Her sit-down interviews with contemptible trolls Vladimir Putin and Alex Jones are ratings grabs, pure and simple—grieving Sandy Hook parents be damned.
Before he was roundly denounced for dropping the n-word, Bill Maher made another egregious error: He welcomed Milo Yiannopoulos on his HBO program. Yiannopoulos, an outré performance artist and alt-right fellow traveler, was given a platform on Real Time to promote his book and espouse his hateful views, which range from transmisogyny to outright racism. Instead of challenging his guest, however, Maher mostly acquiesced, praising the provocateur’s anti-PC shtick and gushing, “I think a lot of people do miss your humor.”
Days later, when it came to light that Yiannopoulos had repeatedly defended hebephilia, he was dropped from Breitbart News and excoriated by the left- and right-wing press. And Maher, ever the egotist, took a victory lap—claiming credit for his guest’s downfall by asserting that an appearance on a major cable network helped expose the troll for what he was. “As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant,” offered Maher, adding, “You’re welcome.”
Of course, Maher had absolutely nothing to do with Yiannopoulos’ undoing. After he was announced as a keynote speaker at the popular conservative convention CPAC—opening for President Trump, no less—it prompted shadowy right-wing outfit The Reagan Battalion to dig up the damning footage of Yiannopoulos condoning hebephilia. It was hard evidence and reporting that led to his ruination, not a highly rated TV exchange that only bolstered his reputation.
Which brings us to Megyn Kelly. NBC News’ big free-agency signing is a talented TV news host—smart, witty, striking—and, during her tenure at Fox News, was alleged to have been subjected to sexual harassment at the hands of the late Roger Ailes, which is awful. Though a popular newswoman in her own right, Kelly was elevated to superstar status following a memorable exchange with then-candidate Donald Trump during the first Republican primary debate in August 2015.
After pressing the real-estate mogul on his history of misogyny at the Fox-sponsored prime-time event, specifically how he’d referred to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” Trump could not let the query go, and, as is his wont, initiated a smear campaign against Kelly. He claimed she was “overrated,” branded her a “bimbo,” made her the butt of a menstruation joke, and boycotted a January debate she was set to co-moderate. By the time the mentions had cleared, Kelly had emerged as a female foil to Trump, hailed by those on the left and right—and with it came a plethora of fawning magazine profiles and a cushy new gig at NBC News.
In the lead-up to Kelly’s big NBC News debut, questions began to arise about her tenure at Fox News. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie called her a “racial demagogue,” highlighting her obsessive coverage of the New Black Panther Party (totaling 45 segments!); how she took umbrage at the notion of a black Santa Claus; and has repeatedly dismissed the role of racism in acts of police brutality committed against black Americans. She once said that a black girl thrown to the ground by a McKinney, Texas, police officer at a pool party was “no saint,” and that Sandra Bland’s death could have been avoided if only she’d “compl[ied] and complain[ed] later.”
Kelly hoped to silence her critics in landing a major interview for her prime-time debut: Russian President Vladimir Putin, the man 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded swayed the U.S. presidential election toward Donald Trump by overseeing an elaborate hacking and disinformation campaign. The interview was a total bust, with Kelly completely outmatched by the slippery ex-KGB operative.
Instead of probing Putin on geopolitical topics he might struggle to answer, e.g. his support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Russian airstrikes deliberately targeting civilians in Syria (and failing to target ISIS), journalists and dissidents critical of him being murdered, anti-gay laws in Russia, or the concentration camps housing gay men in Chechnya, Kelly fired after question after question about interference in the election—questions that Putin easily dodged, chalking it all up to Russophobia. There was nary a follow-up question in sight.
Far from a Mike Wallace or Christiane Amanpour, Kelly is a rank amateur when it comes to the art of the sit-down. On The Kelly File, she mostly presided over panelist shouting matches, assuming the eye of the tornado role. Her biggest interview to date came in May 2016, when, after he’d already called her every name in the book, she chose to treat then-candidate Trump with kid gloves. Putin chose Kelly for the same reason he chose Oliver Stone: They are easy marks. And rather than interrogate and expose him, Kelly and Stone have granted Putin huge platforms to propagandize to stateside audiences.
On the heels of her Putin exclusive, Kelly has chosen to air a Fathers Day chat with Alex Jones. Jones, who operates the website Infowars, is a right-wing conspiracy theorist who believes that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 terror attacks, is spreading chemicals to help turn Americans gay, and that Hillary Clinton is a space alien. The radio host was recently forced to apologize after promoting the Pizzagate hoax (that John Podesta and Hillary Clinton were tied to a sex-trafficking ring run out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C.), and after Chobani sued him for running fake reports claiming that refugees hired by the company were linked to a child rape.
Jones’ most despicable theory is that the Sandy Hook massacre—which left 20 young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, dead—was staged.
“Sandy Hook is a synthetic, completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured,” said Jones on his radio show. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids. And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.” (There is no evidence to support this reprehensible claim.)
The family members of those slain in Sandy Hook have been subjected to an endless array of harassment, in no small part because of Jones’ conspiracy-shilling. Just last week, a Florida woman was sentenced to five months in prison for sending a series of death threats to a Sandy Hook victim’s father. To make matters worse, Jones not only advised Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, but Trump even appeared on his program, telling Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”
“The Republican presidential nominee of the United States is being advised by a delusional sociopath. It speaks for itself,” Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son, Daniel, in the Sandy Hook attack, told me in October. “What else can you say about that? It’s disgusting.”
In a preview clip released online, Kelly allows Jones to spread his Sandy Hook conspiracies to her millions of viewers. The footage understandably drew the ire of a number of Sandy Hook parents, including Nelba Marquez-Greene, who lost her 6-year-old daughter, Ana Grace, in the tragedy. Marquez-Greene tweeted several times at Kelly, expressing her anger and disappointment in allowing an odious man like Jones this prime-time platform:
Meanwhile Christina Hassinger, the daughter of Dawn Hochsprung—the Sandy Hook principal who gave her life after attempting to charge the shooter—expressed her sentiments to The New York Times. “We have been harassed repeatedly by people who we call hoaxers that think this hasn’t happened. When there is going to be such a widely available interview with attention given to one of the hoaxer ringleaders, it is going to unleash the trolls on us tenfold all over again.”
Kelly defended her choice of interviewee, tweeting, “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.”
That President Trump has a penchant for fake news should not compel proper news outlets to offer the purveyors of it splashy sit-down interviews, thereby exposing them to a whole new audience. It is not the mainstream media’s job to conform to the president’s insatiable thirst for trolls, but to challenge it, and a natter with Megyn Kelly just isn’t going to cut it.