The censorious powers of the heckler’s veto have evolved now to the point that people are willing to call for the banning and shunning of works of journalism not yet published. Former Fox News Channel and current NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly got the treatment this week as news of her Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly interview with InfoWars mainspring Alex Jones, well before it was scheduled to air July 18, made the rounds. At least the Ayatollah Khomeini waited for the publication of Satanic Verses before he issued a fatwa ordering the murder of its author, Salman Rushdie.
Sandy Hook Elementary families implored NBC News to dump the segment because Jones has called the Newtown, Conn., school-killings a hoax—by actors, not real people—designed, Jones said, to encourage new gun control laws. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio concurred, writing, “Pull the segment.” The NBC affiliate nearby Hartford refused to air the episode because the “wounds of that day that have yet to heal.” Fleeing from the controversy, advertiser JPMorgan Chase dropped its spots from the show, and the usual voices damned Kelly for giving Jones “a platform.”
Not to be outshone, Jones performed some culture jamming of his own, releasing his own secretly recorded audio of the pre-interview in which Kelly buttered him up. “It’s not going to be some gotcha hit piece, I can promise you that,” Kelly told Jones on the tape. Predictably, Jones made his own call for a boycott, tweeting, “I’m calling for @megynkelly to cancel the airing of our interview for misrepresenting my views on Sandy Hook.”
When Kelly’s show finally aired, she took the mendacious Jones apart in such a textbook manner you had to wonder what all the shouting had been about. The Jones pattern, she said at the segment’s top, is making “reckless accusations followed by equivocations and excuses” when questioned. The two best examples of this are his promotion of the “Pizzagate“ lies about a satanic child porn ring and his wild allegation that Chobani was “importing Migrant Rapists,” as InfoWars hyped its report on Twitter. In both cases, lawsuits have forced Jones to retract and apologized for airing these dishonest stories, and yet in conversation with Kelly he still hedges and quibbles like a con artist in an effort to have his conspiracy pizza and keep his yogurt, too. Likewise with the pathetic claims about the Sandy Hook killings. He’s still throwing the see-through drapery of devil’s advocacy to blur the fact that on most subjects he’s talking out of his tinfoil hat.
Short of waterboarding him, I don’t know what more Kelly could have done to expose Jones’ dark methods. She was needlessly defensive in her presentation, acknowledging that some people thought the segment shouldn’t have been broadcast because it would increase Jones’ profile. But as she pointed out, Jones isn’t going away, and his audience is growing. What’s more, Jones “has the ear of our president,” and spurious things InfoWars says have a way of getting repeated by his phone-pal President Donald Trump, who has saluted the InfoWars host in the past. She didn’t take Jones down, but really, who could have in a newsmagazine segment? But she did do a credible job of exposing his lies. Give her a B+.
Then why all the pre-show uproar? Isn’t the press supposed to throw the disinfectant of light on the darkness? How, exactly, can you examine a newsworthy subject—and like it or not, somebody the president talks to and cites is newsworthy—without giving him some sort of a platform? There’s an unspoken assumption that instead of reporting on the politically deformed—people like Sen. Joe McCarthy, George Lincoln Rockwell, Gov. George Wallace, Charles Manson, Timothy McVeigh, Alex Jones, and others—the press should quarantine such figures from reader and viewers’ eyes lest their contagion spread.
Maybe this is the way they did journalism in the former Soviet Union, but American journalism has never operated like that. We don’t avoid gnarly, complicated stories because they’ll hurt somebody’s feelings. We don’t abandon free thought and press freedom just because there’s an outside chance that a piece of journalism like Kelly’s might fall to the advantage of a sordid manipulator or a demagogue. Nor does the unspeakable pain the Sandy Hook parents have endured because of Jones mean we must cleanse the news sphere of coverage that might further upset them. Surely it makes more sense to deal straight on with tin-pots like Jones than cover our eyes and ears in hopes he’ll vanish by himself.
The publicity campaign against Kelly is easier to explain than the insistence that Jones shouldn’t be covered. As anyone who has watched Kelly on Fox, she brings to NBC a mixed record. Yes, she gave Trump no quarter in that early primary debate, but she was also the Fox anchor who insisted that Santa—a fictional character, to the best of my knowledge—is white. (Jesus, too.) When University of California-Davis cops pepper sprayed protesters, she underplayed the episode, saying, “It’s a food product, essentially.” She exaggerated the dangers posed by the New Black Panther Party. She made ridiculous claims about the ease of voter fraud in Colorado. And so on.
Most viewers extend to broadcasters like Anderson Cooper, Chris Wallace, Jake Tapper and Erin Burnett the sort of goodwill they draw on to tackle fraught topics and subjects that will end up upsetting somebody. Due to her Fox background, Kelly doesn’t command that sort of goodwill—the protests against her show are more about her than they are Alex Jones or Sandy Hook. Kelly’s enemies, places like liberal agitprop outfit Media Matters for America, which has been riding this story hard, would likely be raising a ruckus if she went to work as a Today Show co-host and did celebrity fluff.
Would the calls for a Kelly boycott be so insistent if a similar technique hadn’t succeeded in driving Fox’s Bill O’Reilly off his network? My guess is that they wouldn’t. Kelly won this round, but she wasn’t the only one to pay the price. If you like edgy, truth-telling journalism, the spirited campaign against her has written a heckler’s veto playbook that future activists and scolds will eventually apply to your preferred anchor, be it Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity. You’ve been warned.
I don’t much mind that Kelly sweet-talked Jones to get the interview. I don’t work that way, but plenty of journalists do. Send sweets to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts sell testosterone boosters, my Twitter feed never wears a shirt, and my RSS feed has paranoidal tendencies.