After more than a week of misguided talk about Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones as a kind of celebrity warfare, what really mattered Sunday night was the journalistic performance of NBC News.
Not surprisingly, Jones came off looking bad. Kelly came off looking OK. But the real stars of the segment were the faceless producers, editors and managers at NBC News who put the segment on Jones together. It was an institutional win.
Given the network’s investment in Kelly and the PR hits NBC News was taking from some ideological enemies and uninformed reporters, I would not be surprised if the thinking and editing of this segment didn’t go all the way to top with Andy Lack, the NBC News chairman, even lending a hand. He is a top-flight prime-time TV newsmagazine producer, and this was a textbook example of prime-time newsmagazine journalism near its best.
I was on vacation last week and didn’t have a chance to weigh in on the debate as to whether or not NBC should be interviewing Jones in the first place, given his track record of trafficking in dangerous conspiracy theories.
The call here is a relatively easy one: Beyond his millions of viwers and listeners, the fact that President Donald Trump talks to and listens to Jones makes it important for major news operations to explore his appeal and assess his role in the culture.
But instead of looking at the interview through the lens of whether or not a magazine piece on Jones might serve democracy by giving more citizens information about the reckless talker, writer after writer was focused on whether Kelly or Jones was “winning” with the interview and attendant PR.
That’s sad, but it’s a discussion for another day about the state of media criticism.
NBC, however, understood the link to Trump as the ultimate justification for the segment, and hit it hard in Kelly’s report. And the producers didn’t just tell us there was a relationship, they made the case by finding examples of Jones saying something on the air, and Trump mimicking it a few days later.
You notice I have been using the word “segment’ instead of “interview.” That’s because this was far more a segment or report than an interview. During the first half of the segment, I was wondering if we were ever going to get anything beyond a few snippets of conversation between Kelly and Jones.
The strongest moments were the result of ancillary reporting, like having the father of one of the children killed at Sandy Hook talking about his loss during this Father’s Day telecast.
Kelly had her moments such as when she bore in on Jones about his hurtful and hateful claims that Sandy Hook was a hoax.
But even here, the power was in the production more than her performance – with the camera closing in on the face of Jones and showing the beads of sweat on his forehead as he gave almost incoherent answers as to why he said Sandy Hook was a hoax.
I am not saying what viewers saw Sunday night was anywhere near as important a cultural moment as what viewers saw in the 1950s when network TV cameras bore in on Senator Joseph McCarthy. But it was from the same TV newsmagazine playbook of the camera showing us the face of dishonesty and hate as it is being called to account.
The dinosaur of network TV news still has some teeth, and Mr. Jones felt some of them in his butt Sunday night.
In the end, though, this isn’t about new media, old media and the death of gatekeepers as some have sought to position Jones v. Kelly.
This is about social responsibility, whether you are a network, a website or a social media platform.
I hope some of the new media platforms that think it is all about numbers learned something about journalistic legacy values from NBC Sunday.