After a tumultuous week that included calls for boycotts, advertisers dropping out, and a leaked recording of a pre-interview phone call, Megan Kelly’s 17-minute special on Alex Jones finally aired. Kelly was more than critical during her questioning of the radio host and InfoWars founder, dispelling concerns that the interview would be full of softballs and winning over some critics. In his attempts to wriggle out of giving straight answers by constantly blaming the “mainstream media”, Jones came off as defensive and exposed for having neither evidence to back up his claims that the Newtown tragedy was a hoax or justification for calling victims of the Manchester terror attack "liberal trendies". Taking down one man, however, doesn’t answer the question of what draws audiences to Jones’ brand of “news”.
One of the larger questions to emerge from the debate surrounding NBC’s decision to give Alex Jones attention has been whether or not the coverage raised his profile. The answer is an irrefutable yes - more people now know who Alex Jones is. Kelly correctly pointed out during the broadcast, however, that ignoring Jones isn’t going to make him go away. No one can blame the parents of Newtown victims for refusing to watch a man who claimed their children’s deaths were fake, but any journalists who lined up on the side of boycotting did so at their own peril.
As Megyn Kelly noted in her program, Alex Jones has racked up 1.3 billion views on his YouTube channel, has millions of listeners and the support of the President. The Trump administration gave InfoWars a temporary White House press pass, and Trump himself appeared on Jones' program before the election. That legitimization is much more damaging than an NBC report, but it's important to acknowledge that InfoWars doesn't exist in a vacuum.
Disputing conspiracies about the Newtown tragedy or "pizzagate" is necessary, but diving into what makes people believe that reputable news organizations are lying to them, which is Jones' overarching message, is a larger societal issue we need to grapple with. Polls show that trust in the press has been declining for years. That Trump was elected President while constantly decrying “fake news”, is only further proof.
By setting up the Megyn Kelly and Alex Jones event as two individuals facing off, both NBC and critics miss the larger point. Sure, Jones is the star and driving force behind InfoWars, but if he were run out of the building, it’s doubtful his staff and contributors and other websites mimicking the same angle would simply throw their hands up in defeat.
The same admonishment applied to the condescension of "coastal elite" media for misreading the temperature of the country during the election can be applied here. Dismissing and mocking fans of Jones won't bring them back over to establishment news outlets. Maybe some are too far gone. Maybe others believe throwing a little Info Wars into their media diet makes them well-rounded news consumers. There are probably others who still don't know the difference between being sent a link from Info Wars or the New York Times.
Unmasking Alex Jones is step one, but understanding the phenomenon of his brand of content has to come next.