The thing about marriages of convenience is that the people in them are frequently inconvenienced. That’s what happens when you put money over compatibility and shared values, assuming values are even present to begin with. Sooner or later, someone is going to embarrass someone.
Megyn Kelly’s interview last night with unhinged conspiracy peddler Alex Jones threatened to be one of those times, especially coming on heels of her softball sit-down with Vladimir Putin. The backlash, as such things always seem to be now, was fierce and preemptive. Kelly was accused of “normalizing” Jones, the man responsible for such timeless postulates as 9/11 was an inside job, Sandy Hook was a hoax and Democrats ran a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizza joint. Advertisers dropped out. A Connecticut affiliate refused to air the show. The Sandy Hook Promise gala fundraiser coordinators disinvited Kelly as their host.
NBC took the point. As the network reportedly scrambled to re-edit the interview, Jones released a tape of his pre-show conversation with Kelly, in which she expressed her desire to make their sit-down “fun” and show “the left” another side of his execrable personality. She also promised not to make him into “some kind of bogeyman.” By the time it aired, the interview had been transformed into a sober warning on the dangers of letting liars have platforms. Kelly introduced Jones as “a radical conspiracy theorist” and a liar. She acknowledged the backlash upfront, saying, “Some thought we shouldn’t broadcast this interview because his baseless allegations aren’t just offensive, they’re dangerous.” She then justified the broadcast by pointing out that “Alex Jones isn’t going away” and his audience is only getting bigger, emboldened by the open support of the president, who has consistently praised Jones and appears to rely on him for information – echoing things the radio host says in his own speeches, granting InfoWars a temporary White House press pass and recently including a link to one of the site’s articles in an email to staff.
You could grudgingly respect both Kelly and her report – in some ways, she was the only person for the job, given that Trump’s liberal use of Jones’ agitprop made him a suitable subject.
Framed this way – as a report on the dangerous liar who has the ear of the president – the segment felt relevant, even slyly subversive. After all, to shed light on Alex Jones’s operation, which she summed up as “garbage in, garbage out” is to shed light on Trump’s inner world. And given how low the expectations and how loud the alarm, the whole thing came off as rather anticlimactically level-headed and justified. The segment was capped by a Tom Brokaw essay on the breakdown of civil discourse on the Internet, and what are we to do. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the interview was how the whole thing functioned like an ouroboros of for-profit news media, closing the bottom-line circle by eating its own tail. The resulting piece was a marvel of having your cake, eating it, too, and covering your ass after having had your fill.
As she pinned an agitated, equivocating Jones to his lies and their consequences, it was hard not to think about her own tactics at her former employer, where she regularly impugned Black Lives Matter and infamously declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Or about the fragile alliance between conservative women and the right. Kelly’s reputation as a journalist was salvaged by her former boss Roger Ailes’ mistreatment, followed by Donald Trump’s similarly gendered disrespect. (Remember the Presidential debate she moderated?) As ever, Kelly saw an opportunity and took it. She clearly had a talent for not letting her own beliefs stand in the way of her career. Kelly grew up apolitical in a Democratic household, and went out for a job at Fox because they tended to prefer journalists without journalistic experience. A lackluster student turned corporate attorney, she was motivated mostly by money and a belief in her own specialness.
Her transition from Fox News attack dog to authoritative network blonde was further smoothed with an empowerment memoir, Settle for More, which seems to have been conceived as a rebranding campaign ahead of her reinvention as a real journalist. As Caitlin Flanagan points out in her Atlantic review, the book fails to mention that Fox was a platform for a very specific kind of idea, and that, as one of its biggest stars, she helped shape a discourse and legitimize a mindset that eventually elected Donald Trump. But, as Flanagan writes, “writing a book about a career at Fox without mentioning its conservative agenda is like writing a book about a career at the Vatican without mentioning its Catholic agenda.” It’s fundamentally dishonest, in other words, even if technically truthful.
As a journalist, Kelly is a total prosecutor. She uses words not to uncover the truth but to prevail. At Fox, that meant baiting and provoking guests into losing their cool, in getting a rise out of certain people for the schadenfreude-y viewing pleasure of others. At NBC, she seems to be doing the same thing, only for the other team. There was nothing really objectionable about the Jones interview as it turned out. Kelly was uncompromising. She pressed him on questions and called out evasiveness. She produced – or her producers produced – either an effective takedown or a disquisition on the obvious … you can’t quite tell. In any case, it worked. You could find yourself grudgingly respecting both Kelly and her report – and argue that, in some ways, she was the only person for the job, given that Trump’s liberal use of Jones’s agitprop made him a suitable subject.
On the one hand, with her Fox News background, Kelly seems like the only person to credibly take on an “alternate” media figure who trades in denying reality. On the other, she was active in helping create the culture that resulted in a guy like him entering the mainstream. The fact that she appears credible as a journalist is in some ways an indictment of TV journalism itself. If you didn’t know better, you might be forgiven for thinking that Kelly did a good job in the public interest. But you get the sense she’s willing to compromise here. She’s just in it to win it.
Carina Chocano is the author of You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks & Other Mixed Messages