Just a week after mocking the breakdown in civility on cable news shows and in the White House during the premiere episode of her new NBC newsmagazine program, last night Megyn Kelly teased an upcoming interview with Infowars’ Alex Jones, the megalomaniacal radio host known for his wide range of conspiracy theories.
The first episode of Kelly’s Sunday Night was panned by critics and lost in the ratings war against a rerun of its direct competitor, CBS’ 60 Minutes. Her Jones interview, scheduled to air June 18, is an attempt to overcome this poor start by manufacturing a “Megyn moment” -- one of those unexpected instances where Kelly calls out her right-wing guest’s nonsense. These often-viral interview segments do little to inform Kelly’s audience. But they helped her gain an undeserved reputation in the mainstream press as an impartial truth-teller -- in part by distracting observers from the extreme, race-inflected rhetoric that made her a creature of the cable news culture that she now claims to deplore.
Kelly certainly isn’t the first television host for whom high-minded rhetoric about creating a different type of program quickly yields to the raw desire to build on the show’s audience by any possible means. But the bar is high for Kelly’s Sunday Night, a program which aspires to compete with the storied 60 Minutes brand as a source of agenda-setting interviews and investigations. To do so, the show needs to not only entertain viewers -- or build Kelly’s brand -- but actually inform them about crucial events happening in the world around them.
As such, the clips of Kelly’s interview with Jones that were previewed last night do not inspire confidence. Kelly asked Jones questions that could not possibly yield honest or accurate responses (“They call you the most paranoid man in America. Is that true?”) and sparred with him over his claims that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks and faked the Sandy Hook mass shooting.
It is extremely difficult to successfully interview a conspiracy theorist who is willing to lie about what he has previously alleged. The subject can often run circles around the interviewer both because he is inevitably more familiar with the nuances of the theory and because he is willing to engage in rhetorical strategies for which the interviewer just isn’t ready. After the interview is over, the conspiracy theorist can retreat to his own media platforms to provide his own spin on what happened to an audience predisposed to believe him, not the mainstream press.
This phenomenon was on display in March, when 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley interviewed the pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel explained, “Pelley, like other legacy journalists who are unfamiliar or only lightly acquainted with the meme-wielding arm of the right, confronted the pro-Trump Upside Down media without an understanding of its cardinal rule: The New Right media isn’t just an opposition force to the mainstream media — it’s a parallel institution armed with its own set of facts that insists on its own reality.”
At worst, if Kelly is similarly unprepared, she will have given a platform and the NBC imprimatur of credibility to one of the more despicable figures in that parallel press, helping him gain access to a new audience. That’s what happened back in 2011, when MSNBC, NBC, and ABC all hosted Jones to discuss actor Charlie Sheen’s bizarre interview on his show. At the time, Jones acknowledged what should have been obvious -- that he was using those opportunities to “inject Infowars.com into the discussion” in the hope that “people will come here and find the larger picture." Jones is hoping history will repeat itself, having been counseled by Infowars cohort Roger Stone to do the interview in order to “break through to the mainstream.”
At best, Kelly will joust with Jones over his past conspiracy theories, perhaps trapping him once or twice in a way that creates a “Megyn moment,” bolstering her brand and allowing her show to recover from a rough opening. (After sitting for the interview last week, Jones linked Kelly with the “new world order” and announced to viewers that he wasn't even attracted to her, suggesting that he is not happy with the result.) But the NBC audience probably won’t learn much from an interview segment in which two people operate from contrary views of reality. And Jones will still have had the opportunity to pitch his show to her viewers, and he will be able to manipulate the result in order to build his credibility with his own audience.
That opportunity is angering the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy. On Facebook and Twitter, they have called out Kelly, describing how Jones’ conspiracy theories have spurred years of emotionally brutal harassment from his fans and warning that giving him a platform can only encourage that campaign of abuse.
Jones is a newsworthy subject, and it’s important for the American people to know about his relationship with the president. But given the difficulty in pinning down Jones on the facts, the best way to inform a radio or television audience about Jones isn’t to build a segment around a high-profile interview with him -- it’s to interview his victims.
Don’t ask Jones how he feels about the people who “get very angry” about him saying that the Sandy Hook parents faked their children’s death. Sit down with those family members and ask them how their lives have been changed by Jones making those claims to an audience of millions, as the BBC’s Mike Wendling did earlier this year.
Without giving Jones the opportunity to spread his lies to a new audience, you can lay out his conspiracy theories, why they are wrong, their impact, and what it means that he has fans in the White House.
A segment like that will educate your audience about one of the worst people in public life. It might even be riveting television. It just won’t give you a “Megyn moment.”