In internet-wired, bitterly divided America you can make up any outrageous, destructive story and some number of gullible and/or paranoid people will see it and believe it. And if you’re really loud and persistent, you can get a legacy television network and an astonishingly photogenic person to introduce you nationwide to six or eight million people, at least some of whom will buy what you’re selling.
That’s what happened Sunday night when NBC and Megyn Kelly served up a 20-minute portion of Alex Jones’ poisonous conspiratorial stew. The only thing the much-hyped interview proved is that Jones is a jittery but genuinely despicable self-promoter and Kelly relishes jousting with jerks. Passable entertainment but flaccid journalism.
In the lead-up to Sunday’s telecast, Kelly and NBC were, properly, called upon by people inside and outside of journalism to cancel the broadcast. NBC should have done so, for the brief interview could have served only Jones’ and NBC’s selfish purposes.
In case you don’t know, Jones is a blogger and radio talker who has become wealthy pushing conspiracy theories about the staging of the Sandy Hook school and Aurora theater shootings; about 9/11 being an “inside job,” Hillary Clinton’s involvement in a child prostitution scheme in a Washington DC pizza parlor, and the Clinton campaign murdering a young aide because he was going to spill the beans on the hacking of Clinton’s e-mails. Really.
The lead-up discussions did re-open some legitimate questions about the blurring of the distinction between news and entertainment; about advertiser pressure on content decisions; about journalistic responsibility and journalists’ moral and ethical obligations to the First Amendment. But that back-and-forth produced no new answers, for there are none.
The fact that the show was, at best, merely entertainment disposes of the pre-broadcast argument that JPMorganChase and other advertisers pulling commercials from NBC was an attempt to “censor the news.” Business people are under no obligation to be associated with content they abhor, whether it is real news or entertainment or artistic expression. The same First Amendment that provides freedom for those producing news, entertainment and art also provides corporate leaders the freedom to express their views through choices about how to spend their money.
Kelly, like many people who call themselves journalists, responded to objectors in resounding phrases: “…as journalists…we shine the light on those with power, those who have become culturally relevant….I have to do my job.”
In Kelly’s view, apparently, Jones had reached a tipping point of power and cultural relevancy to justify giving him national exposure.
Praised by President Donald Trump and claiming to communicate with him, Jones indeed should be closely examined by actual investigative reporters and his lies and fantasies broadly exposed. But that cannot possibly happen in 20 minutes of TV conversation with a man who thrives on evasion and relentless argumentation. Pretending that it can do so creates only entertainment, not news or societal, value. So the show was just another synergistic exploitation of America’s screen-induced intellectual torpor.
If NBC truly wanted to expose Alex Jones’ lunacy rather than exploit it, for a fraction of what it is paying Kelly it could have mounted a true investigation or at least joined a group effort to do so.
Jones is certainly vulnerable to a journalistic kill shot, but Sunday was not, and could not have been, that.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.