Megyn Kelly gave fake news radio host and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — a man who made a name for himself claiming that the 2012 massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax, that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor and that the U.S. government was in on the 9/11 attacks, among other claims — nearly 20 minutes of air time. Prime time. Sunday night. On NBC.
That’s 10 more minutes (an eternity in TV-news segment time) than Russian President Vladimir Putin got during the debut of her NBC show, “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” this month.
Even before it aired, the interview with Jones caused an uproar among viewers, advertisers and parents of the slain children, who demanded that Kelly cut Jones from her hour-long show.
The concern was that it would legitimize the dangerous figure whose fabricated stories had inspired Sandy Hook deniers to harass and threaten the children’s parents and a gunman to show up at the aforementioned pizza parlor.
Kelly responded to the criticisms, saying she felt it was important to “shine a light” on Jones. But come Sunday, that light was a dim bulb at best.
Early on, Kelly asked her interviewee to address the comments he’d made on his radio show regarding the deadly bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, last month.
“You said it was ‘liberal trendies’ who were killed,” she said. “But many of the victims were kids.… You would suggest an 8-year-old was a ‘liberal trendy’?”
Jones rambled out a senseless, word salad of an answer that cleared up absolutely nothing. “I got home at, like, 6, heard about it. The ages of the victims weren’t even known. But they were saying it was jihadi. And I said, ‘How crazy is it that liberal trendies are now the victims?’ And then I start going and looking. Of course, if there’s kids being killed by Muslims, I’m not saying that it’s their fault. Of course, if kids are the victims, I’m not saying it’s their fault.”
And she left it at that. No follow-up. Just this narrated segue from Kelly: “That pattern, reckless accusations followed by equivocation and excuses, is classic Alex Jones.” Kelly too was aware that her pointed questions weren’t going to get answers. So, really, what was she hoping to achieve?
There were reports that NBC had reedited the interview after the public outcry, possibly to make Kelly appear tougher than she had in those much-maligned teasers and to put more context around Jones’ comments.
But there was no changing the basic fact that they’d chosen a sit-down interview with him, a format usually reserved for heads of state, major news figures or celebrities, not a fringe figure who thinks the biggest story of the day is human-animal hybrid experiments.
Much of the segment on Jones, which was about a third of the show, was spent justifying just why they decided to stick with him as their featured guest.
“He has spent nearly two decades on the fringe, shouting his conspiracy theories in front of any microphone he could get in front of,” Kelly said in an intro that included clips of Jones on his YouTube show.
“He and his company Infowars have been steadily gaining followers for years, including radio shows and webcasts which reach millions a month. But Jones’ influence hit new heights when he attracted a very famous fan, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.”
She asks Jones if he thinks Trump is watching.
“I know Trump sees the clips of things,” he answers.
Hardly a bombshell.
But Kelly and her team did find indications of Trump repeating Infowars stories in his campaign speeches — as dozens of outlets have been reporting since 2015. (Maybe next week they’ll do a reveal on his reliance on Breitbart News and how one of their fellows, Steve Bannon, has made it into the White House!)
Without much of any original reporting of her own, Kelly let tough questions just be tough questions, rather than seek accountability from Jones in his answers.
She did bring in an NBC political analyst to speak about the danger of Jones’ fabricated and incendiary claims, and the parent of a slain Sandy Hook child who heartbreakingly spoke of holding his murdered son in his arms.
Their appearance, however, felt shoe-horned into an otherwise shallow profile on Jones. It also felt like a cynical attempt for NBC and Kelly to appear as if they were offering up a real news story rather than a bald-faced ratings grab.
“I remember, even that day, to go back from memory, then saying, ‘But then, some of it looks like it’s real,’” Jones said of the massacre. “But then, what do you do when they’ve got the kids going in circles, in and out of the building with their hands up? I’ve watched the footage. And it looks like a drill.”
Instead of exposing Jones, the Sunday show afforded a puff piece to the dangerous propagandist.
NBC appeared aware of this: It invited Tom Brokaw to close the show with an editorial that almost felt like an apology for the previous interview.
“To the parents of Newtown, it’s not enough to say I cannot imagine. Because, unless we’re the parents, we can never, ever share the unremitting pain the lifelong loss and anger,” Brokaw said.
“Nor should they have to hear the cruel claim that it was a lie. No parent or grandparent in America today can escape the fear that it could happen again. We cannot allow the agents of hate to go unchallenged and become the imprint of our time.”