The United States has morphed into a country of armchair “platform” analysts.
How dare NBC News and Megyn Kelly give conspiracy theorist and InfoWars boss Alex Jones a platform to expand his popularity on the recently launched program “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly”! Such was the outcry that occupied the better part of a week, during which this blog was on vacation. The backlash — or prelash, considering that the protests related to a piece of journalism that had not yet aired — had a common thread that you commonly hear from spinmeisters in this day and age. “Trump may promote Alex Jones, but NBC News shouldn’t give a platform to someone who claims 9/11 & Sandy Hook were hoaxes. Pull the segment” — that was New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), fashioning an argument as to why no media should “give a platform” to any bad guy, at any time.
Extending de Blasio’s reasoning, perhaps NBC News should have pulled Kelly’s interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here’s a guy, after all, whose Kremlin orchestrated a whole bunch of meddling in the 2016 elections; who seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014; and presides over a society that has devalued the work and the lives of journalists. So why give him a platform?
The movement to deny Jones a platform on NBC News had some powerful arguments going for it. In one of his many theories, Jones is on record as having called the Sandy Hook massacre of December 2012 a “hoax.” “Hey @Megynkelly, let me know if you want to give his victims equal air time. Promoting this fool is bad news. Do not encourage his abuse,” tweeted Nelba L. Márquez-Greene, who lost her daughter, Ana Grace, in that national tragedy. Unfathomable rantings about Sandy Hook, she wrote in a Washington Post piece, have real-life impact. “I cannot begin to describe the pain of experiencing death threats and harassment on top of mourning the loss of a beloved family member. Five years after the Sandy Hook shooting, we receive emails weekly suggesting that our daughter did not die. Or that President Barack Obama was behind her death.”
Amid the protests, JPMorgan Chase pulled its advertising from the program and advocacy group Sandy Hook Promise decided it didn’t want Kelly hosting its gala event.
When the interview finally aired last night, Kelly provided a convincing rebuttal to the prelash, which was prompted to a significant degree by a promo released by NBC News. She noted that Jones’s InfoWars has a massive following on YouTube; that InfoWars had gotten temporary press credentials at the White House; that reports on InfoWars had apparently been recycled by Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. That Jones had the president’s “ear.” In the interview itself, Jones notes that he occasionally talks with the president. Any of those considerations would have this interview over the bar for a prime-time network interview.
Those who wondered how Kelly could possibly have interviewed this man clearly weren’t paying attention to media trends. Ever since Trump declared himself a presidential candidate, Jones and his platforms have found themselves a platform on big-time outlets. Between Trump’s candidacy declaration in June 2015 and earlier this month, “Alex Jones and InfoWars” secured 2,014 mentions in an “all news” search on Nexis.com. The same search for the previous two years nets 236 results. Ergo, Trump made Jones newsworthy, whether you like it or not.
The plume of media coverage surrounding Jones has alighted on a number of stories, including his apology for outlandish remarks that he’d made about yogurt company Chobani; his custody dispute; his closeness with Trumpite Roger Stone; among many other topics. Comedian Stephen Colbert in February allowed the use of his surging “Late Show” platform to elevate Jones’s platform, as he noted, “So Alex Jones has influence in the White House. Trump has even sent messages to Alex Jones’ show congratulating him on his great reputation.” To his credit, Colbert exposed the nonsense coming out of Jones’s very active mouth, including the assertion that “two-thirds of the frogs down in Houston are bisexual.”
The grist for Colbert’s riff on Alex Jones the “jerk” came from a New York Times column by Jim Rutenberg, who documented the overlaps between Jones’s world of information and Trump’s. Though Rutenberg interviewed Jones for the story, he didn’t get the same blast of platform-shaming, as Kelly would later point out to him as her own interview was coming under fire.
So the Kelly-Jones interview represented the culmination of an organic progression, one that’s been repeated countless times: A man drifts into the orbit of the president of the United States. News organizations take note, raising his profile. Then a big-time network type scores an interview with him. That’s business as usual.
What’s not business as usual is Jones’s loony and harmful views. Don’t blame Megyn Kelly for those. Just watch the interview and observe how effortlessly she punctures them. Whatever the implications, it was important to see Jones deflect, stumble and crumble under questioning from Kelly.
The Sunday night program featuring Jones tanked in the ratings, suggesting that not that many people actually care about what people on Twitter and media-critic sites are talking about; or that Jones remains a niche character with little crossover appeal; or that the United States in 2017 is more volatile and unpredictable than ever. Whatever the case, NBC News put its platform to good use. The lesson to its competitors is that the Trump era has short-circuited the news judgment of a vocal and articulate cross-section of the country. Proceed with your stories.