Thursday evening, Alex Jones dropped a bomb on Twitter. After a week of roiling controversy surrounding the conspiracy theorist’s upcoming interview with Megyn Kelly, Jones announced a plan to take the interview into his own hands and scoop NBC. He’d been secretly recording Kelly’s day-long interview and was going to release the tapes in full on his own website three days before the primetime airing.
“I've never done this...in 22 years I've never recorded another journalist but I knew this was a lie,” Jones said in the teaser, which featured the voice of a woman who sounded like Megyn Kelly assuring Jones he’d be getting a fair interview.
“The next time I want to get somebody, they're going to say, ‘Look what you did to Alex Jones,’” the voice purported to be Kelly said. “It's not going to be some gotcha hit piece, I promise you that.”
The trailer ricocheted around the internet. There were questions of the legality of Jones’ maneuver and endless tweets that NBC was getting what it deserved for inviting Jones on its program. The selective quote from Kelly seemed to tease a two-sided version of her: friendly and assuring off camera and tenacious and confrontational on camera. For Kelly and NBC it was yet another crisis in what has been an extraordinarily long week. And for Jones’ fans and the pro-Trump media — who reveled in the moment on Twitter — it was a dream scenario: a well-executed, embarrassing troll.
The media got owned yet again, underscoring what’s becoming a universal truth of the Trump era: The old media is not prepared for the new trolls.
At 3 a.m. Friday, Infowars delivered on part of its promise and published a 30-minute video to YouTube containing roughly 10 minutes of Kelly’s pre-interview where she’s attempting to get Jones to agree to the interview. In the tape, Kelly repeatedly reassures Jones she intends to be fair. “You'll be fine with it,” she can be heard saying. “I’m not looking to portray you as a bogeyman... The craziest thing of all would be if some of the people who have this insane version of you in your heads walk away saying, ‘You know, I see the dad in him. I see the guy who loves those kids and is more complex than I’ve been led to believe.”
The negotiation and expectation-setting — mostly standard practice between a journalist and an interviewee she is planning to sandbag — appears all the more devastating in light of the week’s controversy surrounding the interview, in which Kelly was excoriated for giving Jones a national primetime platform for his views. Most notably, Kelly and NBC faced deep criticism from parents of children who were murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre — a tragedy that Jones has suggested multiple times could be a hoax.
Jones alleges now that his Sandy Hook views have been taken out of context by the media, which he argues in the leaked tape with Kelly. When Jones asks if Kelly will push him on Sandy Hook, Kelly appears to downplay her desire to ask hardball questions of Jones, suggesting instead that the interview will be his chance to air his views.
“I can ask you about that,” Kelly said of Sandy Hook. “This is not going to be a contentious gotcha exchange. I want to do in-depth profiles on people. I could ask you [about Sandy Hook] and say, ‘This is what the critics say’ — but this isn't gonna be an ‘a-ha! Let's play a clip.’” Kelly goes on to reassure Jones “It doesn't do me any good if I do that to you and you go out there and say, ‘She did a hit piece on me’...and next time I try to get somebody they'll say, ‘Look what you did to Alex Jones, screw you.’”
The 30-minute clip — which contains the usual diatribes from Jones about media fairness, three minutes of ads for Infowars and its array of nutraceutical supplements, and a well-edited series of montages featuring clips of mainstream media bashing both Kelly and Jones for the interview — is masterfully constructed with the purpose of embarrassing Kelly and NBC News.
After a week in which Kelly and her producers have repeatedly assured viewers and the press that the interview will hold Jones to account, the leaked audio — from weeks before the interview — suggests a soft-focus piece designed to humanize Jones. In the tape, Kelly tells Jones she took interest in him during his two-week-long custody trial, which she did not attend in person.
“I think you had a very good point about the way the media was covering it and treated you and your family as fair game, and they never would’ve done that if you were a mainstream media figure,” she says. “I saw a whole different side of you…[it] just reminded me you're just like anybody. You're a dad and you go through the things we all go through.”
At one point, Kelly even seems to suggest Jones will be able to review the footage of the interview. “I will promise you to personally look at any clips we want to use of you and have a producer run by you whether we are taking it in context,” she tells Jones.
Setting aside issues of legality and privacy — it’s unclear if Jones broke any laws recording the call with Kelly as Texas is a one-party consent state for recording audio — the surreptitious recordings come at an awful time for Kelly and NBC. As Page Six reported Thursday evening, NBC has re-edited the Jones interview following this week’s backlash to make it tougher on Jones and to include the perspective of the families of children killed in Sandy Hook. It’s a decision that, in light of the leaked tapes, will play directly into Jones and Infowars’ narrative that the interview was unfairly negotiated and edited in order to smear Jones.
NBC, for its part, is saying little and sticking by its piece. Though Kelly did not respond to a request for comment, an NBC News spokesperson suggested to BuzzFeed News it would continue with plans to air the interview.
"Despite Alex Jones' efforts to distract from and ultimately prevent the airing of our report, we remain committed to giving viewers context and insight into a controversial and polarizing figure, how he relates to the president of the United States and influences others, and to getting this serious story right. Tune in Sunday." NBC did not comment as to whether it would take any legal action against Jones.
