From InfoWars to CustodyWars – Covering the Alex Jones Trial

“Which one of y’all tweeted about the cookies?”

The attorney posing the question looked down the corridor where I was sitting on a bench at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin working on my laptop. I raised my hand and apologetically took credit for the tweet. Jury deliberations had stretched for hours and the legal teams had left for dinner. The legal team for Alex Jones’ ex-wife Kelly had left cookies and brownies in some Tupperware on a bench and I’d tweeted – out of despair – that the cookies wouldn’t last the hour. 

The reporters write up their articles on the verdict minutes after we were kicked out of the courthouse. (Credit: Charlie Warzel of BuzzFeed @Cwarzel)

“My mom saw your tweet, she’s happy you liked her cookies,” he said, smiling. He then went off to huddle with the rest of his legal team, which was waiting for the verdict in the custody dispute, which I covered in Austin for the Daily Beast.

It was an odd moment on the sidelines of maybe the strangest (but not the craziest, there was never any danger) story I’ve ever covered, one that was vastly different than any courtroom story I’ve written over the past several years from Israel.

I was a reporter for seven years at the Jerusalem Post, mainly covering crime and security, with a particular focus on (and deep personal interest in) organized crime. I spent many a long day in courtrooms across the country, but mainly in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s court, in the ma’atzorim (“arrests”) courtroom where remand extensions were held.

One of the most diverse and depraved places in the country, it was where the newly-arrested mingled with journalists and police, bystanders and family, and all types of everyday folks caught up in the Israeli justice system. It was often loud, crowded, and depressing.

Two Jaffa men police say were arrested en route to murder a rival who carried out a deadly drive-by shooting in Tel Aviv in January 2014. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

A Turkish national arrested for murdering his girlfriend in Tel Aviv in July 2013, and dismembering her body and shoving the torso in a suitcase. The head was never found. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

It had a brutal Israeli motif – miles of concrete and hard wooden benches – and it was virtually impossible to write in a notebook without friends and relatives of the accused leaning in really close and asking who you work for, why you’re here, and what are you writing, on a sliding scale from annoyed to hostile.

This was especially true at organized crime hearings and trials (I wrote about these here), where an entourage of friends, cousins, friends of cousins, and random associates would stack the benches, most with near identical haircuts and Hugo Boss or Lacoste shirts. They’d admonish you not to take pictures and give you dirty looks, but there were some simple ground rules I adopted: don’t be the only person taking pictures, be discrete taking notes if you’re the only reporter, and try not to let anyone see you leave.

Usually though, I could count on the fact that as a reporter for the English press in a Hebrew country, chances are the people at the courthouse didn’t read my work, didn’t know my byline, and wouldn’t see anything I tweeted. For the Israeli reporters it was the opposite — the TV personalities would be recognized instantly, and the online reporters for Ynet, Walla, and the like would know that every word they write about the case they’re observing would be widely read in the courtroom, and that right after they file, half the phones in the room will vibrate with a push notification for the report they just sent. The stories they wrote would be quoted by the attorneys in their testimony and all of the reporters would discuss each other’s work, constantly checking if they had any information or detail they didn’t.

I was an insider on the outside – a reporter for an Israeli paper written in English, whose audience is mainly outside the country. We were in the odd position of being seen as an Israeli outlet by the foreign press in Israel, and as a foreign outlet by the Israeli press.

For two weeks starting in mid-April, it was a look at the other side of that coin – covering an English story in English for the national press.  

Alex Jones on day 2 of his custody trial, with attorney David Minton. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

At its core, the case was a simple divorce custody trial, and with the proceedings sealed, there was little chance it would get picked up by the press. That was up until the Austin-American Statesman reported a statement in a pre-trial hearing by Alex Jones’ attorney Randall Wilhite, in which he claimed that Jones’ on-air persona is an act, and that assessing his fitness to be a father based on his Infowars antics would be like judging Jack Nicholson based on his role as the Joker in ‘Batman’.

The horse was out of the barn, and by the second day of the 9-day trial, several reporters from the national press had descended on the courtroom including myself, a local correspondent writing for a national outlet about a local story covered by the national press. By then there was a constant onslaught of tweets from the courtroom and flash updates sent to major media outlets. The next morning, the judge banned all electronic devices from the courtroom.  We all made up for lost time whenever a break was called, rushing to the corridor to tweet and write up all the Alex Jones mishegas that had occurred in Courtroom 325 since the last break.

Even with the electronics ban, everything we put out was being followed closely by people inside the courtroom throughout the  trial. On a few occasions, I spotted members of Alex or Kelly’s legal team reading my tweets or articles on their phones, including once when I peeked over the shoulder of Kelly Jones’ Attorney Robert Hoffman’s paralegals to see the three young blonde women sitting in front of me passing a phone back and forth to read a Daily Beast article I wrote.

