Whose fault is it that you know who Alex Jones is, some of what he believes, and what he looks like without a shirt on?
Is it the fault of the president of the United States, who appeared on Jones’s show, Infowars, during the campaign and called Jones after winning the election to thank him for his support? Or is it the fault of Jones’s fans and followers, who banded together on the murky fringes of civilized discourse last year and pushed conspiracies like Pizzagate or the notion that Hillary Clinton was secretly on the brink of death? Or is all of that really the fault of the press, who noticed how influential Infowars had become, and reported on it — an endeavor that sometimes required speaking with Alex Jones and people like him?
I am not defending Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones, because how could I — it hasn’t even aired. That happens on Sunday. And yet, the very idea of the interview has been broadly condemned, including by many journalists. Kelly’s new Sunday night news program on NBC has already lost at least one advertiser.
Kelly, critics argue, is “legitimizing” Jones by allowing him onto her program. And this would be true, certainly, if she were Martha Stewart and Jones came on the show exclusively to barbecue ribs. We don’t yet know what Kelly’s interview with Jones covers in its entirety, but from the preview released by NBC, we do know that she questions him about his belief that the Sandy Hook massacre and the September 11 terror attacks were false-flag operations conducted by government actors. It seems likely, then, that the rest of the conversation will involve challenges to the legitimacy of his worldview.
On his show Monday, Jones said, “Have you seen how the president sounds just like me? Have you seen how Steven Bannon sounds just like me? Have you seen how the whole paradigm’s globally shifting and you can’t hold it back?” I don’t think big pharma is trying to make fish gay, but Jones is right in at least one respect: When change occurs, as it surely is in American politics in the Trump era, it isn’t going to be stopped by journalists refusing to acknowledge it. And the truth is, the president has sounded like Jones. He has parroted some of his beliefs. His longtime adviser, Roger Stone, even guest hosts Infowars. Should Kelly — and should you — ignore that? Is television such a sacred medium all of a sudden that the only people who can go on it have to be certifiably sane? In that case, it would just be PBS and Golden Girls reruns with Rose edited out.
Kelly, like her or not, is a journalist, and in 2017, that means interviewing people whose ideas might be reprehensible or flat-out insane when those people stand to influence policy, or when they have a direct line to the White House. Not everyone is happy about this, of course. Over the last few months, I’ve heard the argument over and over, sometimes in response to my own work, that taking time to understand individuals whose ideas, beliefs, or actions may threaten harm to others is a form of improperly “humanizing” them. Something “bad,” this thinking goes, is easy to objectively identify, and deserves no attention or intellectual debate. But understanding the complexities of the people who shape our lives, for better or worse, is what news, in part, is supposed to do. As my New York colleague Jesse Singal wrote recently, “It’s good to normalize evil, in the sense of showing how otherwise ‘normal’ people and institutions can perpetrate evil acts, and every attempt should be made to do so. That’s how you prevent more evil from happening in the future.”
And all of that aside, it’s not as though Megyn Kelly is introducing the world to Alex Jones. In fact, NBC is late. Jones was covered extensively by major news publications throughout the campaign. He was also covered at length for years prior. In 2008, when the libertarian congressman Ron Paul ran for president, Jones, who supported him and interviewed him on his show, drew some media attention. Texas Monthly devoted more than 6,000 words to Jones in 2010. In 2011, Nightline covered him. That same year, he was profiled by this very publication. Subsequently, he sat at a roundtable on The View where he, among other things, defended Charlie Sheen; he debated Piers Morgan about guns on his CNN program; he talked for hours to Howard Stern. In 2014, when Ron Paul’s son Rand began floating a trial balloon for his eventual campaign, Jones got a renewed wave of coverage. Before endorsing Trump, in fact, Jones had endorsed Rand. He’s been around, in other words, and he’s been popular — he just may not have been on your radar. And the answer to the question — did all of this media coverage create Jones’s support? — is a resounding no. The people who watch him and who read Infowars.com and buy the protective iodine droplets and end-of-the-world survival kits he sells? They’re not exactly the core demographic for The View. It’s possible to be exposed to bad or dumb or crazy ideas and not become a convert.
Of course, Megyn Kelly’s tenure at Fox News was punctuated by moments she likely regrets in hindsight. Referring to pepper spray, used against protesters, as “a food product” stands out. Likewise her adherence to a general, on-brand glibness about race. As she’s remade her image amid her fight with Trump, the release of her book, and her departure from partisan cable, she’s offered no mea culpa. She literally said that, actually — “I have no mea culpa to offer” — during an interview last month. There are plenty of reasons people who dislike Kelly can and do point to as justification. And because of all that, when she does fumble in her new role, she’s likely to be dragged for it harder than another TV journalist might be. For instance, she has a friendly way of broaching even difficult questions that can feel a little incongruous with heavy subject matter. And she made what I think was the wrong call to agree to pose for a photo with Jones while she trailed him for her feature. He posted it to his website, complete with the Infowars logo, and it quickly became a meme. I can see why she might not have thought twice about it at the time, but optics-wise, it only served to confirm the worst assumptions about the interview that we haven’t seen. But Kelly’s also not the first journalist to do this — recall that, after the election, a group of Trump reporters crowded around him for a chummy picture at Mar-a-Lago.
But does Megyn Kelly’s past mean that her journalistic contributions should be discounted before we even see them? Is everything she does with her show every Sunday evening inherently worthless? I think looking at it that way would be a waste, and for the people who loathe her, a form of letting her off the hook. Kelly has an opportunity here to do what she didn’t or she couldn’t at Fox News, and good journalism is good for everyone. We should want that from her and from anyone else with such a platform. And the fact remains that in the simple act of talking to someone like Jones, Kelly isn’t necessarily bestowing on him a magical spotlight that renders him mainstream. She’s doing her job, which means addressing uncomfortable truths, like that the president knows Alex Jones. Any problems with that fact should be directed at the White House, not a news network.