This was, of course, all part of the plan. Jones has been in control of Kelly’s interview and delighting his audience every step of the way. He broke the news of the interview on his show in late May; he was the first to post teaser photos of Kelly in the Infowars studio online; he got out in front of the interview last week with a misogynistic tirade about how he wasn’t attracted to Kelly and called her and the interview “fake news.”
And since Kelly aired her trailer last Sunday night (perhaps the only bit of agency she or NBC News have had in this circus), Jones has orchestrated a half dozen mini news cycles and outrages, suggesting the trailer was deceptively edited and that Kelly and NBC should scrap the interview altogether on the premise that the unfairly edited portions about Jones’ views on Sandy Hook would be upsetting to the family members.
Meanwhile, with only slight defense from NBC, Kelly — who has few friends among NBC’s base, who remember her as the embodiment of Fox News' absurd and racist obsession with a tiny black nationalist group — has watched as her journalistic integrity has been called into question. The week has been a nightmare for Kelly, who’s barely three weeks into her on-camera role at NBC. In just five days since airing the Jones trailer, Kelly has cost NBC a prominent sponsor (JP Morgan) and watched as advocacy groups scolded her for reigniting trauma for families of slain children, which culminated in a Sandy Hook charity disinviting Kelly from an event.
But Kelly and NBC might have seen this coming, had they done their homework. In the leaked audio Kelly admits she’s not completely caught up with Jones’ work. “You're going to be far better versed in this stuff than I will be,” she told him. But the leaked audio maneuver is vintage Alex Jones: a disingenuous trick designed to seize control of the narrative and turn himself into a victim. It’s a move he's pulled on countless occasions, even in his own custody battle, when, the day after a jury ruled in favor of his ex-wife, Jones organized a press conference on the courthouse steps that began with him airing grievances about the media and his ex and quickly devolved into tirades about human-animal hybrids and unfair lawsuits from a yogurt company.
An uncanny ability to hijack the news is a trait that Jones shares with the pro-Trump media that he helped create. And while the pro-Trump media have a number of unfair advantages — including but not limited to playing fast and loose with the facts — the reason is largely that the movement understands the internet far better than its mainstream counterpart. Jones, who turned to the internet in the late ’90s when he was briefly booted from terrestrial radio for his more salacious views, has made a career of getting around traditional media. And with the introduction of the social web and Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, Jones quickly found a way to weaponize the platforms and constantly connect with his followers.
More importantly, Jones — and the pro-Trump media as a whole — has learned how to program the mainstream news by inciting outrage online that is then discussed and covered by mainstream media. Everything — from rumors of Hillary Clinton having Parkinson's to Pizzagate to the conspiracy surrounding murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich — started in the fever swamps of the pro-Trump media and was then amplified by larger platforms like Infowars until the chatter grew loud enough that the mainstream media dove in itself.
“We can respond to hit pieces before they air. The media hasn’t adapted to it yet,” Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump media personality, told BuzzFeed News. In March, Cernovich was interviewed on 60 Minutes during which he tripped up Scott Pelley on a question about fake news. “We record our interviews, we have our own platforms, we can get ahead of the narrative. Old media is used to saying whatever they want about people. What can a regular person do? You wait for the segment to air and try replying. With us, we respond before the hit piece airs, millions watch it, and we surf the viral wave the hit piece creates.”
Had Kelly and NBC understood this — that Jones and the pro-Trump media are capable of quickly constructing and relentlessly promoting compelling, spurious narratives — it’s possible that they would have done things differently. For example, they might not have put weeks in between recording the interview and its airdate, which allowed Jones to set the tone for the piece and stoke outrage. NBC and Kelly could have decided to forgo the strange ritual of posing for pictures with Jones, the image of which has spread across the internet to suggest that Kelly had cozied up to Jones, rather than interrogated him. And when Jones did indeed attack Kelly’s credibility and accuse NBC of “fake news” they could have taken to the internet to defend the piece and perhaps even air its toughest clips earlier. When Jones suggested NBC should pull the tape, Kelly could have used Twitter — where she has 2.36 million followers — to criticize Jones or suggest that he was being cowardly because she’d successfully exposed his “revolting” views.
But Kelly and NBC were ill-equipped to deal with the pro-Trump media apparatus. Instead, they adhered to the traditional rules of a big television interview that assume a good-faith relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Jones, however, has made a career out of subverting traditional media and acting in bad faith to the delight of his audience.
Jones now alleges he has a full eight hours of tape, which, one source tells BuzzFeed News, he plans to roll out slowly over the days leading up to the airdate, meaning he will own the news cycle until NBC either airs or pulls the interview. With three days to go, Kelly has lost repeatedly, despite only airing just over a minute of the day-long tape. Perhaps the only card she had left to play — the exclusivity of the tape itself — now appears to be in the hands of her enemy and, soon, the internet at large.
Jones, meanwhile, appears triumphant. Last night an Infowars employee posted a photo to Twitter of Jones sitting at a big table at a restaurant, surrounded by his wife, his father, and a number of employees. “Celebrating the impending pre-release of the @megynkelly @realalexjones interview,” it read, appended with the hashtag “#NBCFakeNews.”
In the video released early Friday morning, Jones continues his victory lap. “In the past the corporate media and the mainstream media could lie and they could spin. It was up to them — they were the gods of information,” Jones says, suggesting that the era of gatekeeping is now over. In this instance, he’s right.
Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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