The past week has been a tumultuous one for NBC News’ new star. Kelly is attempting to make an impression with NBC’s audience this summer in advance of the September debut of her 9 a.m. morning show. Jones, the founder and chief mouthpiece of the Infowars radio program and online channel, is an unstable right-wing provocateur who may be most notorious for his steadfast insistence that the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting was a hoax. His attention-getting assertion has convinced enough others that the bereaved parents have received death threats from angry Infowars viewers. This, in turn, has so horrified many Americans that Jones’ appearance on “Sunday Night” prompted outcry: In addition to a heated conversation about the role of journalism and freedom of speech, JP Morgan Chase withdrew its advertising, and the NBC-owned station in Connecticut opted not to broadcast the interview. Jones, in response, took matters into his own hands — distancing himself from the interview and leaking his recording of one of his conversations with Kelly.
Entirely on its own — aside from Jones’ prevarication, the chummy behind-the-scenes photos of Jones and Kelly that surfaced, the multiple third-party opinions on the topic, and the leaked audio — “Sunday Night’s” segment on Jones is mostly notable for how empty it is. The interview portion, where Kelly is actually sitting opposite Jones, is minimal — perhaps just a few minutes of footage when pieced all together. Being a good television interviewer requires not just the courage of presenting interviewees with uncomfortable facts — courage that, to her credit, Kelly has in spades — but also the ability to establish a rapport with the subject in order to engage in conversation. Jones is a disjointed personality who sees the world as an interlocking set of media-fueled conspiracy theories; trying to have a fact-based conversation with him on any one topic is nearly impossible. Certainly Kelly was not especially skilled at it. Which made it all the more perplexing that she thought Jones would be a good subject for her new show.
The one strong takeaway from the entire segment was that Jones is newsworthy and dangerous because he has the ear of our volatile president. The segment starts with that sentiment, and then proceeds to enumerate various situations in which Jones is a concerning public figure (including an interview with Neil Heslin, who lost his son in the Sandy Hook tragedy). Then it ends. To be sure, Kelly is right to observe that the connection is worth investigating. But the “Sunday Night” segment doesn’t seem like investigating; it’s instead a wind-up to a punch with no subsequent impact.
“Sunday Night” could have focused on the sources of Jones’ Sandy Hook theories, or Jones’ connection to Trump, or Jones’ popularity within certain circles. It could have tried to profile Jones to discover more about his pot-stirring rhetoric — or enumerate the instances in which he is connected to Donald Trump. Those are angles. This segment doesn’t have an angle. It doesn’t have an iota of new information about Jones. Instead it ticks off the existing controversies that surround him, and then hits a wall. Kelly does not manage to make the segment into a story because she has no story.
Because of the advance backlash, it seems likely that the segment was edited to indicate as firmly as possible Kelly’s condemnation of Jones’ outrageous statements. That may explain why the interview portion that aired seems so stilted; the exchanges that aired emphasize Kelly trying to get him to disavow his past statements. They appeared to be carefully extracted out of broader conversation.
The decision to go after Jones actually put the spotlight on the fact that Kelly, despite the reputation she built at Fox News, is not a great interviewer. She also struggled during her much-hyped sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin on “Sunday Night’s” debut a few weeks ago. Her talent is less about extracting information from intriguing people and more attuned to leading the audience to a sense of vague unease about her subjects. As evidenced by the segment that immediately followed Jones’ — a pearl-clutching take on the phenomenon of (legal) delivery services for (legal) marijuana — Kelly’s primary mode is manufacturing and expressing concern, without much thought as to where that concern comes from and why it matters. That reluctance to dig deeper is what doomed the Jones segment. It is hard to not feel that Kelly has just emboldened Jones — an ideologue who will use any angle to advance his pernicious narrative.
For all the build-up, the segment ultimately revealed more about Kelly’s weaknesses as an anchor in the “60 Minutes” mold than it did about Jones.