AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Infowars broadcast personality confirmed for a jury he “did no vetting” before going live on-air and discussing a story about a Sandy Hook shooting victim’s father.
Owen Shroyer, who hosts his own talk show on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ website, took the stand Thursday afternoon in Jones’ defamation trial.
Neil Heslin, the father who lost his son Jesse in the 2012 shooting, sued Jones and his company over comments made on Infowars’ broadcasts claiming the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school was a hoax.
“Did you not care who you were talking about?” Heslin’s attorney asked Shroyer.
“No, I didn’t say that,” Shroyer replied.
Shroyer maintains he was just reading and discussing an article published by another outlet, Zerohedge, which questioned whether Heslin was telling the truth about holding the body of his son.
The Zerohedge article pointed to an interview between journalist Megyn Kelly and Heslin in 2017, claiming that Kelly “failed to fact-check” what they called a “contradictory claim” made by Heslin in the interview: that he held his son with a bullet hole in his head.
Shroyer went live and played a portion of an interview with the Connecticut medical examiner from the day of the shooting, who said they did not bring the bodies of victims “into contact” with families. It was widely reported that the medical examiner was referring to the hours after the shooting, when they used photographs to identify the children, and that families were eventually able to see their children.
“Just another question that people are going to be asking about Sandy Hook,” Shroyer said on the live broadcast.
“Will there be a clarification from Heslin and Megyn Kelly? I wouldn’t hold your breath,” Shroyer then laughs.
On Friday morning, when Alex Jones’ defense attorney began questioning Shroyer, the lawyer reminded the host that the court has already ruled that this broadcast was defamatory.
“The question is: did you intend for your broadcast to be defamatory?” asked Jones’ attorney, Andino Reynal.
Shroyer said, “Absolutely not.”
He added that it would be a “real shame” if the broadcast had affected Heslin and his family.
The jury had the opportunity to submit questions for Shroyer, asking if there was anything he would recant about the Sandy Hook story.
“I would just not have covered it al all. It was not a subject matter I was familiar with That four minutes of my life has caused tremendous negative effects on my career and my life,” he said.
When asked whether Jones’ company Free Speech Systems should be exempt from any consequences because he “didn’t mean any harm,” Shroyer said he thinks there should be a “fair application” of the law when it comes to “media outlets reporting things that are not true.”
When Shroyer first took the stand on Thursday, Heslin’s attorney Kyle Farrar pulled up a screenshot from the Infowars website in front of the court.
The screenshot showed Shroyer and Jones on the show earlier in the week. Farrar asked whether the two hosts were discussing this trial, but Shroyer said the week had been a “blur” and he did not remember exactly what was discussed.
“You know when he stormed out of court today, he went and was on the show again?” Farrar asked.
Shroyer replied that he wasn’t watching.
“The truth is he hasn’t been at the trial much because he is on air selling pills,” the attorney said.
At the end of Thursday’s proceedings, the judge questioned Shroyer and Reynal about whether he had been informed of the Rule which prohibits witnesses from commenting on testimony in the case or discussing it with anyone except attorneys in the case. On Friday, before letting Shroyer leave the stand, the judge re-read the Rule in front of the court.
The jury also submitted questions for Shroyer about whether they asked guests to fact-check their claims before coming on the show and whether the producer of the show should vet the sources they use.
Shroyer said he believes the producer should vet their sources and that, since this incident, he is “a lot less likely” to take something handed to him and “go straight to air with it.”
He said, however, he didn’t know how it would be possible to ask guests to fact-check their claims and ultimately answered they ask guests to do so “sometimes.”
In a recorded depositon played before the court, Infowars editor Kit Daniels tells the attorneys he “does not recall” whether they have any journalistic standards regarding fact-checking or sourcing.
When asked whether there are any particular contexts where it is Important to review the accuracy of the content on Infowars, Daniels repeatedly says, “I don’t understand the question.”
He eventually says, “It sounds like you are talking in riddles.”
When the attorneys ask about an Infowars article titled “FBI Says No One Was Killed at Sandy Hook,” Daniels said he didn’t know whether he would have directed the reporter to check with the FBI before publishing the story.
In another recorded deposition, a former Infowars employee Rob Jacobson told attorneys he “felt terrible” about the coverage of Sandy Hook, and while he wasn’t working on any of those pieces he still felt complicit by “being in the building.”
He told attorneys that he expressed his concerns about Jones’ comments and claims made by guests of the show, but that his warning was laughed at or joked about by other employees and managers.
Jacobson said it was one thing to make a mistake, but in his view it was another “to have it pointed out to you over, and over, and over again” and to laugh about it.
A long-time newspaper reporter and former editor of the Austin American-Statesman, Fred Zipp, spent most of the day on the stand, testifying as an expert witness on journalistic ethics. He told the jury he was hired by the plaintiffs attorneys to review Infowars footage and give his analysis.
Zipp addressed the segment when Owen Shroyer discussed Heslin and the Zerohedge story, “calling it a recipe for disaster.”
Reynal pressed Zipp about the difference between a journalist and a talk show host or pundit. Zipp told the jury he did not see any “cues” for the audience to tell the difference.
“Alex Jones was acting as a talk show host, was he not?” Reynal asked.
Zipp responded, “As I recall, he was sitting in front of a microphone free-associating about false flags and other crazy stuff.”
Reynal referenced radio host Howard Stern and commentator Rush Limbaugh, asking If there was “anything wrong with that.”
“So long as the ranting is not injuring people, it is perfectly fine,” Zipp said.
When asked about Shroyer’s testimony, Farrar told KXAN outside the courthouse, “He said it two times: ‘I’m sorry if it hurt anybody.’ Well, we are here because it’s hurt real people.”
Jones did not appear at the courthouse on Friday, but Thursday night he told KXAN, “He was just reading part of a news article on air. I mean, that is their whole case — just a few edited clips, and they accuse us of editing clips. So, it is just absolute fraud.”
When asked by a member of the jury asked Zipp what would have happened to an employee for similar actions in a “conventional newsroom,” the former editor said they would have been warned.
“If it continued, they would have been fired,” he said.