Megyn Kelly’s NBC interview with the unhinged right-wing Infowars host Alex Jones hasn’t even aired yet, and in some ways it’s already a disaster. The network’s decision to air the views of a man who once claimed that the Sandy Hook mass shooting was “completely fake” has prompted outrage from the victim’s families. A major sponsor has pulled its ads. Kelly was disinvited from hosting a Sandy Hook fundraiser. Jones himself has called for NBC to pull the interview, on the grounds that it misrepresents him, even as he leverages it for his own gain.
Some critics have called on NBC to kill the segment, although that would have the drawback of appearing to cave to Jones. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan had a more creative suggestion: Repurpose portions of the interview as part of a “no-holds-barred investigation” of Jones and his ilk, to be aired at a future date. Vox’s Julia Belluz proposed an “annotated interview” in which Jones’ misstatements are fact-checked in real time.
These proposals assume that Kelly will fail to productively interrogate her subject, based on teaser clips of the interview and her track record as a former Fox News star. But interviews aren’t endorsements—at least, they don’t have to be—and lesser journalists than Kelly have surprised us in the past by nailing tough subjects. The notion that NBC is wrong to “give him a platform,” meanwhile, is naïve: Jones’ own radio show commands a weekly audience of millions. If the goal were to make him go away, it should be clear by now that ignoring him isn’t working. I tend to agree with BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel, who argued that the Kelly interview presents a rare opportunity to undermine Jones and his followers by exposing him on national TV for the charlatan that he is.
The question is: Will Kelly’s interview seize that opportunity? Or will Jones outmaneuver her to score a victory for his brand of hateful, reality-denying demagoguery? (We may find out sooner than NBC intended: Infowars suggested on Twitter that it would release its own, presumably unedited recording of the interview online Thursday night, pre-empting the network.) The answer will determine whether the segment is indeed remembered as a disaster for Kelly and NBC—or as a disaster for Jones that loosens his hold over the political imaginations of millions of Americans.
How the Interview Could Go Wrong
1. Jones sticks to his talking points. When she interviewed Russian president Vladimir Putin in the first installment of her new Sunday-night show, Kelly lobbed a series of seemingly tough questions, but Putin was ready for all of them—and her failure to effectively follow up allowed him to swat them away with impunity. If she isn't tougher on Jones, the interview will amount to free publicity for his toxic ideas.
2. Kelly gets lured down a rabbit hole. While pressing Jones on his indefensible stances is crucial, crawling too deep into the dank warren of his conspiracy theories would be a mistake. There's zero journalistic value in relitigating the well-established facts of major historical events such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing. All that would do is give viewers the impression that claims like "9/11 was an inside job" are topics of legitimate debate. Besides, that’s Jones’ home turf: Like many conspiracy theorists, he has studied these events in far more detail than just about any sane person, and constructed out of those details an elaborate scaffolding to make his wild claims seem more plausible than they are. He likely would be able to lob red herrings and misinformation at Kelly faster than she could debunk them, and the result would be to deeply misguide a lot of impressionable viewers.
3. Jones turns the tables: On CBS’ 60 Minutes in March, alt-right troll Mike Cernovich went on offense against Scott Pelley, inverting a question about a Cernovich falsehood into one about Pelley’s own journalistic methods. Jones, like Cernovich, feeds on mistrust of the mainstream corporate media, and Kelly, post-Fox News, is about as mainstream and corporate as media gets. To the extent he turns the interview into a referendum on her or NBC, that will deflect attention from his own mendacity while scoring him points both with his base and, potentially, a wider audience of disaffected conservatives.
How the Interview Could Go Right
1. Kelly gives Jones just enough rope. In between letting his falsehoods stand unchallenged and losing herself in a maze of misdirection lies a middle path. Kelly needs to draw Jones out enough to expose his abhorrent views or his fraudulence without allowing him to get on a rhetorical roll. One way to do that might be to play on his grandiose self-regard, as Michael Wolff did in a Hollywood Reporter interview in which he quoted Steve Bannon comparing himself to Darth Vader and Satan. If Jones says something truly unconscionable on national TV, that clip will serve to discredit him even among a lot of people who might otherwise be drawn to his paranoid worldview.
2. Jones gets caught in his own lies. When Jones says something that’s demonstrably false, or that contradicts what he’s said in the past, it isn’t enough for Kelly to call him out on it verbally. She and her producers need to juxtapose his claim with incontrovertible contradictory evidence, such as an audio clip of him saying just the opposite on one of his past shows. Even a professional prevaricator like Jones isn’t going to come off well if the segment makes it clear he can’t be trusted.
3. Jones brags about his closeness to Trump. One of the few notable recent interviews of Jones was conducted by his onetime collaborator Jon Ronson at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. In his Kindle Single The Elephant in the Room, Ronson recounts how Jones’ pride got the best of his caution when discussing his relationship with Trump. The radio host first said that he talks with Trump by phone, then added that he “communicate(s) with him through YouTube videos,” feeding him ideas which Trump then repeats in interviews or on Twitter. More claims like that in the Kelly interview would make Jones an issue for Trump, who would likely face a fresh wave of calls to either reaffirm their relationship or disavow Jones and risk the wrath of both the man and his audience.
In that case, the interview would indeed be a disaster—not for NBC, but for the president of the United States.