In a few days self-described psychic, former Ancient Aliens talking head, and longtime conspiracy theorist Sean David Morton will be sentenced for a series of crimes that included filing false tax returns and creating and cashing fake U.S. Treasury checks. Morton joins convicted embezzler Erich von Däniken and the other rogues’ gallery of ancient astronaut theorists who have had run-ins with the law. Fringe history, like other fringe fields, attracts a number of frauds, con artists, and unscrupulous snake oil salesman looking to exploit extreme beliefs for cash.
But today I would like to talk a bit about the controversy that blew up around another huckster, Alex Jones of Info Wars, who recently walked back his lawyer’s claim that he is a performance artist playing a character. Anyway, NBC’s newest prestige hire, former Fox News-bot Megyn Kelly, is planning an interview with Jones this Sunday on her ratings-challenged vanity magazine Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, and both she and the network were blindsided by outrage from virtually all sides that a major broadcast network would give airtime to a conspiracy theorist who alleged that the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting were fictional and the shooting staged by the government.
In fact, families of the Sandy Hook victims threatened a lawsuit against NBC. “Airing Ms. Kelly’s interview implicitly endorses the notion that Mr. Jones’ lies are actually ‘claims’ that are worthy of serious debate, and in doing so it exponentially enhances the suffering and distress of our clients,” a lawyer for the families wrote in a letter published by the Los Angeles Times.
I certainly understand why it would be offensive to seemingly give a national platform to crazy ideas, but I must confess that I find the effort to suppress Kelly’s interview before it ever airs to be deeply misguided. News interviews cannot be limited only to people that we agree with, or the news becomes little more than an infomercial. Alex jones is disgusting on many levels, but I can’t imagine why he is so much worse to interview than serial killers, dictators, rapists, fraudsters, child abusers, hatemongers, and the whole panoply of horrifying personages who make up the usual diet of television news. What makes a Charles Manson interview a cause for publicity but an Alex Jones interview beyond the pale?
CNN’s Jeff Zucker told The Hill that the problem was really one of marketing, and NBC should have marketed a confrontational moment to avoid the appearance of endorsement.
The selectivity of the outrage is worse than the outrage itself. Have the people shocked—shocked!—to find Alex Jones on television never watched cable TV? Programs on channels like History and Destination America and a dozen others routinely play host to people who promote vile conspiracies of the worst kind. Jim Marrs, for example, is a frequent History Channel talking head and offers vicious conspiracy theories about planned anti-white genocide. David Wilcock of Ancient Aliens claims that 9/11 was a government conspiracy and actively accused Democratic politicians of raping children in a pizza parlor. History gave him a spotlight episode of Ancient Aliens and promotes him as a guru. How many documentaries on these channels have accused various celebrities of faking their own deaths, or claimed aliens or the CIA were behind various mass murders?
The fact that the outrage centers on the arbitrary distinction between cable TV and network TV shows the hollowness of the outrage. The parents of Sandy Hook victims are right to be angry, but their supporters in the chattering classes have latched on for a different reason—they are trying to make a political point by expressing outrage at Jones’s rightwing extremism and accusing NBC of enabling it even before they saw whether the story in question supports or refutes Jones’s insane rantings. But Jones isn’t just a crazy internet rage-monster; he is also a trusted bloviator of our current president, and his conspiratorial worldview feeds directly into Trump’s, making him newsworthy under any definition I can come up with. The news isn’t just for interviewing people you agree with.
But on the other hand, over the past few hours before I wrote this Jones released surreptitiously recorded audio of Kelly telling him that the interview “Is not going to be some gotcha hit piece, I can promise you that.” Kelly confided to Jones that she found him “fascinating” and had seen a “different side of him” during his child custody battle, the one in which his lawyer argued that Jones was a performance artist. Perhaps, then, the critics are right to worry. For its part NBC said that the interview would be “serious” and would focus on “context,” including Jones’s connection to Trump.
Ultimately, we have a TV network that is doing the right thing in the wrong way, to the dismay of critics who are right to worry but have the wrong approach to their outrage.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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