It was a failure of journalism, but not a complete disaster
For the task of confronting a conspiracy theorist, is there any medium less suited than broadcast television? The traditional sit-down celebrity interview, as popularized by Barbara Walters, is defined by its constraints: pressed for time, averse to context, and above all, contingent on a subject’s cooperation. Conversations, especially those contrived for the camera, demand good faith and a sense of shared reality — precisely the decencies that a conspiracy theorist cannot concede.
So it was a daredevil act when Megyn Kelly, newly installed at the helm of her own primetime NBC news program, set out to interview Alex Jones, a man who built a fringe media empire by inflaming the paranoias of the far right. There are countless risks and little that can be learned by engaging in public dialogue with someone who shrugs off facts and logic.
When the interview finally aired on Sunday night, it was, for lack of a better word, unobjectionable. Kelly was tough where she needed to be tough. She provided a clear and unsympathetic summary of his controversies. But she also failed to extract any new insights about Alex Jones. This is as much as could be expected.
In retrospect, the meta-drama surrounding the interview — the debate over who was using whom, and which side had the upper hand — taught us far more about both Jones and Kelly, as well as the tectonic shifts in television news, which is increasingly driven by personality and spin.
Kelly produced a dutiful interview that taught us nothing
Kelly’s choice immediately set off a dispute over the ethics of giving Jones a mainstream platform for his views, which have incited some of his listeners to violence. But Jones is already a mainstream figure, popular in his own right and strangely connected to the president. He deserves to be confronted. The real question was always whether television was the right venue, and whether Kelly was the right interrogator.
On Sunday night, contrary to the dire predictions of her critics, Kelly did not glorify Jones or his business of spreading harmful deceptions. She introduced him, rightly, as a “radical conspiracy theorist” and made good on her promise to “confront him on his notorious lie about the Sandy Hook massacre.”
That exchange, which NBC teased in promos, proved to be the highlight of the evening. Asked to account for his belief that the Sandy Hook shooting — which resulted in the death of 20 children — was a hoax, Jones responded with a meandering, incoherent answer.
“At that point — and I do think there was some cover-up and some manipulation — that is pretty much what I believed,” Jones said. “But then I was also going into devil's advocate — but then we know there are mass shootings and these things happen.”
“You're trying to have it all ways,” Kelly replied.
Later on, she caught him in another rhetorical diversion. “When you say parents faked their children's death, people get very angry,” she began.
“Oh I know,” Jones said. “But they don't get angry about the half million dead Iraqis from the sanctions.”
“That’s a dodge,” Kelly said.
It was amusing, but perhaps not illuminating to see Kelly chase Jones in these logical circles — which may be one reason why the 20-minute segment used relatively few clips from their interview. Most of the time was spent giving viewers a dutiful overview of Jones’s rise to fame, his connection to the president, and the often dangerous consequences of his punditry.
By the end of the segment, the world learned nothing new about Alex Jones, except that he sometimes sputters under pressure. It was a capable and fair introduction to Jones for viewers who happen to lack access to Wikipedia. Given the huge risks associated with inviting Jones onto her program, Kelly could rightly claim that as something of a victory.
But as a piece of journalism, the interview was a failure.
Jones’s leaked tape was far more illuminating
Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, a head-to-head competitor with 60 Minutes, is a vehicle for Kelly to refashion herself as a serious journalist, not simply the provocateur she played as a longtime anchor on Fox News. This kind of leap is unheard of — but NBC is betting on Kelly’s charisma and her widespread popularity.
Kelly's interviewing style is often described as prosecutorial, a term that aptly sums up her strengths and weaknesses. She is at her most thrilling — and to some, her most infuriating — when she presses a line of attack. At Fox News, Kelly reached peak notoriety for her confrontation with Donald Trump at the first Republican presidential debate. “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animal,” she said, in a sharply worded question about Trump’s history of misogynistic quips.
The clip of that moment traveled far and wide, mostly because, by the standards of Fox News, Kelly had said something startlingly blunt. Less talked about was Trump’s able deflection. “I've been challenged by so many people and I don't frankly have time for total political correctness,” Trump replied, to cheers from the crowd.
Three weeks ago, the debut of Kelly’s NBC show, which featured an interview with Vladimir Putin, offered both a signal of her ambitions and a spotlight on her shortcomings. Kelly’s pointed questions were easily parried by the KGB-trained Russian president, who smirkingly responded with conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination and suggested that American hackers may have framed Russia for interfering with the election. Whether for lack of time or lack of experience, Kelly hardly pressed for deeper answers.
Kelly’s interest in Jones seems to have been spurred, in part, by a desire to probe the more human dimensions of his personality. According clips from a tape of a private conversation between Kelly and Jones, which Jones released on Friday, she tells him, “I’m not looking to portray you as some kind of boogeyman.”
“The craziest thing of all would be if some people who have this insane version of you in their heads came away saying, ‘You know what? I see the dad in him. I see the guy who loves those kids and is more complex than we have been led to believe,’” Kelly says.
This conversation, which Jones claims was a pre-interview with Kelly, turned out to be far more illuminating than what aired on Sunday night. It offered a peek behind the masks of two media personalities who have often been misunderstood, and hinted at their similarities. At one point, Jones can be heard explaining his brand of punditry — admitting that what listeners get is not always his authentic self, but a trumped up persona.
“I mean I say some pretty wild stuff and a lot of it is satire but also I'm not trying to be — I'm not being fake about what I'm saying, but play the character like the devil's advocate,” Jones says.
“I know exactly what you mean,” says Kelly, who for years served up her own viral moments at Fox News. “You get behind an anchor desk and it's like there's a rush of adrenaline. I always used to say that it's like my superhero self on behind the anchor desk. It's like a charged up version of you.”