Megyn Kelly launched her new NBC program three weeks ago by interviewing Vladimir Putin. American politicians routinely call the Russian president a "murderer," and he is universally believed to have meddled in the U.S. election, but there was no protest of Kelly for that meeting. Not so for her sit-down with provocateur Alex Jones scheduled to air Sunday. Many have asked that the prerecorded interview not be aired, and advertiser JPMorgan Chase has temporarily canceled its support of NBC News.
That Jones is dangerous and a faker is not subject to reasonable debate. The issue is whether it is best for him to be exposed or ignored. My answer to that question is that it depends on how he is interviewed by Kelly.
Consider that Jones was recently a litigant in a child custody battle in Texas. That case said a lot about how our political discourse has been driven into a ditch. Jones was fighting to maintain sole custody of his three children. His ex-wife, Kelly, was seeking sole or joint custody. She said he was "not a stable person," and part of her argument was his media persona.
Who could blame her? Among the conspiracies to which Jones has given heft is that Sandy Hook never happened. He says that the 2012 massacre in which 20 children and six adults were slaughtered was "staged," that "it's got inside job written all over it," and that "the whole thing is a giant hoax."
At a hearing, his lawyer, Randall Wilhite, told the judge that using Jones' on-air persona to evaluate him as a father would be like judging Jack Nicholson in a custody dispute based on his performance as the Joker in Batman. Wilhite claimed: "He's playing a character. He is a performance artist."
Another one of his lawyers, David Minton, described Jones' show as a mix of "humor, bombasity, sarcasm, wit. That's what he does for a living."
Jones was forced to dispute his own lawyers' characterizations — no doubt in order to preserve his audience. In videos he recorded before his court appearance he said he "110 percent believes" what he stands for, and he called himself "the most bona fide, hard-core, real-McCoy thing there is."
Jones lost the case.
The duality of Jones' persona is confirmation of everything I've been saying about men with microphones, namely, that so much of it is BS. The only people I meet, see, or speak with who see the world entirely through extreme conservative or liberal lenses are talk-radio hosts and cable-television personalities. For the rest of us, issues are a mixed bag — conservative on some things, liberal on others. But not the media provocateurs like Jones. They present themselves on the fringes because they know that passion sells. They are far more interested in lining their own pockets, getting people to pay attention to their websites and radio or television programs, than in bringing about good governance. Their business model is built on tumult, division, and fomenting dissent.
Here is the proof that it works: Before the custody trial, Jones' ex-wife was already receiving $43,000 per month from him. Ironically, she is the best thing he has going for his media career, insofar as she says that what you see on TV is the real Alex Jones.
Sadly, what may be performance art to him is real to his listeners and viewers, and therein lies the danger: the conflation of news and entertainment. It's another reminder that society suffers when we surrender our dialogue to the loudest voices with the sharpest elbows. And Jones has a very important person in his audience — the president of the United States. Donald Trump appeared on Jones' program during the campaign and praised the host's "amazing" reputation. And Jones claims that he continues to have the ear of the president, saying that he "or his sons" watch every night and that Trump called to ask if Jones was "happy" with his performance as president.
Given the reach he already has, the way to deal with Jones is not to ignore him. It is for someone of Kelly's stature to expose him with factual information at odds with his outlandish viewpoints. Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, agrees. (Carusone's organization led the charge against Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity — protests with which I disagreed.) But Carusone told me that NBC should "shine a light" on Jones. "They should not even go after the advertisers on this one, but it's important that when you shine a light, you do it well," he said.
Carusone cited the way 60 Minutes recently covered another incendiary personality, Mike Cernovich. "Nothing about that interview was done in a way that could enable or validate him even with his own audience," Carusone said.
But, based on advance publicity of the NBC interview, he worries that Kelly's treatment of Jones might be too soft.
"In confronting, you don't take joy-rides and take selfies," he said regarding a publicity picture in which Kelly, with a slight smile and wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses, is seen posing alongside Jones in his car. "She didn't do herself any favors. That serves to normalize and validate him. It was unseemly."
Hopefully Kelly, a trained lawyer, did her homework and conducted a thorough interrogation that will make even Jones' supporters question whether his words match reality. We'll find out Sunday night.