In between the public’s right to be informed and the media’s duty to fulfill the task responsibly, there are interview subjects like Alex Jones.
NBC News’ Megyn Kelly had it exactly right when she defended the decision to make Jones the subject of a television news piece intended for mass consumption. Yes, Jones is an overly excitable, miscreant member of the far-right commentariat who has peddled dangerous conspiracy theories about everything from 9/11 to the circumstances of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. And not long ago, there was a good argument for keeping him and his ideas confined to the farthest fringes of American society.
But Jones, who has suggested that the parents of the Sandy Hook victims faked their own children’s deaths, was recently granted a White House press pass for his Infowars website and has a personal fan in the Oval Office. To ignore what this creature from the fringes has to say because it’s just too offensive to contemplate certainly is an option, but not an especially wise one.
Trouble is, in journalism, there’s a fine line between shining a light on people and simply amplifying their message. It can be reckless to just do the latter, particularly when the message consists mainly of pernicious, demonstrably false accusations.
There are legitimate reasons to wonder whether Kelly has successfully walked this line with Jones, not the least of which is that Jones is just the type of interview subject you can count on to know what to do when a microphone is around. Already he has leaked the purported audio of a phone call in which Kelly, formerly of Fox News, sought his agreement to do the interview.
The audio was likely edited to more favorably portray Jones, notes Media Matters, a nonprofit that monitors and corrects misinformation from conservative media outlets. In any case it mainly suggests that Kelly was just doing her job—her alleged pledge to not do a “gotcha hit piece” on Jones should be offensive only to people who would rather see American discourse further eroded.
But a previously released preview clip of the interview itself, promoted by NBC, suggests that Kelly, who landed a reported $15 million annual contract when she came over from Fox News, risked giving Jones the leeway to turn the interview microphone into a megaphone.
Yes, Kelly tells Jones that people “get very angry” when they hear him talk about the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Yes, she accuses him of dodging her question about it when he tries to change the subject to Iraq. But she never warns viewers—at least not in this clip—that what Jones is saying is outright hooey that under no circumstance ought to be taken as fact or legitimate opinion.
It’s arguably best to reserve judgment until seeing the piece in its entirety, but not everyone with a stake in its outcome has waited around. JPMorgan Chase, America’s largest bank by assets, pulled its advertising from NBC News’ properties in the week leading up to the broadcast.
NBC is scheduled to air the piece today (June 18 ) on Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly.