It was my first day on the job at my first college internship, in the studio of a nationally syndicated conservative radio personality. The host wasn’t getting along with the executive producer, and what began as a couple of snide remarks erupted into a screaming match during a commercial break that at one point had the producer yelling so loudly into his microphone that the reverb was painful. The two roared at each other right up until the bumper music was playing and then: “Welcome back! I was just talking to my good friend here…” as though nothing had happened.
I wondered at the time how anyone could do that, bellowing with rage one moment and then chirpily greeting the audience the next, without at least suffering an aneurysm. That isn’t normal, right? Yet it’s more common in the media than you might think. That’s why I was unsurprised earlier this week when an attorney representing Alex Jones claimed during a custody battle that Jones was merely “playing a character” during his popular radio show. Using his “on-air Infowars persona to evaluate Alex Jones as a father,” the lawyer insisted, “would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in ‘Batman.’”
That led Jack Hunter to cheekily wonder whether the notoriously conspiracy-prone Jones, who’s promulgated everything from fluoride in the water to chemicals turning frogs gay, is an “inside job.” Can jet fuel melt bullshit? I don’t know, but I can say from experience that talk radio and cable news offer merely a keyhole image, selective shadows on the wall that show only a facsimile of the people casting them. Some of these glimpses are genuinely reflective: many media figures are more or less what you see, even if they occasionally exaggerate for effect. Among the most decent and genuine people I’ve known have been those who talk into microphones for a living.
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But what about Tomi Lahren? The former Blaze host claims to speak on behalf of the voiceless silent majority, yet treats the actual working class rather shabbily. A recent lawsuit filed by Glenn Beck against Lahren alleges that her treatment of her staff was “inappropriate and unprofessional” and that she “constantly complained about lighting, room temperature, editing, shooting and directing,” according to Law Newz. I understand that it’s Lahren’s solemn duty to EVISCERATE MOUTH DIARRHEA SENTENCE BY SENTENCE, but best to make an exception for the guy who fetches your coffee.
There’s an inherent tension here. Radio and cable hosts, especially those on the right, must posture as populist warriors crusading against the Washington establishment on behalf of the people, yet many of them are also highly paid and warm with the limelight, qualities that breed vanity in all of us. It can become difficult to speak on behalf of that hardscrabble Kansan when you’re decked out in a lavish studio occupying an entire floor of an office building with gilded elevators and a first-rate view of the Capitol dome. You can still do so, but also possible is that your politics grow increasingly disconnected from the life you actually lead, and by default become an abstraction and then a form of entertainment.
The Internet has made this even worse, with constant pressure to amass viral appearances on the media blogs. Because Twitter is teeming with partisans looking to believe the febrile worst about their enemies, an easy way to advance yourself is by claiming that the president has a love child living in a shack in Malawi or that the speaker of the House has drawn up a blueprint for the extermination of the gender fluid. Sadly, some politicians are getting in on this game, too, neglecting their legislative responsibilities in favor of a dash to the cameras and an inauthentic play to the cheap seats. The old jape that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people seems realer than ever, with debate increasingly playing out on the teevee rather than the legislative floor or the Capitol Hill bar.
Is it any wonder that the telegenic charms of JFK eventually yielded the reality TV grotesque that is Donald Trump? Our politics and our media have merged into one, big, gaudy, obscuring blob.
So maybe it’s Alex Jones’ UFO-haunted, fluoride-polluted, homosexual amphibian-infested world, and we’re just living in it. But is Jones even a reliable fraud? Contra his lawyer, his ex-wife says he very much believes in the conspiracies he peddles and that none of this is an act. There’s a terrifying thought: Alex Jones, an honest man among knaves.