Relationships between Alex Jones and Radio Network Show The Economics of Disinformation
Ted Anderson, a seller of precious metals, was hoping to spark some business in order to sell gold and silver when he started a radio network out of a Minneapolis suburb two decades ago. Soon after, he signed with a young radio host named Alex Jones.
Together, they ended up shaping today’s economy of disinformation.
The two built a lucrative operation out of an interlocking system of niche advertisers, fundraising campaigns and promotion of media subscriptions, nutritional supplements and survival merchandise. Mr. Jones became a conspiracy theorist heavyweight, while Anderson’s company, Genesis’ communications network, flourished. The money-making scheme has been reproduced by many other peddlers of misinformation.
Eventually, Mr. Jones drifted away from his reliance on Genesis, expanding beyond radio and attracting a large following online. However, they have been linked to each other again in lawsuits accusing them of fueling a false narrative about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Mr. Jones has been found presumably responsible in those cases. Last month, plaintiffs’ attorneys dropped Genesis as a defendant. Christopher Mattei, one of the lawyers, said in a statement that Genesis’ participation in the trial would have distracted from the main target: Mr. Jones and his media organization.
The move freed Genesis, which says on its website that it has “established itself as the largest independently owned and operated talk radio network in the country,” from severe penalties likely awaiting Mr. Jones. But the cases, soon before juries to determine damages, have continued to shed light on the economics that help drive misleading and false claims across the media landscape.
The spread of lies and misleading content, especially as this fall’s midterm elections approach, is often blamed on gullible audiences and a widening partisan divide. Misinformation can also be hugely lucrative, not just for names with bold letters like Mr.
“Disinformation exists for ideological reasons, but there is always an association with very commercial interests – they always find each other,” said Hilde van den Polk, a professor of media at Drexel University who has studied Mr Jones. “It’s a small world full of networks of people finding ways to help each other.”
Mr. Jones and Mr. Anderson did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Genesis originated in the late 1990s as a marketing stunt, working “in tandem” with Midas Resources, Mr. Anderson’s bullion company, he said. “Midas Resources needs customers, and Genesis Communications Network needs sponsors,” he told media watchdog FAIR in 2011.
Alex Jones and his bleak worldview fit neatly into the equation.
Genesis began promoting Mr. Jones around the time he was fired by Austin Station in 1999, the host said this year on Infowars, a site he runs. Ms Van den Polk said it was a complementary, if at times contradictory, partnership – “a kind of marriage made in hell”.
Archived footage shows Mr. Jones, pugnacious and pendulous, making horrific claims about the inevitable demise of the dollar before introducing Mr. Anderson, eyeglasses and generally light, to make extended offerings of safe-haven metals like gold. At times, Mr. Jones would interrupt loud performances, such as the time in 2013 when Mr. Anderson interrupted more than 20 times in 30 seconds to shout “a racist”.
The Genesis roster also includes a gay comedian; former attorney for the Civil Liberties Union; Hollywood actor Stephen Baldwin. Dr. Joy Brown, longtime psychologist. a home improvement expert known as a “Cajun Contractor”; And a group of people who describe themselves as “normal people with ordinary opinions” talk about sports.
But in the end, the network gained a reputation for a certain kind of programming, promoting “conspiracy” content on its website and telling MinnPost in 2011 that its advertisers are “preparedness and survival specialists.”
Many of the shows were chaired by firearms enthusiasts. There was a Christian rocker who opposed gay rights and a politician who espoused unfounded theories about crisis actors and President Obama’s nationality. One program promoted lessons on how to “store food, learn the importance of precious metals, or even survive a gun battle.” Jason Lewis, a Minnesota Republican politician who faced backlash during the 2018 election season after his anti-women remarks came on air, had a joint pact with Genesis and a campaign office at the Genesis address.
Relations between Mr. Jones and Genesis began to fray about a decade ago, when Mr. Jones reached an agreement to have Genesis handle only about a third of his joint deals. Now, about 30 stations include Mr. Jones in their schedules, according to a review by Dan Friesen, one of the hosts of the Knowledge Talk show, which he and a friend created to analyze and record Mr. Jones’ life path. Of those, more than a third bring it down to late night and early morning. Several stations have replaced Mr. Jones with conservative hosts such as Sean Hannity or Dan Bongeno.
Mr. Jones’ relationship with Mr. Anderson continued to fray after 2015, when the Minnesota Department of Commerce shut down Midas. The agency described Midas and Mr. Anderson as “incompetent” and ordered the company to pay compensation to customers after it “regularly embezzled funds”.
Now, Midas is redirecting to a multi-level marketing company that sells the same nutritional supplements that populate the Genesis online store. The founder of the supplement company has a co-show by Genesis and has also appeared on the Mr.
But Mr Jones has his own Infowars-branded supplements, as well as products like Infowars masks along with bumper stickers declaring Covid-19 a hoax. One of his attorneys estimated that conspiracy theorists made $56 million in revenue last year.
“Not being able to have that kind of symbiotic correlation between gold sales on radio affiliates really hurts their bonding,” Mr. Friesen said of Mr. Jones and his former benefactor. “At that point Alex needed a little more diversification in how he financed things, and Ted kind of took a back seat.”
But in 2018, the families of several Sandy Hook victims sued Jones and announced that Genesis is also a defendant. Lawyers for the families cited Mr. Anderson’s frequent appearances on Mr. Jones’ shows and said that the Genesis distribution of Mr. Jones helped deliver his lies to “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people”.
The lawyers wrote that Jones, Genesis and the other defendants “fabricate complex, false and paranoid conspiracy theories as they move the product and make money”.
After the lawsuit was filed, Genesis and Mr. Jones to cover liability claims by West Bend Mutual Insurance, which began working with Genesis in 2012, according to court documents. Dropped from the list of defendants, Genesis continued to solicit donations, saying online that “freedom of speech is in the balance.”
Litigation illustrates the increasingly prominent role of bludgeoning lawsuits against those accused of spreading false and misleading information. In 2020, Fox News settled millions of dollars with the parents of slain Democratic aide Seth Rich, whose death the network mistakenly linked to an email leak before the 2016 presidential election.
Smartmatic and Dominion sued Fox News and other conservative outlets and figures last year after election technology companies were targeted by unsupported allegations of voter fraud and are seeking billions of dollars in damages. When Smartmatic and Dominion were still threatening legal action, many ports Broadcast clips that attempted to clarify or refute conspiracy theories about voting systems companies.
“It appears to be, for the first time in a long time, a very concrete path to actually holding people accountable for the harm they cause and the ways in which they benefit from that harm,” said Rachel E. Moran. Postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Public Information at the University of Washington.
Genesis told the court in a lawsuit last year that she was only accused of being a “distributor of radio programs – the radio and paper boy equivalent – not the author, not the publisher, not the broadcaster.” The lawsuit file argued that the company “has no mind. It has no memory. Cannot form intent.”
The families’ lawyers replied that the network should be “treated in the same way a newspaper or book publisher” would with a high degree of awareness of “the deceptive novel that Genesis has repeatedly broadcast to wide audiences, over many years”.