Real.” I mean, obviously it was real, but who cares what Jones said? If you are reporting anything Jones is saying, you’re falling into his narrative. This is not the first time Alex has admitted Sandy Hook happened—he’s said it, and then he’s walked it back. It doesn’t matter what he has to say at this point. You can’t trust any of it, ever.
Warzel: I struggle with covering Jones as a journalist. This trial is clearly important, as it represents a chance for some accountability and for a small bit of justice for the Sandy Hook families. But I am so wary of playing a role in keeping Jones in the spotlight in any way. As you note, it’s a very fine line between reporting on what’s happening and doing the work of amplifying or furthering Jones’s own narratives.
Owens: That’s the dilemma. You don’t want to ignore him. You see where that’s ended up. But it’s like when he was deplatformed. People took a lot of false comfort in his deplatforming and saying that he’s been removed from our discourse and now we can wash our hands of him. I’ve never been comforted by that, because I’ve known Jones, and he’s never going to go away. And it seems like he was able to use the deplatforming to make even more money. He took this thing that would’ve crushed somebody else and made it into a selling point for his audience. Now he’s marketing himself as the most censored man in America. His platform is called Banned.Video. So I think the question to ask now is how is he going to use these three trials to boost himself, and how can it be stopped?
For me, talking about Jones is a struggle. I’ve thought a lot about what is the point of me talking about my time there, what’s it all for—because I’m not sure what any of it does to hurt Jones. It’s weird to say, but my goal isn’t to take Jones down, because from my perspective, that’s a futile task. The only value I see in speaking up is to try and reach people on the margins. There are people who listen to him who are far gone. But there are also some who are listening for entertainment purposes who might be able to be reached.
Warzel: Did you get a sense of the audience while working for Infowars? Like, could you get a feel for how many people were the truest of true believers and how many people watched for entertainment, or how any of that broke down?
Owens: When I was working there, we didn’t think as much about the audience from a content perspective. Because the big task wasn’t to please the audience, it was to please Alex Jones and his moods. He was the presenter and boss and also, in many ways, the audience. Both for us as employees and for him. He’s his own audience.
Warzel: But you’ve said before that you traveled all around the country for Infowars and met lots of fans. Did you get any audience sense from that?
Owens: If I met people on the road and they knew who I was, then they were full-on in the Jones universe. Then there’s the people I met who think Infowars is almost like watching South Park. Like, they thought it was a complete show and act. And I have to say, I have a really hard time understanding that perspective. If you listen to him a lot—and I have—he’s almost never presenting himself as anything other than deadly serious. Anytime I see a clip of him these days, he’s presenting everyone who disagrees with him as somehow covering up pedophilia or as a literal demon. There’s nothing comedic in there. It’s now much more like watching a televangelist than anything else. That’s something I found interesting about the trial—he hinted that he considered himself less a journalist and more as a Christian broadcaster focusing on self-help stuff. I don’t think that’s how he considers himself, though, so I’m wondering if he’s trying to set himself up that way to avoid some kind of culpability down the line.
Warzel: An interesting part about the trial is how he was forced to constantly downplay what he does. You have a guy who is constantly bragging about being close to government sources and having the ear of the former president, and now all of a sudden he’s merely a self-help guy.
Owens: What’s interesting about Jones is that his convictions fall apart pretty quickly when challenged. I think it comes from years of doing a solo show. He does all the talking, always. Nobody in his work or personal life challenges him. His audience totally agrees with everything he says. Jones has an expansive vocabulary, but there’s a childlike aspect to everything about him. I do think there’s this arrested development there. He got to a point and recognition, and that’s where any semblance of growth stopped. He’ll brag about things and not realize he’s being cringey or embarrassing. You know, he gets so much praise from his fans for consistently talking about the same things for decades. But I think that’s misattributed. It’s not conviction, it’s a lack of growth.
Warzel: I’m curious what you think about the evolution of Jones and Infowars since you’ve been gone. I spent quite a bit of time watching him in 2016 and 2017, and even those broadcasts feel markedly different from today’s. The lead-up to the 2020 election and January 6th was very grim. And it seems he’s only gotten darker and more sinister from there. It’s odd to suggest that somebody like Alex Jones seems even more radicalized, and yet that is how it feels to me.
Owens: He’s getting scarier. Especially the rhetoric against the LGBTQ community, which seems to be one of his bigger, more worrying pushes. What’s so scary about him zeroing in on the LGBTQ community is that we’ve seen how his rhetoric causes pain and suffering in the real world. It’s not just Sandy Hook. You have Pizzagate—Jones spouts off on his show, and a guy goes to the pizza place with a gun. To me, Jones is getting much more terrifying, because his narrative has always been like the Book of Revelation. It’s always the End of Days. That’s where the prepper stuff, his fear-based ideology, comes from. And his getting more extreme results in his audience getting more extreme. For anyone to look at January 6th and say he wasn’t on his show calling for people to take action—I mean, come on. Of course, Jones always tries to walk it back. He calls for people to take up arms and then says, “Oh, I meant political arms, not guns.”
But what scares me is that he has helped push people to the brink, but he’s never satisfied. He will always keep pushing. So, where’s the line? From afar, it seems like he’s continuing to get darker. I don’t know how it’ll manifest itself. And that matters, because his little show has real-world implications. He’s currently making it more acceptable among his audience to hate different kinds of people, and our lines of division continue to grow as he broadcasts. He’s obviously not the only person in America saying this stuff, but there are many instances in which he is the loudest.
Warzel: You said you managed to listen to or watch most of the trial. What surprised you most about what you saw?
Owens: To me, one of the most surprising things was Scarlett Lewis and her willingness to forgive Alex. It was this really powerful moment and this unbelievable act of humanity on her part that I don’t think was discussed much. I mean, compare that act of kindness to Alex’s behavior. I thought it was reprehensible that Jones wasn’t there when [Neil] Heslin was on the stand. Instead, Jones is on his show making fun of him and calling him autistic. It’s disgusting. I’m not surprised by it, exactly, but I think everyone saw the cruelty of Jones on his show casting these people whose lives he’s made hellish in his distorted narrative of good versus evil.
What should have been surprising—again, not to me, but to anyone paying attention—is Jones’s callousness. It was front and center, happening in real time. To watch the clips of his show during the trial—I mean, he’s commenting on things in real time that he’s directly responsible for. The callousness should be shocking to people who give him the time of day. The fact that it’s not is really scary. I mean, if you’re one of those people who thinks Alex Jones has been right about certain conspiracies, at what point do you draw a line? It’s not surprising, but it’s hard to understand how people can look at how he treats people and see somebody worth following.
Warzel: What effect do you think these trials will have on Jones and his company? There seem to be a number of competing theories. There’s one sense that the legal system is the only way to hold a dangerous liar like Jones to account and that these trials could help do that—either via heavy financial penalties or by sending a message to other conspiracy peddlers. But there’s another camp that argues that it’s too late for that and that, barring some kind of criminal case or wildly high damages settlements, he’s still insulated from accountability and will continue doing what he does. Similarly, others have already learned from the Jones playbook and will continue trying to copy his style.