In the end, NBC News stuck to its guns. Despite sponsor abandonment, Twitter vitriol, a legal threat, and at least one affiliate cancellation, America’s oldest broadcast network aired Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones. Jones, the extremist made famous by his maniacal style and outlandish conspiracy theories, offered little information, largely remained calm during his many obfuscations, and behaved himself. In other words: The real news here concerned the interviewer, not the interviewee.
By exposing NBC’s huge audience to a huckster who markets vitamin supplements and deranged ideas with equal fervor, NBC management demonstrated its commitment to Megyn Kelly — their newest star attraction.
It wasn’t worth it. The interview, reportedly recut late last week to more fully challenge Jones and include the perspective of victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, contained almost nothing new. Thus, it lacked real news value. As in her interviews with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Kelly proved unable to generate surprising, interesting, or even novel responses from her subject. The package’s heat was sparked only by Kelly’s skeptical challenges — largely sidestepped by a stammering, sweaty Jones — and cutaways to Kelly’s disapproving facial expressions.
That Kelly lacks the interview skills possessed by such legends as Mike Wallace or Katie Couric does not impugn her journalistic talents. Walter Cronkite, for example, never handled confrontational interviews particularly well. Kelly remains an undeniable television star, with a commanding presence and celebrity power.
But she’s at her best behind the anchor desk, using her authoritative delivery to read news scripts. The late Roger Ailes, a deeply flawed person but an undeniable television genius, understood this. Ailes emerged from the generation of television giants — producers like Roone Arledge and Don Hewitt — who knew instinctively how best to leverage a star’s strengths while hiding weaknesses. Judged by Kelly’s recent work, few at NBC News seem able to construct a news production around their newest acquisition’s foremost assets.
Kelly’s own self-perception might not be helping. In a recording released by Jones last week, she described herself as “a combination of Mike Wallace, Oprah, and Larry the Cable Guy.” That’s a comically inaccurate self-assessment. Unlike Wallace, Kelly doesn’t seem to relish going for the jugular or making her subjects visually uncomfortable. And Oprah Winfrey’s underrated interview skills time and again created headlines. Winfrey eviscerated author James Frey (who wrote the debunked best-selling memoir, “A Million Little Pieces”) and made a crazed-looking Tom Cruise dance on her couch. And Larry the Cable Guy? That comparison is perhaps better left to a shrink.
When Jones released recordings of her telephone calls last week, Kelly was placed in a no-win situation. She was caught being duplicitous — either with her subject or with the public.
Although hypocrisy always embarrasses, Kelly isn’t the first exploitative journalist. To a certain extent, all journalism is manipulative. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Janet Malcolm once famously observed.
Journalists often sculpt clean narratives from people’s messy lives. In doing so, they’ll smooth out the bumps and simplify complexities. Kelly’s mistake wasn’t so much reportorial as compositional. The recordings show her originally planning a narrative that would humanize the extremist. “I want people to get to know you,” she told Jones, “and the craziest thing of all [would be] if some of the people who have this insane version of you in their heads walk away saying, ‘you know what? I see, like, the Dad in him. I see the guy who loves those kids and who is more complex than I’ve been led to believe.’”
If that truly was Kelly’s original goal, it was profoundly insensitive. One can only imagine the pain inflicted upon Sandy Hook families by broadcasting such an insulting narrative on Father’s Day. Sensibility prevailed, however, and Kelly’s piece ended up being critical enough to infuriate Jones, who felt misled, and the Sandy Hook families, who didn’t want any airtime given to such an incorrigible person. And this gets to the bottom line in this sorry episode: The Megyn Kelly experience at NBC News has been an embarrassing fiasco.
But it’s not too late to turn it around. The network can still raise ratings, draw critical approval, and help heal our fractured political environment. NBC News executives should have Kelly offer America’s viewers a show drawn from her own experience and expertise. Perhaps nobody is better positioned to detail Fox News’s secretive political and editorial machinations than Megyn Kelly. She could inform NBC’s viewers how Fox News enforces political conformity among its employees, and expose her former employer’s influence within America’s political system.
A solid exposé could help rehabilitate her image as a former cable news shill out of her league on a broadcast network. She undoubtedly knows far more than she’s revealed so far in either her memoir or in interviews. Viewers might finally learn how she confirmed Santa Claus is white and why the minuscule New Black Panther Party represented an existential threat to American democracy. It’d draw boffo ratings.Michael J. Socolow, author of “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics,” teaches journalism at the University of Maine.