Matt Gertz on The Bill Press Show: Megyn Kelly and media have "no idea how to handle" Alex Jones and other "alt-right" trolls
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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.
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.
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]
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.
— cristina hassinger (@chass63) June 12, 2017
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.”