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A disturbing new narrative is building across right-wing media that “the second American civil war” is here, “the mutineers have the momentum,” and President Donald Trump must “burn down the Bastille” and “purge the deep state and flog its media collaborators” if his presidency is to survive.
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It could have gone worse, but a competent report won't undo the damage done
A well-deserved firestorm of denunciations from the families of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting and other critics forced Megyn Kelly to turn a report that was originally billed as a self-promotional head-to-head showdown with Alex Jones into a well-edited investigation of the dangers posed by an unstable megalomaniac with millions of loyal fans, including one in the Oval Office.
But Kelly deserves little credit -- she acted in response to overwhelming public pressure, and the network’s impotent reaction to Jones’ own grabs for media attention may allow the nation's biggest producer of conspiracy theory media to come out the winner of tonight’s program.
At no point since Kelly teased her interview with Jones at the end of last week’s show has she or NBC been able to control the narrative spinning out of her own show. It’s a shocking failure for one of the media’s savviest manipulators of her own image, and the network that hired her.
Immediately after last week’s Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, Sandy Hook family members began speaking out. They said they had suffered years of torment and harassment due to Jones’ claims that the shooting was a “hoax,” and denounced Kelly for granting him a platform. Desperate to salvage the situation as brutal headlines rolled in, NBC all but promised its critics that the segment would be edited to portray Jones as negatively as possible.
That’s exactly what happened. The segment benefited from devoting very little time to Kelly’s interview with Jones, minimizing his opportunity to appeal to her audience. Instead, through strong voiceover, clips from Jones’ program featuring the host spouting conspiracies, and interviews with a conservative commentator who opposes Jones’ influence and the father of a child who died at Sandy Hook, Kelly explained how Jones operates, the harassment his targets experience, and his close ties to President Donald Trump.
The segment reportedly went through drastic changes following the spate of condemnation, with NBC adding an interview with a Sandy Hook family member and slicing and dicing the footage of Kelly’s sit-down with Jones to make it more damaging to him. It’s not unusual for networks to edit stories right up until airtime. But last week’s public relations nightmare clearly played a role in the segment NBC ended up running.
NBC deserved that nightmare. Kelly was hired to be a new face of the network and given a program aimed to challenge CBS’ 60 Minutes for newsmagazine primacy. But after the first episodes of her newsmagazine show suffered from poor ratings and reviews criticizing her interviewing skill, NBC took a chance with a Jones sit-down, which offered Kelly the opportunity to reset the show’s reputation with a viral moment.
That the network’s executives apparently didn’t realize that news of the segment would trigger a backlash from Jones’ victims shows a tremendous lack of foresight and ignorance of the subject matter. NBC paid for that failure with a series of awful news cycles pitting their new star against traumatized families who had lost their children who castigated Kelly for giving Jones a platform.
I believe Jones is a newsworthy subject for national news outlets. It is important for the American people to learn how the nation's most prominent conspiracy theorist has garnered a large audience and gained the ear of Trump (the circumstances were different earlier in the decade, when Media Matters criticized several networks for giving him a platform). But as I argued last week, interviewing Jones’ victims would be more likely to shed light on his character than Kelly’s initial approach of focusing on a head-to-head showdown. The week of controversy drastically changed NBC’s calculus, producing a significantly better segment than suggested by last Sunday’s preview.
It’s too early to tell whether the Sandy Hook families who criticized the decision to interview Jones will be satisfied with the result, or if they will deal another blow to Kelly’s stature. But while Jones isn't having a meltdown, he can't feel good about the segment's clear implication that he is a dangerous extremist. And given how badly the radio host beat the network’s PR team this week, they may have something to fear from him as well.
Kelly and her network were caught flat-footed, unable to either anticipate or successfully react as Jones repeatedly outmaneuvered them, taking control of the narrative and successfully framing the story for the national media through the propagandistic manipulations that make him such a dangerous force.
Jones “has learned how to program the mainstream news by inciting outrage online that is then discussed and covered by mainstream media,” BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel reported after Jones released embarrassing audio of phone calls in which Kelly tries to talk him into doing the interview. “But Kelly and NBC were ill-equipped to deal with the pro-Trump media apparatus. Instead, they adhered to the traditional rules of a big television interview that assume a good-faith relationship between interviewer and interviewee.”
Jones escalated his public relations offensive as the interview approached, releasing a Father’s Day video in which he offered “sincere condolences” to the Sandy Hook families, lied about his previous comments about the attack, and lashed out at NBC. Jones was live on the air before Kelly’s show aired, spreading rumors about Kelly and threatening to release his own recording of their interview if he was displeased with the result. After it aired, seeking to bolster the image that he won the night, he and his cronies drank a champagne toast on camera. As Jones again tried to take over the story online, the NBC News and Megyn Kelly twitter feeds went dark, ceding him the social space.