Attorneys Bobby Newman (left) and Robert Hoffman with Kelly Jones after the verdict. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

On two different occasions in the corridor, a witness waiting to testify said  he or she  recognized me from my twitter profile and mentioned something I’d written, as did two different friends of Kelly’s who attended the trial off and on over the nine days. A family law attorney watching the trial for entertainment began tweeting to me about the trial, as did two random witnesses from the backbenches who I recognized in their profile pictures.

It felt like being under a microscope in a way I had never experienced writing in English in an Israeli courtroom and I enjoyed not being in the outsider role for once.

There was also a dramatic difference in formality and comfort.

The motif at the Travis County Courthouse on Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin is deeply Texan – leather chairs and slow-spinning ceiling fans, men in three-piece suits and cowboy boots, (Roy Minton, an attorney for Alex Jones, wore a seersucker suit and tie in the Ole Miss crimson and blue, something you won’t see in Israel) and thick-chested sheriffs in lieu of teenage Shabas (Israel Prison Service) officers.

In the cafeteria, instead  of burekasim and toastim, there was Tex-Mex, pancake breakfasts, and a fairly large salad bar. There was also a painting of the large art deco courthouse on the wall of the courtroom in said courthouse. (I don’t know about elsewhere, but in Texas, county courthouses are sort of a big deal. I’ve seen posters and coffee table books on Texas county courthouses, which beginning in the 19th century were a source of civic pride long before the advent of high school football. If you’ve seen The Leftovers Season 2, you may recognize the Caldwell County  courthouse in Lockhart, one of the more impressive examples.)

There was also a much greater decorum to the environment. I was in that courtroom for nine whole days and only once did I hear someone’s cell phone go off (a middle-aged male juror, who seemed horrified). People in the crowd seldom spoke above a whisper, there was no yelling, no shoving, and cameras were never allowed inside.

Attorney Randall Wilhite with Alex at the press conference the day after the verdict. It’s hard to play the straight man, but he did well considering the circumstances. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

The most striking difference though was the discipline. There was a gag order on the case, so the lawyers did not speak to any members of the press about the case at all, saying little more than good morning as they passed in the hall.

In Israel, the lawyers would be speaking to the cameras during every recess and would be reachable by cell phone every night after the court adjourned. They would leak to the press, as would the police, and it would all make its way into the next day’s proceedings. It’s true that Israel has strict military censorship and judges have an especially easy trigger finger when it comes to signing gag orders, but people tend to speak openly, pushing the envelope and violating media bans left and right, all but tempting the system to press charges – and it rarely does.

Now, let’s talk about Alex

If Alex Jones wasn’t so dangerous and harmful, I think I’d be a fan of his – or at least the persona. His face is all expressions all the time – and he seems rarely at ease, like James Gandolfini struggling to claw his way out of the body of a very angry Texan. He seems born for physical comedy and is constantly in movement, his mind and mouth racing a block or two ahead of wherever he’s standing, with a voice that could be described as “Central Texas Angry Hangover”.

This goofball extremist seems part of a long American tradition of carnival barkers and snake oil populist true believers, brought up to warp speed by the internet and the age of “alternative facts” under President Donald Trump, the first commander in chief to fight in the WWF.

I like watching Alex. I also liked both seasons of ‘Temptation Island’ back in 2000. This is faint praise.

I also feel in a strange way like Alex and I go back a while. I started my freshman year at McCallum High School the semester after he graduated from Anderson – our football rival. (We weren’t a football school, we were a marijuana school. I think we usually lost)

Me drinking malt liquor in 1996. Somewhere else in Austin at that very moment, Alex was starting out on his path to fame. (Credit: Hartman Family Archives)

I barely remember many football games, but I clearly recall watching Austin public access TV back then, especially the shows you could prank call live. One of those public access shows was hosted by Alex Jones, who was just getting started on the path that would lead to InfoWars. I will always associate Alex Jones with that hazy, smoked-out time in 90s Austin – coming home late at night at 16, watching public access and Beavis and Butthead and passing out on the couch. I was further exposed to Alex Jones while delivering pizzas for Mr. Gattis in that lost year after high school. With hours and hours to kill in the car, sports talk radio was my anchor, and when that failed, listening to Alex Jones rage about Janet Reno and the Clintons was a good comic escape used sparingly.

Fast-forward 20 years, Trump is in the White House and Jones is probably the most famous person to come from “liberal” Austin in my lifetime. Life is strange like that.

