It’s one of the basic tenets of journalism, but it’s worth recalling this week, a week in which Megyn Kelly is set to give a platform to a man who cast doubts on the awful (and irrefutable) facts of the Sandy Hook murders. Yesterday there was an attempt to clamp down on the activities of journalists interviewing members of Congress inside the Capitol, even as a crucial (and secret) bill is under consideration. Also this week: Incoming member of Congress Greg Gianforte was sentenced to zero jail time after physically assaulting a reporter in front of witnesses.
(Here’s a hypothetical for you: Would there have been no jail time — only community service and anger management classes — if any reporter had ever violently body-slammed a politician in full view of witnesses? No, I don’t think so either.)
This is to say nothing of the reporters who have been arrested, publicly castigated, and blocked at almost every turn by a president and an administration that wants its dealings to remain secret. These are things that happen in autocratic states.
The press is not perfect, but we need reporters who do good and necessary work more than ever. And despite enormous roadblocks in their paths, despite the long, increasingly difficult hours spent just trying to do their jobs, most reporters are doing their level best to serve the public.
Then there’s Megyn Kelly.
There are a few contexts in which her interview with Alex Jones exists. First of all, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Jones won’t run the table on her, as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have done in the past. Far from giving them the kind of rigorous grilling both deserve, when Kelly interviewed these powerful men — the Putin “get” was the centerpiece of the debut of her new NBC newsmagazine — she instead gave them platforms to spread their particular brands of misinformation, blather and self-serving spin.
Then there’s the context of the advance hype for the interview, in which Kelly posed for a friendly photo with Jones, and bantered with him in a promotional clip. These things indicate that on-screen time with Kelly will merely humanize InfoWars’ Jones, whose views are actively hurtful to Sandy Hook parents, who have criticized NBC’s decision to air the Jones piece.
Two more bits of context: Kelly’s new “Sunday Night” program is all over the map tonally, but in its first two airings, it has not exactly been hard-hitting. And yet advertisers are already pulling out of the program over the Jones flap.
Finally, we have the context called reality, in which anyone who follows the news already knows who Alex Jones is. We know that he’s exponentially increased the pain of victims’ family members by peddling nonsensical and bizarre conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook massacre. He’s said that it was “staged” by “actors”; he’s called it “a giant hoax” and “fake.” In the “Sunday Night” promo reel, he calls Sept. 11 “an inside job.”
What additional information do any of us need about Jones? Isn’t that enough? If any more context is necessary, he’s also admitted in divorce proceedings to be a “performance artist” who peddles ridiculous and damaging views in large part to make money and gain more fame. Of course it’s likely that Kelly will ask him about that “performance artist” description, but what’s the value in setting him up to spin his odious statements to make himself look better? I can’t see any. Even Jones himself has called on NBC to cancel the piece — the kind of statement that is routine for his brand of outrage theater. Less usual, and much more sickening, is him blaming the media for the terrible Alexandria, Va., shooting that took place Wednesday.
All in all, there are precious few indications that Kelly’s piece will “shine a light” on an important topic, as she’s protested. It certainly looks like Kelly will, in an attempt to hype her own brand in her new gig, be the latest person in the media industry to help normalize Jones and his cynical brand of dangerous opportunism, more or less on his terms. More people will know who Jones is after “Sunday Night” airs — that’s all he likely wants, and Kelly and NBC are simply giving that to him.
In a recent column, Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post makes the reasonable point that if coverage of Jones was part of an insightful and hard-hitting report on the rise of the alt-right and greedy conspiracy-theory salesmen, that might justify talking to him. But from what we’ve seen of Kelly’s interview, it’s not intended as a context-filled trend piece. It looks like a standard Q&A, and it’s far from clear that this segment will fully and completely place Jones within the context of the rise of various “truther” movements, and as part of an alternate media structure that efficiently spews and foments lies, bigotry, and hate. The Kelly piece may surprise me, but I’ve got plenty of evidence working against that theory at the moment.
To be clear, those engaging in lies and hate speech can be covered well, and sometimes this kind of coverage is necessary. When it comes to providing balance, CNN does not always cover itself in glory — like most media outlets, at times it seems determined to “both sides” the nation into the abyss. But the network’s “United Shades of America” presents just one example of how to cover a reality-trampling hate-monger in a way that does not demean the network or the correspondent — or the truth.
On the season premiere of “United Shades,” host W. Kamau Bell interviewed white nationalist Richard Spencer, but that exchange took up less than five minutes of an hour in which Bell also interviewed immigrants, politicians, and citizens on the topics of migration and race. Spencer’s was just one voice among many, and at no point did Bell look like he was doing freelance P.R. for the neo-Nazi movement.
Context and approach not only matter, they provide the difference between merely giving someone a platform and stringently examining and questioning the pillars that hold up that platform. This Sunday on Kelly’s show, there’s little reason to hope that the latter will occur.
The best thing for NBC News to do at this point would just be to pull the interview. That’s the truth.