The radio host wanted more attention, and he got it, seeking to build his audience by portraying himself as the mainstream media’s victim. Thanks to Kelly’s failure to control her own narrative, he may well succeed.
Kelly’s segment demonstrates that, with enough pressure, broadcast outlets can produce adequate reports on the pro-Trump fringe. But the last week shows they still haven’t learned enough to effectively defend their work against an alternative media assault. And it remains to be seen whether NBC’s failure to control the narrative around Jones’ interview helped him more than an otherwise competent segment hurt him.
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Kelly soothes Jones’ fragile ego, assures him the interview will not be contentious, tells him that her show is about “fun,” and even promises to let Jones review any clips they use.
Just days ahead of Megyn Kelly’s June 18 interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the Infowars founder leaked purported audio of him and the NBC anchor. Jones was seeking to defend himself because he believed that Kelly, whom he called a “modern-day Medusa,” would edit her report to make it a hit piece on Jones.
There is no doubt that the audio was edited by Infowars. Jones released it to portray himself in a favorable light and “set the record straight” after he didn’t like NBC’s promo of his interview. Though Jones admits at points that he has done things that he is not proud of, the phone call includes several telling moments about Kelly and NBC:
Ever since Kelly floated the idea of this interview to Jones, he has been manipulating her and NBC with near impunity. As BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel wrote, “Jones has been in control of Kelly’s interview and delighting his audience every step of the way. He broke the news of the interview on his show in late May; he was the first to post teaser photos of Kelly in the Infowars studio online; he got out in front of the interview last week with a misogynistic tirade about how he wasn’t attracted to Kelly and called her and the interview ‘fake news.’”
This trolling comes at a cost. Search traffic for Jones is at a multiyear high:
Google searches for "Alex Jones" are at the highest rate since Piers Morgan hosted him on CNN. Megyn Kelly effect. pic.twitter.com/FQg6NIcmjR
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) June 16, 2017
Julie Alderman and John Whitehouse contributed to this piece. Language has been updated for clarity.
Just days before NBC is set to air an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Megyn Kelly’s new show, Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, Jones once again pushed several conspiracy theories about the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Kelly and NBC’s decision to interview Jones has created a firestorm of controversy, with some family members of Sandy Hook victims calling for NBC to shelve the recorded interview given that Jones has pushed toxic conspiracy theories about the shooting that spurred some of his followers to harass the families. Page Six reported that following harsh criticism of the decision to give Jones a platform, Kelly invited Sandy Hook families to be interviewed for the episode as well.
During the June 15 broadcast of The Alex Jones Show, Jones promoted several conspiracy theories that he and others have previously used to deny that the tragedy ever happened.
Citing the U.S. government’s use of misinformation to justify wars in the Middle East, Jones said, “If they’ll do that, then am I supposed to question Sandy Hook when it happens and they’ve got the kids going in circles in and out of the building, and they don’t call the rescue helicopters, and then instead an hour later there’s port-a-potties and food being delivered and PR firms are there and Anderson Cooper says he’s on location but he’s clearly faking the location.”
It should go without saying that Jones’ claims about the shooting that took 26 lives are false.
On his show, Jones continued to lie about what he has said about the Sandy Hook tragedy in the past, saying he has “looked at every angle of” the shooting and claiming that he has said previously, “It could have been totally true, could have been totally fake.” (In recent months, Jones has repeatedly claimed he was merely playing “devil’s advocate” when commenting on the shooting.)
As Media Matters documented, in the years following the tragedy, Jones definitively stated on several occasions that the shooting did not happen. In 2014, for example, Jones said, “It took me about a year with Sandy Hook to come to grips with the fact that the whole thing was fake.”
Jones has been lying about his past comments on Sandy Hook since his statements started drawing heightened scrutiny following his claim after the 2016 election that President Donald Trump would soon appear on his show. (Trump appeared on Jones show in 2015 and praised the conspiracy theorist’s “amazing” reputation.)
Kelly’s interview is set to air June 18 at 7 p.m. EST.
Jones’ June 15 comments on Sandy Hook:
ALEX JONES (HOST): It is a fact that on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990 a PR firm was hired, and the daughter of the owner of the PR firm, who’d never been to Kuwait and who spoke fluent English and had been brought up in the U.S., went and testified to seeing Iraqi soldiers ripping babies out of incubators and bashing their brains out by the hundreds. This was used as the pretext to launch that war that was meant to legitimize the U.N. as a global government body and bring in a new world order as George Herbert Walker Bush said, or Bush 41. Now, if criminal elements of our government will do something like that to launch now three wars in the Middle East, back radical jihadists to take over Iraq, Syria, Libya, other areas, overthrow our allies in Egypt, kill millions of people, starve millions more, and have Madeline Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, say a half-million kids is an OK price to pay -- in fact, let’s cue that up. If they’ll do that, then am I supposed to question Sandy Hook when it happens and they’ve got the kids going in circles in and out of the building, and they don’t call the rescue helicopters, and then instead an hour later there’s port-a-potties and food being delivered and PR firms are there and Anderson Cooper says he’s on location but he’s clearly faking the location. We looked at every angle of that. And so they’ve now misrepresented what we’ve said, that I said it could have been totally true, could have been totally fake. I didn’t progenerate. I didn’t create. I wasn't the fount of that. The things that I am the fountain of, I’ll tell you. 1776 worldwide. Rebooting America. Nationalism.