Alex’s disgraceful statements (like the Sandy Hook hoax comments), his insane on-air antics (see: They’re making the frogs gay), and his all-out assault on the very concept of objective truth have helped make him a villain with progressive Americans and most people to the left of Genghis Khan.

This is perhaps the reason why the trial looked so different in the courtroom than on Twitter.

Your average reader who wasn’t present at the courthouse seemed to assume that Jones would lose, that no jury in their right mind would allow him to raise three children. Kelly’s lawyers would only have to show a few clips from InfoWars and the trial would be over before lunch.

This is understandable – I know who Alex Jones is too – but it was a totally different scene inside. Also, so much of the background of the case wasn’t known to the wider public or just didn’t make it into the narrative.

Alex Jones already had custody of his three children and after Kelly filed a series of failed motions in court, her custody was reduced even further, to the extent that so far in 2017 she has only seen her kids 5 times, according to her testimony in court. For more than a week, the jury and the press witnessed a series of therapists, counselors, and supervisors with close intimacy with the case – including the guardian ad litem – who gave testimony that was for the most part not in her favor. She came off as an emotionally unstable woman whose children felt estranged from her, beholden to a paranoid belief that the entire family law system in the state of Texas had lined up to conspire against her.

Furthermore, Judge Orlinda Naranjo all but banned any mention of InfoWars from the courtroom completely. She was adamant that the case be about the children and the parents and not about politics. Videos from InfoWars were not admitted into evidence, and Jones’ more bizarre and offensive utterances were either stricken from the record as “political” or as not relevant to the issues of child welfare.

Alex meets an admirer on the street outside the courthouse, after the press conference. (Credit: Ben Hartman)

So, if you can’t show any InfoWars clips and the jurors for the most part aren’t intimately familiar with Alex Jones,what do you have? You have a mother who the state repeatedly ruled against, a parade of witnesses questioning her fitness as a parent, and two of the most acclaimed trial lawyers in the state of Texas all on board for Alex. Most of the journalists covering the trial agreed that the case was Alex’s to lose – up until the end when the jury deliberation would just not end.

In hindsight, it seems Alex was his own worst enemy. InfoWars clips may not have been allowed in the courtroom, but with Alex on the stand the jury got the live show. The voice, the impulsiveness, the absolute inability to not tie a noose around his own neck all worked against him. He could not avoid mentioning George Soros and how he’s “brainwashing people” with overly potent marijuana, and when given the opportunity to say something nice about his ex-wife, he shot himself in the foot. That moment, when he was asked by Attorney Robert Hoffman if Kelly had any redeeming qualities as a mother and he said “I can’t perjure myself, she has no positive qualities [as a mother]”, was the worst. It was not only low, petty, and nasty, but it also showed him as absolutely incapable of self-control. Just like with the constant admonishments all through the trial to stop shaking his head and frowning at the jury – he just couldn’t do it. He reminded me of Michael Scott in the [American] Office, who no matter how much he’s told he has to stop with the inappropriate jokes, and even though he must know people get fired for this stuff, simply cannot pass up an opportunity to say “that’s what she said”.

This sort of belligerent, fearless approach works for InfoWars, but in hindsight it might be poison in a custody case by jury.

The day after the trial, Alex called a press conference outside the courthouse to discuss the verdict and did not disappoint. He railed about “spider goats”, “human-animal chimeras”, and radioactive monkeys that are part jellyfish, and he was loving it. Lost in the fray were his comments on the trial, during which he correctly pointed out some things that people on the outside (on Twitter and in the press) got wrong. Specifically, that he lost custody of his kids as opposed to the actual ruling, which gives the parents joint custody but awards Kelly the ability to decide the children’s primary residence . A hearing in late May will determine how much Alex sees his children, and the hearing could very well go in his favor. But who would remember? He had a captive audience to air out his grievances about the case, and instead he did his full-throttle Infowars shtick, performing for a crowd of journalists and bystanders who were largely laughing at him, not with him.

It was also probably the first time I really got the feeling that he was performing. He seemed to look through us, addressing an unseen Infowars audience for his monologue. Also, when asked by reporters about some of his worst statements, he repeatedly explained them away as “satire”, an excuse he used in court any time one of his abhorrent statements was brought up. It seemed to validate his attorney Randall Wilhite’s statement in a pre-trial hearing that Jones is “doing an act” on Infowars, a statement that made the trial a national news story and threatened to torpedo Jones’ credibility.

On the courthouse steps on Friday, the real and the fake were blurred. Alex looked like a man losing track of his own identity and reality, as he’s swept away by the power of the monster he created for himself.

Or maybe that’s just the globalist in me talking, high on George Soros weed as I write this blog and pass out on the couch.

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