On December 4, 2016, a man named Edgar Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, with a loaded AR-15 knockoff assault rifle and fired three shots. A man full of religious terror, Welch was attempting to investigate – although God only knows how he was planning to pull this off absent going in guns blazing like the Punisher – the existence of a purported child sex-trafficking ring that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party were apparently masterminding, Da Vinci Code-style, through code words and symbols hidden in plain sight.
A conspiracy theory that began on a white supremacist Twitter account and gained traction via well-known internet cesspool 4chan as most such dross seems to, the “pizzagate” conspiracy was an invented scandal given life and publicity by Alex Jones. He quickly picked up the story for InfoWars because, like other Glenn Beck-style folks before him, what ultimately matters for him is hurting his opponent and getting those revenue-generating clicks.
Jones’ insistence on lending credence to this story could easily have cost someone their life.
“Lending credence” is precisely what I want to discuss. This past week, the highly-anticipated and widely-criticized Megyn Kelly interview with the InfoWars founder and presidential confidante finally ran on NBC. Jones achieved outsize influence during the 2016 campaign as the “intellectual” leader of the MAGA crowd whose crowing could be counted on to be echoed by then-candidate and now-president Trump. He’s become, against all odds, a master at communicating exactly the wrong thing to exactly the right people, building an empire on lies, half-cocked conspiracy dreck, and paranoid ranting, for which there appears to be an audience of many millions.
Understandably then, it concerned some people that Megyn Kelly, erstwhile of Fox News (itself no stranger to right-wing paranoia), would offer Jones a platform to reach potentially an even larger audience. Kelly’s affiliation with Roger Ailes-era Fox means that there is a bank of trust that reporters like Jake Tapper or Anderson Cooper have which, outside the right-wing compound, she simply doesn’t. Kelly made an admirable effort to mitigate that concern, however; the interview was thoroughly cut and laced with skeptical commentary. But in denying him a platform, she wasn’t able to derive much, if anything, of substance. We left knowing what we already knew: that Alex Jones is less of a newsman than but more of an opportunist. We did not leave with any more of a sense of how he happened, or why, or what makes him tick.
Which isn’t a problem, depending on how you look at it; Megyn Kelly has benefitted from a week’s worth of news stories in the run-up to the interview, raising her profile even more, while her interview’s unstintingly critical stance has helped cement her post-Fox News career by providing her with a definitive moment of break with what came before. It’s Nixon visiting China; the woman who once argued that both Santa and Jesus alike must be white and has used Ann Coulter to bolster anti-immigrant stances taking on the patron saint of right-wing misinformation. Like the old anti-communist crusader Nixon warmly greeting Mao Zedong, Kelly’s affiliation with the right should have given her the credibility to challenge and dissect Jones definitively, exposing the manipulation of facts at the heart of sites like InfoWars, the collapse of trust in traditional media, and the spread of disinformation sites, colloquially called “fake news.”
But that isn’t what happened. The piece, as aired, very much pantsed the fake news kingpin, but the momentary humiliation wasn’t accompanied by substance. It was the equivalent of pointing and laughing at the naked emperor when we all knew he had no clothes. It earned Kelly some momentary satisfaction and applause, but we’re all left in the same place we were: he still has the president’s ear; he still commands the loyalty of millions; he still disseminates miss-information. Kelly is right when she says Alex Jones isn’t going away, but what she gave us was worse than a puff piece; almost entirely unsuccessful at its larger goal of discrediting Jones and explaining why his conspiracy theories take hold, it wasn’t the takedown we needed.
Perhaps nothing short of a hot mic sotto voce confession in the manner of Robert Durst – “I fooled ‘em! I fooled ‘em all!” – could have done that. But one is forced to wonder what was gained by this exercise. It’s hard to imagine many of his followers were watching to begin with, or that those who were watching were convinced, and nothing of value was offered to those of us who he hasn’t hoodwinked that we didn’t already have. It’s hard, in fact, to imagine who gained beyond Megyn Kelly and, perversely, Alex Jones himself, who was given exposure to audiences who may have never heard of him, and was able to get one over on his would-be slayer by releasing pre-interview audio that makes her look two-faced. After all, attention is the primary currency of our Warholian fifteen-minutes-of-fame world, and Jones found himself at the center of a weeklong news cycle.
Which means that, granted a platform by Kelly or not, Jones got attention, and attention means his message spreads. This is the lesson we never learned from Trump’s campaign: attention is the platform.
And this is the real trouble. As Kelly said, Alex Jones isn’t going anywhere and neither is his dangerous brand of journalism. But this alone doesn’t – and can’t – justify this kind of coverage. More than an honest attempt to discredit him, this feels like a cynical plea for attention on the part of a Megyn Kelly eager to cement her career as a post-Fox figure. And inasmuch as that is a good thing to be, ploys like this are more destructive than not.
Alex Jones isn’t going anywhere, and Megyn Kelly is doing nothing to stand in his way.