Last Sunday night, as the second episode of her new NBC newsmagazine show was wrapping up, Megyn Kelly ran a short teaser for next week’s highly anticipated interview: a sit-down with America's best-known conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones.
The backlash began almost immediately. On Twitter, a #ShameOnNBC hashtag circulated widely within the first few hours. Parents of children who were lost in the Sandy Hook massacre — which Jones has argued repeatedly is a hoax — took to Twitter alongside advocacy groups to condemn not just Jones, but Kelly and NBC as well. The liberal media watchdog site Media Matters suggested that “Megyn Kelly turned to Alex Jones because her struggling show needs a viral moment.” Monday morning, Chelsea Clinton posted on Twitter to voice her displeasure with her former employer, NBC. “I hope no parent, no person watches this,” Clinton tweeted. Later in the afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reported that JPMorgan was dropping its local and digital ads around Kelly’s program and all NBC content until after the interview airs.
The argument behind the outrage suggests that featuring Jones on a primetime network television interview show is an irresponsible use of a powerful news platform. To sit Jones across from one of America's most recognizable (and highest-paid) news personalities is to legitimize a man with fringe views that many find abhorrent. Furthermore, they note, such exposure could theoretically extend Jones’ reach; what if malleable minds see something they like in Jones' interview and become fans or regular viewers?
It’s a valid argument, but one that misunderstands the media’s role in the Trump era — not to mention Jones’ role inside the pro-Trump media ecosystem. Like it or not, Alex Jones is an architect of our current political moment, and as such, the mainstream media shouldn’t try to shield its audience from him or pretend he doesn’t exist — it should interrogate him.
Jones is a far-fringe personality, and a wildly popular one. While his more outlandish views suggest a man embraced only by the tinfoil hat community — he’s alleged that 9/11 is likely an inside job and that bombs engineered by the government to control the population have turned our frogs gay — Jones’ influence is real and widely felt. If you attended any Trump rally in the lead-up to the 2016 election, you likely saw his ubiquitous navy “Hillary for Prison” T-shirts, which Jones hawked through his Infowars store (until they sold out, that is). At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer, Jones was greeted like royalty.
Since Jones backed the Trump campaign in 2015, his influence has grown significantly, especially among young males. “So many people watch him now, he’s almost the mainstream,” one of the broadcaster’s young supporters told the New Republic last summer. That piece, which interviewed a number of newly minted Jones fans, describes a similar pattern of conversion: young men intrigued by a viral Infowars video and subsequently won over by Jones’ charisma and message.
According to audience measurement outfit Quantcast, Infowars.com pulled in 476 million views during 2016; Alexa suggests that Infowars.com currently receives 340,625 daily unique visitors. And that doesn’t begin to account for the scores of listeners Jones brings in over terrestrial radio or the millions of video views amassed on YouTube.
All 25 former and current Jones associates I spoke with this spring for a profile of him independently suggested that Jones’ influence on the outcome of the election was profound. “Alex doesn't have listeners — he has followers,” one said. “That rural vote for Trump nobody saw coming? It wasn’t only Alex, but I think you can ascribe a significant portion — many first-time voters — of those votes to him.” Another longtime associate of Jones went further. “He's like the Goebbels of 2016. He really won the election for Trump.”
Influence is difficult to quantify, but the money generated by Jones’ media empire provides a helpful gauge. According to one former employee, Jones bragged that the Infowars store grossed $18 million between 2012 and 2013 — though another source puts that number closer to $10 million. Another former employee claimed that Jones’ “moneybombs” — telethon-style fundraisers held to raise money for the "information war" against the mainstream media — can easily pull down $100,000 in a day. Recent court filings show that Jones is paying $516,000 a year in alimony, which suggests an annual income well into the millions.
But more important is Jones’ perceptible impact on our modern political culture. Jones is, in many ways, the grandfather of the pro-Trump media, which operates as a mirror image of its mainstream counterpart with its own audience, and its own interpretation of truth. And it's no coincidence that conspiracy culture — be it Seth Rich, Pizzagate, or even elements of Trump/Russia — is ascendent across both fringe and mainstream media at the same time that Jones has become more famous than at any other point in his 20-plus-year career.
It’s precisely this influence that makes Jones worthy of interrogation on a national news platform. To suggest otherwise is to fall back on an old, outdated idea of the mainstream media as gatekeepers. The media’s job now is not simply uncovering and sharing news, it's helping its audiences navigate the often treacherous sea of information and “alternative facts.” Jones, the pro-Trump media, and the #MAGAsphere are loud, influential voices with huge, active communities and ties to the White House. It is unwise and increasingly difficult to ignore their very real threat, both to their individual targets and to the mainstream media as a whole.
So an in-depth interview with someone like Jones in front of a big primetime audience is an opportunity, albeit a perilous one. Jones rarely gives sit-down interviews. The opportunity to force him to answer for his most abhorrent views on subjects like Sandy Hook is potentially valuable. At one moment in the teaser, Kelly cuts him off on an answer about Sandy Hook. “That’s a dodge,” she says. “That doesn’t excuse what you did and said about Newtown. You know it.”
Jones is a savvy media manipulator, but also volatile and prone to becoming flustered. Wouldn’t those who find him monstrous welcome the opportunity to see him tripped up, thrown off his game, or unable to respond to a pointed question? Or for the opportunity to have Jones’ rhetoric picked apart and undercut and forever memorialized on video? And what about the opportunity to expose Jones to a new audience who could very well unite around their shared hatred of Jones and Infowars?
To put an interview subject like Jones on his back feet is a tall order for any interviewer. And there’s precedent to suggest that individuals in Kelly’s position — traditional media figures, less in tune with the quirks and pitfalls of the pro-Trump media — might not be equipped to deal with a troll like Jones. CBS’s Scott Pelley, for example, was tripped up when interviewing "new-right" blogger and pro-Trump media personality Mike Cernovich. And there are hints that Sunday’s interview could veer into similar territory. Kelly’s description of Jones in a tweet previewing the interview as a “conservative” talk show host suggested that Kelly might have overlooked the political nuances of Jones, his show, and his followers. Similarly, the network’s simple decision to wait so long between the interview and air date illustrates a misunderstanding of Jones’ abilities to manipulate a news cycle in bad faith. (After the interview, Jones went on the air to demean Kelly, calling her “not feminine — cold, robotic, dead,” and noting, “I felt zero attraction to Megyn Kelly.”)
One thing is certain: Kelly’s handling of the Jones interview and Jones himself will spark outrage regardless how the interview comes out. And her polarizing reputation — built on a long career at Fox News covering sometimes fraught subjects — will further infuse it with controversy. As will, unfortunately, her gender: Kelly has been the target of vitriolic, misogynist criticism from all sides over the years.
Even now, six days ahead of its Father's Day air date, the interview seems to be hurtling toward catastrophe. On Monday afternoon, Jones called upon NBC to kill the interview, alleging that it's been unfairly edited. In doing so, he's commandeered a narrative that shouldn't have been his to control and put NBC in a no-win situation. Pull the interview and cave to Jones; air the interview and invite an Infowars-driven barrage of "fake news" insults.
It’s the kind of devious manipulation that’s made Jones — and the pro-Trump media ecosystem he helped create — into an efficient and effective machine, capable of constructing compelling, spurious narratives. To bring a national spotlight on Jones and Infowars is to acknowledge the seriousness of the far-right’s information war. To ignore it, in the hope that it goes away, isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous.
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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