Megyn Kelly calls Alex Jones' conspiracy theories 'revolting,' defends interview

FILE - In this May 5, 2016 file photo, Megyn Kelly poses for a portrait in New York. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP, File)

As critics allege that Megyn Kelly’s interview with radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will normalize a dangerous voice, experts say Jones has already been legitimized by the president of the United States and a properly done profile could help put his paranoid tirades in context and undermine his credibility.

Whether Kelly’s interview, already taped but scheduled to air Sunday, will accomplish that is another question.

In a 90-second teaser for “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” released by NBC, Kelly pressed Jones about his past suggestions that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax and his claim that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job.

Media critics and activists have blasted the interview as irresponsibly broadcasting Jones’ crazy theories to an audience of millions.

Jones himself has now joined the chorus objecting to the segment, claiming it misrepresents his views. On his show Monday, he described Kelly as a “fembot” and compared the interview to “going into the Gorgon’s pit.”

“I knew it would be rigged. I knew she was lying to me,” he said.

NBC, Kelly, and her producers have pushed back, insisting that the full interview should not be judged based on the promo clip.

“POTUS's been on & praises @RealAlexJones' show. He's giving Infowars a WH press credential. Many don't know him; our job is 2 shine a light,” Kelly tweeted when she first started taking heat over the segment Sunday.

According to Mark Feldstein, who worked as an investigative correspondent for CNN, ABC, and other news outlets for two decades, journalists often face this challenge of determining whether to broadcast the abhorrent views of extremists. The question arose when he was covering right wing militias after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“It’s always sort of a balancing act and it partly depends on how it’s done,” said Feldstein, now a professor of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington and author of “Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves,” said Kelly’s interview with Jones is unlikely to please everyone.

“Reporters who interview extremely controversial figures are in a no-win situation, particularly in these highly partisan days,” he said. “If you are too soft on the interviewee, one side will object. If you are too hard on the interviewee, the other side will complain.”

According to Farnsworth, the key to exposing the extremism of someone like Jones rather than normalizing him is to include opposing views, particularly those of the families of victims of attacks Jones claims never happened.

“If the program is just a one-sided chat with a controversial figure, then it will be a disservice to NBC's news consumers,” he said.

Kelly’s executive producer, Liz Cole, indicated she feels the same way, and she insisted Kelly did challenge Jones’ views aggressively.

"Until you see the full program, in the full context, I wouldn't judge it too much," Cole told CNNMoney. "Judge it when you see it. Megyn does a strong interview. We're not just giving him a platform."

Relatives of Sandy Hook victims have been among the most outspoken critics of Kelly’s interview.

"This piece of actual garbage encourages people to call my mom's death a hoax and harass other Sandy Hook families," tweeted Cristina Hassinger, the daughter of principal Dawn Hochsprung. "Shame on you @megynkelly."

Jones has made similar hoax allegations about the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting. The mother of one of those victims also objected to the interview on Twitter.

“Alex Jones told us that our daughter never existed,” wrote Sandy Phillips. “She LIVED. She LOVED. She was SLAUGHTERED. LOOK at her. SEE her. Try to FEEL our PAIN.”

Citing the Jones interview, anti-gun violence group Sandy Hook Promise disinvited Kelly from a gala she was scheduled to host on Wednesday.

“I understand and respect the decision of the event organizers but I’m of course disappointed that I won’t be there to support them on Wednesday night,” Kelly wrote in a statement Tuesday. “I find Alex Jones’s suggestion that Sandy Hook was ‘a hoax’ as personally revolting as every other rational person does.”

Kelly framed the interview as a response to President Trump’s apparent respect for the conspiracy theorist.

“President Trump, by praising and citing him, appearing on his show, and giving him White House press credentials, has helped elevate Jones, to the alarm of many,” she wrote. “Our goal in sitting down with him was to shine a light — as journalists are supposed to do — on this influential figure, and yes — to discuss the considerable falsehoods he has promoted with near impunity.”

