The sit-down format was a poor choice for a segment on the Infowars conspiracy theorist.
Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has spent years trying to convince people that the parents of children slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School are liars.
Now freshly minted NBC host Megyn Kelly, formerly of Fox News, is giving him a mega platform to cast his doubt on them once again in one of the first sit-down interviews of her new Sunday night show.
After a teaser for the show, which will air this Sunday, was released, Kelly was blasted on Twitter for giving Jones airtime, with calls for a boycott to support the Sandy Hook parents. Advertisers have subsequently pulled ads from NBC, and Kelly was dropped as the host for a Sandy Hook fundraiser.
In the preview, Kelly attempts to be tough with Jones, and accuses him of dodging her questions. She says she interviewed him to “shine a light” on an increasingly important media figure. An NBC executive also defended the program, saying there was value in having Jones sit down for an interview.
Reporting on Jones makes sense; he has indeed gained prominence since the last election. But a serious sit-down interview was a poor choice of format for covering him. It’s extremely difficult to have a reasonable exchange with a person who regularly rants and spews nonsense, as Jones does. It’s like running a straight one-on-one with a climate change denialist or someone who refuses to accept the Holocaust happened.
Jones doesn’t live in reality, and Kelly’s interview risks validating him and disseminating his bullshit. It doesn’t leave space for context and debunking.
It also sends the message that in an era of “fake news” and a president who regularly attacks the media, hoaxers like Jones are worthy of an hour of primetime TV to share their ideas.
If Jones’s words didn’t have dangerous real-world consequences, it wouldn’t matter much that he’ll soon have this megaphone. But they do — from spurring people to violent action to undermining institutions such as the media, science, and government.
Jones has a history of spreading dangerous misinformation
If you’ve ever watched hours of Alex Jones’s Infowars, as I have, you might come away steeped in a dark and distorted view of the world. Jones alleges that 9/11 was “an inside job,” that the Sandy Hook massacre was designed to get Americans to side with gun control, and that there’s a secret fungus epidemic spreading across the country and slowly killing Americans.
He delivers these bizarre claims, and many others, red-faced, in his signature husky rasp. They’re framed as truths the mainstream media and elites are hiding from public view, with Jones as the bearer of the truth.
The president of the United States, meanwhile, has applauded Jones and perpetuated falsehoods that originated on the show, like the suggestion that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama started ISIS and that the election was rigged. Along with Breitbart and Fox News, Infowars was one of the keys sources of information for conservatives in the last election. (The White House recently gave Infowars press credentials.)
This is one reason Jones’s audience is growing: Jones is now broadcast on some 150 radio stations, with a website that reaches more than 6 million unique US users each month and a YouTube channel that has more than 2 million followers — numbers that rival those of mainstream media outlets.
But his lies have also had real consequences for real people. The parents of the Sandy Hook victims have been harassed by “Sandy Hook truthers” spurred on by Jones. Even last week, a woman who claimed Sandy Hook is a hoax got five months in prison for threatening the father of a Sandy Hook victim.
There was also the so-called Pizzagate scandal late last year. Jones often talks about the pedophile rings that elites are helping to organize, and his suggestion that Clinton was running one out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, was the reason a man walked into that shop with a gun last year threatening to kill people.
In April, Jones was entangled in another legal skirmish that once again demonstrates how seriously people take him. On the show, he’s argued that the Chobani yogurt company’s practice of hiring refugees has brought “migrant rapists” and tuberculosis to areas near their factories. The claim activated his audience, prompting people to boycott Chobani products, and the company is now suing Jones for what it says are “false” and “defamatory” reports.
Families of the Sandy Hook victims are furious about Kelly’s interview
We don’t know what the full interview holds, but the teaser suggests Jones will roll out his standard erroneous rants on topics like 9/11 and Sandy Hook.
And family members of some of the 26 people who were killed in the Sandy Hook massacre are furious. In tweets, Nelba Márquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana Grace was killed in Sandy Hook, admonished NBC and Kelly for their decision to showcase Jones.
So did many others who are standing with the families.
There are better ways to cover conspiracy theorists
Instead of airing the sit-down, NBC could run an annotated interview, where it could use the exchange to explain to viewers what Jones gets wrong — about 9/11, Sandy Hook, the HPV vaccine, etc.
The network could also use the opportunity to give its viewers context on how a figure like Jones has gained such a huge following, and what it means that Jones can count the president among his fans.
For now, the teaser suggests that Jones will be shown sitting across from the anchor, as heads of state, important authors, and serious scientists have in NBC interviews before him. It suggests he’ll be given lots of latitude to promulgate nonsense.
The president told Jones in a 2015 interview, “You have an amazing reputation.” And he’s been known to share Infowars articles and videos. Kelly has a choice between helping Jones become even more “amazing” — or treating him the way he deserves to be treated: as a reservoir of falsehoods that have serious and dangerous repercussions.