A below-the-radar request from the Newtown Board of Education in a letter to President Donald Trump seems modest, even self evident: Acknowledge that 20 children and six adults were murdered on December 14, 2012, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, condemn those who repeatedly have said it was a hoax, and remove his support from anyone who falsely claims the tragedy was staged.
“We want facts to matter,” Board Chairman Keith Alexander explained at a recent meeting. “That’s the essential point.”
The impetus for the letter—sent last month and first reported here—was Trump’s warm embrace of Alex Jones, owner and host of the conspiracy-minded website InfoWars. Jones, whose audience is estimated in the millions, has been among the most aggressive promoters of claims that the Sandy Hook killings were staged. “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” Jones said on his show in 2014.
The letter bemoans the damage fake news spread by conspiracy theorists has done to the town and the victims’ families. It accuses Jones of spreading “hate and lies toward our town, towards the people and organizations who came to help us through those dark days.” Newtown has become a poster child for the real-life consequences of fake news, and the embrace of its purveyors by President Trump adds insult to injury. They sincerely hoped the letter would lead Trump to understand the town’s ongoing plight and repudiate the hoaxers.
Newtown has become a poster child for the real-life consequences of fake news, and the embrace of its purveyors by President Trump adds insult to injury.
“We are asking for support from the President of the United States,” said Board of Finance member James O. Gaston, whose body also discussed sending a letter at a recent meeting. “We received support from President Obama. I welcome help and support from President Trump.”
The board’s straightforward requests did not elicit any response from the White House nor from a president who has trafficked in conspiracy theories himself, including false claims about former President Obama’s place of birth and an unfounded assertion that Obama wiretapped Trump’s office during the presidential campaign.
White House Director of Media Affairs Helen Aguirre Ferre responded to questions about the letter from CJR with a one-sentence statement: “President Trump has been quite clear that we, as a nation, are united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
Ferre did not respond to follow-up questions, including whether Trump affirms that the Sandy Hook killings happened, and whether he condemns those who say otherwise.
The board did not make a public announcement when it sent the letter, dated February 20, Alexander wrote in an email to CJR. They saw no upside to publicity and wanted to protect the victims’ families from hoaxer backlash.
The district supplied the letter to CJR upon request, and no one asked CJR not to write about it, but town officials were reluctant to be interviewed and kept their comments brief. Alexander was the only school board member to respond to requests for an interview, and he communicated only by email. First Selectwoman E. Patricia Llodra—the town’s mayor—did not returns calls nor emails requesting comment.
As a result, much of the reporting of this story depends on videotapes of town meetings and minutes posted online. At one such meeting, Board of Education member Daniel Cruson, Jr. provided possible insight into the reasons for the officials’ reticence. The town, he said, has “tried very hard to convince the media to leave us alone to do what we need to do to heal.” The letter, he feared, threatened to undermine that effort and “invite scrutiny back into our affairs.”
InfoWars lists no phone number or direct contact for Jones, who as recently as March 8 continued to question whether the Sandy Hook killings happened. He did apologize earlier this month for comments about a hoax involving a pizzeria in Washington, DC.
Messages sent to both the website’s general email and InfoWars Editor Paul Joseph Watson went unanswered.
Alexander says he’s still hopeful they’ll get a response from the White House. “I don’t think I have ever sent a letter to the White House before so I don’t know what to expect from a response as far as timing, though I do hope that we will receive a direct response at some point,” he wrote in an email.
There was a time when questioning whether a widely-reported mass murder actually happened would have been dismissed as a nutcase conspiracy. No more. The town is bedeviled by visitors convinced that the murders were a meticulously staged government hoax carried out to justify new gun control laws. Harassing, hurtful, and even threatening emails, phone calls, and internet postings continue to plague many of the victims’ families and town officials.
Each May when the New England winter lifts and the weather turns pleasant, Sandy Hook “truthers” descend on the community, Alexander said at a January 2017 meeting. And while the number of harassing events has decreased over the years, their intensity has not, Superintendent of Schools Joseph V. Erardi, Jr. says in an interview with CJR. “We continue to receive inappropriate phone calls,” he says. “We continue to receive inappropriate messages. We continue to have visits that are done in very poor taste.”
To say Jones’s name is mud in Newtown is a gross understatement. Local officials revile him, using words at public meetings like “bully,” “disgusting,” and “despicable” to describe him. But as much damage as he has done, they fear he could do even more thanks to Trump, who appeared on Jones’s show during the campaign and called to thank him for his support after the election. In the months since Trump’s victory, Jones has bragged about receiving phone calls from the new president and said he was seeking White House press credentials for InfoWars.
Moving on remains difficult if not impossible as long as conspiracy theories abetted by fake news continue to swirl around the tragedy.
That was too much for Alexander, First Selectwoman Llodra, and other residents of the southwestern Connecticut suburb. They fear Trump has lent Jones a legitimacy that could extend to Sandy Hook truthers. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, Alexander and Llodra, both Republicans, asked their respective boards to sign onto a letter calling on the president-elect to affirm that the Sandy Hook killings had occurred and condemn Jones and others who claim they were a hoax.
“I’m very much an advocate for calling out people for what they say and what they do, particularly when they leverage their radio show off our tragedy,” Llodra said at a January selectmen’s meeting, according to a videotape posted online.
But the initiative soon bogged down as town officials and at least one family of a victim raised concerns, especially about whether the letter would only invite a new wave of harassment of the victims’ families and whether those families had been consulted. Worse yet, warned school board member Cruson, Trump might not respond, giving the conspiracy theories fresh oxygen.
“No response from President Trump, which is a real possibility, will feed the hoaxers just as much,” said Cruson during a board discussion. Cruson was the only school board member to vote against sending the letter, arguing it would do more harm than good, no matter the outcome.
The ensuing debate revealed how fake news has undermined people’s faith that truth can triumph over lies. Even officials who supported the letter said that a Trump acknowledgement of the tragedy and repudiation of the hoaxers would not end the harassment Newtown has endured for years. Alexander’s goal, he said at one meeting, was to return things to where they were before Trump embraced Jones. In the end, only the school board sent the letter to Trump.
Newtown just wants to move on. But as the board pointed out in its letter to the president, that remains difficult if not impossible as long as conspiracy theories abetted by fake news continue to swirl around the tragedy. “One of the significant roadblocks to our future,” the school board wrote to Trump, “is the continued rumors and viciousness spread by many people outside of our homes who believe that our tragedy was a staged government event that never happened, that children and educators we lost never existed.”