Right-wing media show no self-awareness of their role in influencing violent incidents
James T. Hodgkinson, a man with a record of domestic violence, a legally purchased assault rifle, and a valid concealed carry permit, on June 14 opened fire on Republican congressmen and staffers practicing for the congressional baseball game.
The FBI is still investigating the incident, but one thing is already clear about this latest example of unhinged gun violence. The overwhelming evidence of conservative media's influence on a significant number of deadly incidents makes their attempt to deflect attention from their role in creating a toxic political culture both cynical and exploitative.
According to reports, the gunman had shared anti-Republican sentiments publicly online and had been critical of the president. Reports of the shooter’s political background immediately prompted unscrupulous right-wing hacks to pounce on the tragedy, looking to exploit the terrifying gun violence incident as a way to score cheap political points by blaming the left. In a new display of audacious defiance of reality, conservative voices have put the blame of the shooting not only on the left, but also on the press and various celebrities as well. But, blaming the left or the media for Hodgkinson’s actions is equivalent to blaming Jodie Foster for the attempted assassination of former President Ronald Reagan.
The gimmick, however, is deplorable not just for its cynical exploitation of fear, pain and human tragedy; it’s also a hollow attempt to distract from the conservative right’s own responsibility in creating a political culture that inspires violence by fanning the flames of hatred. It’s a red herring aimed at avoiding the obvious, and very concrete, policy-centered conversation that needs to happen around gun violence.
Additionally, the NRA, an organization that customarily deflects conversations about gun violence by blaming fatal shooting incidents on video games, political correctness, and strict gun laws, skirted its own precedent to also blame the left at large for the shooting.
Right-wing figures’ opportunistic attempt to draw direct correlation from out-of-context phrases from progressive politicians to the actions of a violent man with easy access to assault weapons also points to a critical lack of self-awareness when it comes to their own role in influencing violent incidents.
Take Byron Williams and his failed plot to shoot people at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU. Williams explicitly pointed to Glenn Beck’s now-defunct TV show and Alex Jones’ websites as the information sources that prompted his violent actions on the Tides Foundation, a relatively unknown organization that Beck repeatedly vilified on his program. Or the assassination of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, which followed continuous vitriol from former right-wing star Bill O’Reilly, who told his “audience of millions over and over again” that Tiller was “an executioner.” Or the murder of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, CO, at the hands of Robert Dear, a man whose “paranoid delusions, misogynist beliefs, and violent fantasies” matched “perfectly” the usual narratives that come out of “Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and Bill O’Reilly and countless far-right web sites.”
Or the racially motivated massacre that ended nine black lives in Charleston, SC, perpetrated by a habitual commenter at the Trump-supporting, neo-Nazi outlet The Daily Stormer. After a man opened fire at a Washington, D.C., family pizzeria, it was hard to forget Alex Jones asking his audience to investigate the conspiracy theory that alleged the restaurant was hiding a child sex-trafficking ring. In the same way, Jones also exhorted Trump to use force against his opponents and threatened violence against supporters of “parasitical maggot” Bernie Sanders.
So no, right-wingers don’t get to exploit this tragedy. They should not be able to get away with using pain and fear to avoid important policy conversations about gun access in American society. Not when the evidence of their role in promoting violence over politics is so overwhelming.
After five people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), were wounded during a baseball practice in Alexandria, VA, right-wing media figures blamed comedian Kathy Griffin, a New York theater, the investigation into President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, and several others for the shooting.
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President Donald Trump’s most loyal conservative and “alt-right” media allies are blaming the mainstream press's Trump coverage for Wednesday’s attack on a Republican congressional baseball practice, with one close ally to the president even calling for banning some critical journalists from the airwaves in response. This cynical campaign is the next step in their ongoing effort to delegitimize any source of unfavorable information about the president.
The shooter has been identified as James T. Hodgkinson, a home inspector and critic of the president with a history of domestic violence.
Paul Joseph Watson, an editor at Alex Jones’ Infowars site, was among the first to blame media coverage for the gunman’s attack, writing on Twitter just minutes after news broke that the culprit was “Trump derangement syndrome, radicalised by mainstream media hysterics.” He later added of journalists and the left, “The blood is on their hands.”
