Why is Alex Jones Still on Our Public Airwaves?

Parents of Sandy Hook victims awarded $965M in second trial against radio hoaxster, but FCC has taken no action against his broadcast lies...

 originally published at the BradBlog October 14, 2022

On Wednesday, a jury in Waterbury, Connecticut awarded parents of schoolchildren slain by a gunman's bullets an extraordinary $965 million in damages because far-right propagandist, conspiracy theorist and huckster Alex Jones publicly defamed them. He did so on U.S. radio stations which are licensed by the federal government to serve in the public interest. (The jury's award on Wednesday follows a $49 million award to Sandy Hook parents in a separate case decided in Texas on August 5.)

Jones and guests on his InfoWars show, broadcast as a radio program over our public airwaves and over the Internet, falsely and repeatedly claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting was a hoax. He told millions of listeners no children were shot; that grieving parents were actually paid "crisis actors"; that the entire shooting, which took the lives of 20 first-graders and six adults, was staged by gun opponents to somehow further their agenda.

As determined by both the Texas and Connecticut cases, these radio broadcasts caused some of Jones' deranged listeners to threaten the grieving parents' lives. According to court documents, Leonard Pozner, whose six-year old son Noah was killed, received threatening voicemails: "You gonna die. Death is coming to you real soon." Pozner and his wife relocated seven times to avoid harassment based on Jones' remarks. Each time they moved, Jones' followers published their new addresses online. "Sometimes I lie awake at night worrying that despite our efforts at security, a determined conspiracy fanatic might gain entry to our home," said Noah's mother, Veronique De La Rosa.

Why is Jones allowed to use our publicly-owned radio airwaves to spread these dangerous lies? To encourage his listeners to cause direct harm to innocent individuals who have already suffered more grief than we can imagine? It should be against the law. It already, kind of, is...

During the Connecticut case, Francine Wheeler, mother of slain six-year-old Ben, told of an encounter at a conference for women who had lost children to shootings. Another mother who had lost her son asked about the photo on Wheeler's necklace. Wheeler said, "That's my son Ben. He died in his first-grade classroom at Sandy Hook School." The other woman replied, "What? You are lying. That didn't happen."

Scarlett Lewis, mother of six-year old slain Jesse Lewis, confronted Jones during the first defamation trial against Jones in Texas. "You're still on your show today trying to say that I'm, implying that I'm an actress, that I am 'deep state.' … Truth, truth is so vital to our world. Truth is what we base our reality on, and we have to agree on that to have a civil society. Sandy Hook is a hard truth. … But I've, since that day, dedicated my life to keeping kids safe. … And having a quarter of Americans doubt that Sandy Hook happened or doubt the facts around Sandy Hook is not conducive to keeping our kids safe. It's not."

Local radio stations broadcast Jones' lies into communities throughout the United States. But let's be clear: We the People own the airwaves over which radio is broadcast, and all U.S. radio stations are legally required --- as a condition of their licenses --- to "serve the public interest." Is it in our collective interest for radio stations to cause continuing harm to Sandy Hook parents who lost their precious children? It is not. Now is our time to act.

Once upon a time, the Sandy Hook parents could have defended themselves directly on the air by demanding the simple right to respond to Jones' personal attacks, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) withdrew the Personal Attack Rule in 2000. So, today, the parents' only recourse was to hire lawyers and spend years in litigation. (It is long past time for the FCC to restore our right to respond.)

Jones is also in clear violation of the FCC's rule against airing hoaxes on radio or TV. The Code of Federal Regulations (47 C.F.R. § 73.1217) prohibits broadcast licensees or permittees from broadcasting false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe if: (1) the licensee knows this information is false; (2) it is foreseeable that broadcast of the information will cause substantial public harm; and (3) broadcast of the information does, in fact, directly cause substantial public harm.

Radio station management certainly knew the harm and, if they didn't at first, they certainly know now. They are complicit in the damage caused to Sandy Hook parents. Yet no one in power holds them accountable. The FCC, which has received letters from local listeners demanding it enforce the hoax rule, stands mute.

It is possible that the FCC might act if Commission leadership were fully in place. Currently, the seat of one Democratic FCC Commissioner is vacant; Senate leader Chuck Schumer has not yet brought Biden nominee Gigi Sohn up for a confirmation vote. It looks like he is waiting for November election results. If the Senate picks up at least two more Democratic Senators, Sohn's nomination is likely to be approved.

Here is what really works: Local people who understand they are the legal owners of local radio airwaves are putting public pressure on offending radio stations. In areas where Jones used to broadcast, people sent letters, made phone calls and even personal visits to radio station management to demand our right to facts over our public airwaves. Some have written op-eds or letters to editors about this issue. As a result, many radio stations voluntarily took Jones off the air. We salute both the stations and the active citizens who made it happen.

But about 25 other stations resist. Some are in key swing states. Media Action Center has developed an action to help people protest Jones' continuing hoax(es). It includes a list of stations believed to be airing Jones, a letter for people to send to the FCC, and another letter to send to station management.

The Alex Jones fabrications over Sandy Hook brings the debate over mis- and disinformation to the forefront of society. Everyone is asking what we can do about it. Start by complaining to the managers of the airwaves we legally own. If they refuse, let's pull their licenses. It is in the peoples' power to do so - if we act.

* * *