Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with Alex Jones wasn’t the fiasco many had predicted. Far from a fireside heart-to-heart with America’s leading conspiracy theorist or a faux-objective “gotta hear both sides” back-and-forth, the segment was edited more like an exposé of a dangerous paranoiac who happens to have the ear of the president.
Kelly quickly homed in on Jones’ vulnerabilities, including his role in the Pizzagate conspiracy (for which he eventually apologized) and his absurdly offensive denial of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (for which he has not). Jones’ mealy-mouthed explanations were edited to leave in the sweating and the squirming and leave out his stem-winding conspiracy rants, giving viewers the indelible impression of a man who lacks the guts either to renounce or to stand by his reckless claims.
In the lead-up to the interview, NBC and Kelly took heavy flak from liberal critics—and parents of the Sandy Hook victims—for giving Jones a mainstream platform from which to air his abhorrent views. No doubt influenced by the backlash, Kelly and company instead did everything they could to undercut and discredit Jones. (The program reportedly did a heavy edit of the segment following the first round of criticism). In most viewers’ eyes, they probably succeeded, even if the results weren’t particularly enlightening.
The producers juxtaposed clips of Jones’ past Sandy Hook denials with Kelly’s interview with a father who had lost his daughter in the shooting. Having backed Jones into a corner on his prevarications, they showed his last-ditch attempt to thread the needle between offending Kelly’s viewers and disappointing his own: “I tend to believe that children probably did die there,” Jones said, practically tugging at his collar. “But then you look at all the other evidence on the other side, and I can see how other people believe that nobody did die there.” The show then cut to a voice-over in which Kelly intoned gravely: “Of course, there is no evidence on the other side.”
That’s the sort of work the show needed to do in order to answer the criticism that it was playing into Jones’ hands by having him on. Only a hardcore Jones viewer could have come away thinking that he looked like anything but a kook.
Yet in her determination to avoid normalizing Jones, Kelly also avoided drawing anything particularly interesting out of him or the phenomenon he represents. We already knew Jones was a liar and a poseur. We learned next to nothing new about the deeper question of how and why he rose to prominence, and what that says about America and the media today. While the show traced InfoWars’ influence on Donald Trump, it didn’t plumb the mutual affinities that help to explain it. Instead, it concluded by dredging up the retired Tom Brokaw for an eloquent yet intellectually empty riff on the internet, hate, and division. His pep talk to America: “This is a time of common threats requiring uncommon courage. It is a time to step up.”
Ultimately, the segment came off less as a hard-hitting work of journalism than an apologia for its own existence.
But if attention is money, this episode was ultimately a win for both sides. Kelly’s show likely boosted its national profile and ratings, and the bad press it generated will likely be offset by the generally positive reviews for the segment itself.
Jones, meanwhile, found himself at the center of a weeklong news cycle and succeeded in portraying Kelly as a two-faced mercenary by releasing audio of a pre-interview in which she promised to go easy on him. Taking the name of his InfoWars brand literally, he spent the duration of Sunday night’s segment broadcasting live to his followers as he watched along with them, serving up a derisive stream of running commentary on the Kelly’s mendacity.
As poorly as he came off on her show, Jones probably needn’t worry too much about his own audience, who were already conditioned to mistrust anything they see on network TV. And now he has people like Fox News’ Sean Hannity taking his side as part of their own crusades against the mainstream media.
Neither side came out of this battle unbloodied. But each played shrewdly to their own audience, and there was no knockout blow. Jones “isn’t going away,” Kelly warned at the top of the show, by way of justifying her coverage of him. And, despite the efforts of her critics and her subject, neither is Kelly.