This cynical effort to curtail critical journalism spread from the “alt-right” fringe, through the right-wing press, to Trump’s chief propagandist at Fox News. Several of the theory’s proponents specifically pointed to the media’s coverage of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
“The fake news media finally got what it wanted,” Mike Cernovich said on Periscope. “They’re getting their mass murderers. They’re getting the mass shooters. This is what they’ve attempted to incite for the past 18 months.” Cernovich, an “alt-right” provocateur and noted misogynist, spent the 2016 election cycle promoting “Pizzagate” smears, and now he has close ties to Trump’s White House and family.
“I have foreseen this coming,” Rush Limbaugh told his millions-strong radio audience soon after the shooting. “You can’t continue to enrage people the way the left and predominantly the mainstream media has been doing.”
Michael Savage, a right-wing radio host with a close relationship with Trump who regularly hosts the administration’s top officials, not only blamed the media for the shooting but also suggested that in response, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and other critical journalists should be removed from the airwaves by the federal government due to their “constant drumbeat of their hatred against Trump and Republicans.” Maddow’s program is notable for its intense focus on the Trump-Russia story.
At Fox, Sean Hannity declared that “the biggest issue we need to address as a country is what is a record level of vicious left-wing hate that is being spewed day after day, hour after hour, by a left-wing news media that wants to destroy the president.”
Notably, the critique these pro-Trump media figures are pushing is largely bereft of concrete examples of journalists using extreme or inciting rhetoric about the president. After making his broad indictment against the press, for example, Hannity highlighted the actions of artists and celebrities, not reporters. In other instances, the claims are simply fabricated, as with Alex Jones’ declaration that a host of newspapers have called for Trump’s death.
Instead, the president’s allies are claiming that negative coverage in general -- and negative coverage about the Russia investigation in particular -- led to violence. This is a patently cynical ploy aimed at bolstering a political strategy that the pro-Trump media have pushed for months.
Trump has been castigating the press and seeking to delegitimize journalists since the presidential campaign. He’s declared the media the “enemy of the American people.” His allies have been bolstering that effort every step of the way.
And now they’re using an attack on U.S. members of Congress as a new way to promote that argument.
In a USA Today report, Media Matters President Angelo Carusone explained how Megyn Kelly’s upcoming NBC interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, while “not necessarily inappropriate” because of Jones’ newsworthy connections to President Donald Trump, appears to be in danger of falling short by failing to provide sufficient context and criticism of Jones.
Kelly, desperate for “a viral moment” after her debut episode on NBC lost the ratings war to a CBS 60 Minutes re-run, traveled to Austin, Texas, to interview Jones about his rise to fame as a prominent conspiracy theorist. In previewed clips from the upcoming interview, Kelly asks Jones softball questions such as, “They call you the most paranoid man in America. Is that true?”
While the families of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims have spoken out on giving a platform to Sandy Hook truther Jones, Kelly has defended the interview by claiming she wants to “shine a light” about the “considerable falsehoods” he spews. As a result of the interview, J.P. Morgan announced they would be removing ads from NBC News and Sandy Hook Promise, “a leading gun violence prevention organization,” disinvited Kelly from hosting the organization’s Promise Champions Gala.
In the interview with USA Today, Carusone agreed there “is a really compelling case to be made that you should shine a light on Alex Jones” but also warned that the apparent purpose of Jones’ feature on Kelly’s show “was not to really draw a meaningful critique of the way that the current president gets his information and who he gets it from.” From the June 12 article:
Megyn Kelly and NBC are facing blowback for an upcoming TV interview with the controversial radio host Alex Jones.
Opposition quickly surfaced soon after promotional videos of the interview with the InfoWars founder, scheduled for the June 18 episode of Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, were first shown during the June 11 episode and appeared online.
A #ShameonNBC hashtag began trending on Twitter with an outcry of concern about giving a platform to Jones, who in the past has supported conspiracy theories about the government blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the 9/11 terror attacks. "9/11 was an inside job," he says in the promo video.
NBC and Kelly's booking of Jones is not necessarily inappropriate, says Angelo Carusone, president of liberal media activist group Media Matters. "There actually is a really compelling case to be made that you should shine a light on Alex Jones because of his relationship with the current president," he said.
However, Carusone expects, based on the preview and Kelly's past performances -- including last week's interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin -- "it appears that the reason of having Alex Jones on was not to really draw a meaningful critique of the way that the current president gets his information and who he gets it from."
A softball interview, "allows him to promote himself," he said. "The idea he is on NBC, in and of itself, is a really big deal. What that says for his audience is that he is so important and powerful that even the people that Alex Jones speaks the worst of can’t ignore him anymore." [USA Today, 6/12/17]