The Real Problem with Megyn Kelly’s Alex Jones Segment

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The latest edition of “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly,” which aired last night, opens with a shot of a bulky man hunched over a desk, fiddling with a yellow highlighter, casting a sideways glance at the camera. “Pizzagate, as it’s called, is a rabbit hole that is horrifying to go down,” he says, referring to the unmoored claim that officials from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democrats had been running a child-sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. In a voiceover, Kelly identifies the man as “Alex Jones, the radical conspiracy theorist”; then there is a quick cut to Jones, sitting at another desk, saying, “I agree with Trump. He agrees with me,” before Kelly continues, “with a new and surprising degree of influence, thanks, in part, to President Trump.” The President is then seen in his Trump Tower office, telling Jones, via a split-screen video, that he, Trump, will not let him down: “You will be very, very impressed, I hope.” Jones nods rapidly, his eyebrows drawn together in an expression of abject gratitude.

The segment that follows recapitulates this formula. There is Jones, again and again, with a sad expression of poorly suppressed panic—like that of a train conductor about to explain to passengers that they won’t be arriving at Grand Central on time, because the terminal has been squashed by giant lizards. And there is Kelly, telling him that some of his theories sound like “B.S.,” especially the one about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in which a gunman killed twenty children and six adults, and which Jones claims was a hoax. Kelly calls that a “notorious lie,” and has some success at drawing out the shamefulness of Jones’s disparagement of the Sandy Hook parents. But, beyond expressing wonder at the President’s endorsement of Jones, she fails to make much sense of Trump’s role in all this, or that of Trump’s party, or, for that matter, of her former employer, Fox News.

Calling Jones to account on Sandy Hook is an easy enough task that Kelly somehow, in the days leading up to the broadcast, made look hard. This was partly because Jones, in a preëmptive move, had released recordings in which Kelly had told him that he would be happy with the segment, and that she wasn’t in the “gotcha” business. There were also reports, in the Times and elsewhere, that the segment was re-cut in an attempt to keep Kelly’s, and NBC News’s, credibility intact. (Tom Brokaw was brought on for a postscript, in which, citing Jones, he offered thoughts on the ugly side of the Internet, where Jones and his Infowars site and video and audio feeds live.) She did interview Sandy Hook families, and her exchange, in the final segment, with Neil Heslin, who lost his six-year-old son, Jesse, is particularly effective, and a strong contrast with Jones, who tells Kelly that, although he may at times been playing “devil’s advocate” in his ranting about Sandy Hook, there had still been “some coverup and some manipulation.”

At that, Kelly says, “But, Alex, the parents, one after the other, devastated, the dead bodies that the coroner autopsied.” Jones interrupts her, saying, “And they blocked all that, and they won’t release any of it. That’s unprecedented.” Later, he says, “I came to believe that children probably did die there, but, when you look at all the evidence on the other side, I could see how other people believe that nobody died there.” It is notable that, in this, the closest Kelly brought him to conceding error, Jones says “children,” not “the children,” leaving open the possibility that a few died—just not the twenty that “the media” claimed.

Where Kelly went very wrong on Sandy Hook, though, was in avoiding the topic of Jones’s claims about the motive of the shooting’s stagers. This is also where the story returns to Trump, or should have. In Jones’s world, the purpose of Sandy Hook was to allow liberal-aligned forces within and outside the government to push through gun-control legislation. Sandy Hook did demonstrate the need for sensible gun laws. For a small number of the people who don’t accept that need, there is an impulse to deny the facts of the case. Jones, whose Sandy Hook conspiracy theory is a species of gun-rights wish fulfillment, represents an extreme version of that impulse. Trump has not taken this approach, although Kelly noted that he has not responded to requests from Sandy Hook parents that he disavow Jones’s lies about their children. He tends, instead, to talk, after mass shootings, about how much better it would have been if everyone in the room had had a gun, and he spent a good part of the campaign warning “Second Amendment people” that there were nefarious plans afoot to ravage the Constitution and take away their guns.

“He’s following Alex on coal, he’s following Alex on guns, he’s following Alex on borders,” Jones says about Trump in one clip. Kelly doesn’t decipher the shorthand, there or in other clips in which Trump vouches for Jones, saying that he has an “amazing” reputation. Nor does she closely examine Jones’s other claims, such as when he says that he has private investigators looking into what the employees of Chobani, the yogurt company, were up to in Idaho. The account of this episode might leave a viewer thinking that Jones just has some inexplicable antipathy toward yogurt, rather than toward the refugees whom Chobani hires, and who, Jones falsely claims, brought with them a wave of sex crimes and disease to Idaho. The story is another version of the President’s intimations about Mexican rapists coming across the border. But, on Kelly’s show, the President is mostly presented as a sign of seriousness, as if placing the weight of the White House alongside Jones’s thrown-together stories amounts to some sort of paradox. Trump’s affection for Jones isn’t some puzzling quirk about either of them, though. It is what the President, and, increasingly, some elements of his party, are all about.

Kelly says at one point that Trump and Jones first connected over their shared efforts to push the false story that President Obama was not born in the United States. A prime forum for that conspiracy theory, though, was Kelly’s former employer, Fox News. She was not among those at the network who entertained birtherism, and at times she distanced herself from it, but she spent a lot of time at the network chasing Clintonian non-scandals: e-mails, alleged debate-fixing, corruption. And, while she confronted Jones about his Pizzagate conspiracy-pushing, which led to one of his listeners showing up at the restaurant with a gun, she didn’t place that story where it belonged: in the context of the hysteria about the hacked e-mails of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, which Pizzagaters claimed were full of sordid code words. She grilled Trump, in the first Republican-primary debate, on his misogyny and feuded with him for a time, and then, as he closed in on the nomination, made her peace with him in an interview that was conducted largely on his terms. That was before she moved from Fox to NBC, but one reason that there were doubts about her Jones segment was because of how her first story for her new show, an interview with Vladimir Putin, had gone. He shrugged off her question about whether he interfered with the Presidential election and what amounted to scattered observations about his power, while openly condescending to her. Speaking of her efforts, and those of other journalists, to look at the Trump campaign’s connections to Russians, he said, “Your lives must be boring.” In her new role, Kelly seems to be snatching at names associated with the President and the stories around him. But that alone isn’t the same as making news.