While many prominent Republicans have attempted to distance themselves from Jones and his incendiary views, he has often found a receptive audience among the president’s base and his family.

As Kelly noted, early in his campaign, Trump himself even appeared on Jones’ radio show.

“Your reputation is amazing,” Trump told him. “I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed, I hope. And I think we’ll be speaking a lot.”

At campaign events and on social media, Trump has cited Infowars reporting on subjects like voter fraud, drug smuggling, and Muslims celebrating on 9/11.

According to liberal watchdog group Media Matters, his son Donald Trump Jr. has retweeted Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson more than 30 times since October 2016 and has tweeted out links to Infowars as well.

Longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone has become a frequent guest on Jones’ show and an occasional fill-in host. Last month, Jones and Stone discussed the prospect of a Kelly interview and whether Jones should “put her over my knee.”

Last summer, Hillary Clinton’s campaign attempted to use Trump’s appreciation for Jones against him, but the attack never gained much traction.

According to Feldstein, that relationship with the president is what makes an expose on Jones’ views a legitimate story.

“I think there’s value in examining exactly what relationship there is between this agitator with extreme views and the White House,” he said.

Farnsworth agreed that, however outlandish and offensive Jones’ theories may be, the president’s unusual support for him makes this a valid and important line of inquiry for Kelly and other journalists.

“Anyone who has an inside track into what the president is thinking and is also willing to talk publicly is someone reporters should try to get to know,” he said. “Jones' track record in getting inside information from President Trump and his team makes him newsworthy, as does Trump's endorsement of Jones.”

Some of Kelly’s critics have argued the media should simply ignore Jones and his ilk, but that position may misunderstand the role of mainstream news outlets in the fractured modern media landscape. According to Quantcast, received 27.6 million views in the last 30 days from 4.5 million unique users. Those numbers do not include his listeners on 150 radio stations and millions of monthly YouTube views.

The premiere of Kelly’s NBC show drew 6.1 million viewers, so Jones’ reach is likely comparable. Decades ago, the three major broadcast networks had the power to decide what voices audiences were exposed to, but that is no longer the case.

“They don’t have the same kind of gatekeeping power that they once did… That does lower some of the inhibitions of covering more extreme views because they’re out there anyway,” Feldstein said.

Jones was one of the most vocal proponents of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that envisioned a child trafficking ring linked to Hillary Clinton operating out of Comet Ping Pong in D.C. Last fall, a man walked into the restaurant with a gun looking to investigate himself, demonstrating that Jones’ diatribes are not without consequences.

“There are a whole lot of other whackjobs out there and it would be harder to make a case for why they should be covered,” Feldstein said.

Other far-right figures have drawn the attention of the mainstream media in recent months. “60 Minutes” recently interviewed alt-right journalist Mike Cernovich for a segment on fake news that generated much less backlash.

The blowback against Kelly’s interview may also be a response to her track record.

“One of the sort of unspoken parts of this is Megyn Kelly still has an association with Fox News,” Feldstein said.

Kelly has been criticized for failing to aggressively challenge then-candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in interviews, raising doubts about her ability to effectively confront Jones.

Left-wing conspiracy theorists have spent much less time in the spotlight than people like Jones in recent months. Reporters have occasionally scrutinized anti-Trump conspiracy theories simmering on social media, but the breathless claims of imminent indictments on Twitter have not led to many glossy profiles of those peddling them like Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor.

Feldstein is unsure why that is, but it may be in part because their followings are much smaller than Jones and they lack the support of the First Family.

“There’s not really the same amount of clout… Certainly none of them have that White House connection that Jones does,” he said.

According to Farnsworth, the fringe’s proximity to power contributes to the level of media attention it attracts. Recent Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama relied on more centrist and mainstream voices for advice and insight than Trump has, and the focus of coverage reflected that.

“When an American president on the left starts listening to and promoting fringe conspiracy theorists on the left, they will receive the media attention that the alt-right voices are receiving during the Trump presidency,” he said.

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