Alex Jones flap: How should media handle conspiracy theories in the Trump era?

Behind the furor over NBC News host Megyn Kelly's decision to interview Jones, a far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist, on June 18 is an ethical debate that is in many ways particular to today's political climate.

Composite image of Alex Jones (l.) and Megyn Kelly.

When NBC News host Megyn Kelly announced this week that her show would feature the radio host and conspiracy-promoting provocateur Alex Jones this Sunday, she may not have realized the furious backlash it would create.

Mr. Jones has on numerous occasions called the massacre of children at Sandy Hook “a giant hoax” that “clearly used actors” and that “pretty much didn’t happen.” (He since has backed off, calling himself a “devil’s advocate.”) His website has also advanced the conspiracy that the 9/11 terror attacks were actually an “inside job” by the United States government – a view shared by others on the fringes of both the right and left.

Some parents of the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook were outraged. Media critics, too, argued that Jones’s extreme views did not deserve such a prominent platform – and that the interview itself might have been designed to be provocative and controversial, meant to create buzz for Ms. Kelly’s new show on NBC.

On Tuesday, the group Sandy Hook Promise, founded by parents organizing to prevent gun-related deaths, disinvited Kelly from their annual gala. JPMorgan Chase pulled its ads; the social media hashtags #ShameOnNBC and #ShameOnMegynKelly began to trend.

In years past, the national media would indeed ignore such seemingly outlandish conspiracy theories, easily debunked and hardly worth the time to discuss, experts say.

Yet behind the current furor is an ethical debate that is in many ways particular to the Trump era, observers say. The president of the United States, after all, has appeared on Jones’s show and granted him White House press credentials. Before he was elected, President Trump, too, was a leading figure in the “birther” conspiracy, which questioned whether former President Barack Obama was a citizen. While in office, Mr. Trump has continued to make unsubstantiated claims, often through Twitter.  

“In my mind, I see it as less a story about the media per se, but a story about where we have come in the Trump era,” says Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “And now there is a lot of pressure on the media to do things that, quite frankly, I don’t think they should be in a position of having to do. If this guy’s in the White House, if he’s got credentials and the ear of the president, then we should probably hear what the heck he’s saying.”

And with the far-reaching effects of digital technology and the rise of social media, such views have already been finding a wider audience – and, indeed, represent a substantial core of voters who, as Jones himself often says, consider Trump one of their own.

Kelly defends her decision

Kelly defended her interview with Jones this week, arguing that it is only her role to report ideas and people who have been elevated to influential roles.

“I find Alex Jones’s suggestion that Sandy Hook was ‘a hoax’ as personally revolting as every other rational person does,” Kelly said in a statement this week. “It left me, and many other Americans, asking the very question that prompted this interview: How does Jones, who traffics in these outrageous conspiracy theories, have the respect of the president of the United States and a growing audience of millions?”

“Our goal in sitting down with him was to shine a light – as journalists are supposed to do – on this influential figure,” she continued, “and yes – to discuss the considerable falsehoods he has promoted with near impunity.”

For critics, however, the issue is far more complicated. They argue that, despite the fact that Jones has already been legitimized by the president, the role of the press should be, in part, to preserve the quality of public discourse.

“That doesn’t mean that the news media has to basically throw out their standards, and say, OK, we’re going to start to give as much credence to such obviously ridiculous conspiracy theories as we do to people who are trying to tell us the truth,” says Anthony Fargo, director of the Center for International Media Law and Policy Studies at Indiana University. “It’s a grievous insult to the families of the victims of Sandy Hook to continue to publicize this lie,” he says. “There is no moral duty to put someone who has no credibility on the air to spread false information – which essentially is what is going on.”

And throughout US history, there have long been robust political fringes on both the left and right, notes Don Haider-Markel, chair of the department of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In the 1950s and '60s, for example, right-wing radio shows promoted the conspiracy that the US government was full of secret anti-Christian communists – a culture that in many ways helped to shape Jones’s current views.

Giving such fringe ideas a platform involves deeper risks to the country, Professor Haider-Markel says, and though he respects Kelly as a journalist and her reasoning behind interviewing him, he worries that featuring Jones and his views can legitimize a rhetoric that can become dangerous.  

“People talk about conspiracy theories and inflammatory rhetoric on the right,” Haider-Markel continues. “But on the left, too, we went through a period like this in the '60s and '70s, where the left was so frustrated with the powers that be, the only actions they saw were to act out on the street. And that basically helped lead to instances of violence.”

Preserving 'American-ness'

Just one day after Haider-Markel made this observation, James Hodgkinson, an unemployed home inspector from southern Illinois who volunteered for the campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and who had reportedly made angry comments about Trump on social media, attacked Republican congressmen as they practiced for a charity baseball game in Virginia.

The shooting left House majority whip Steve Scalise and four others wounded. Investigators are seeking the possible political motives of Mr. Hodgkinson, who was shot and killed by police, officials say. Senator Sanders, in a statement, said he was “sickened by this despicable act,” condemning the action “in the strongest possible terms” and saying any violence “runs against our most deeply held American values.”

On Wednesday, members of both parties began to call for a more civilized discourse, uniting around “their common humanity and American-ness,” as the Monitor reported. Part of the role of the hard-to-define “mainstream” media is to preserve those values, leaving the fringes to the fringes.

“Hearing about these kinds of views on both the right and on the left is one thing,” says Professor Zaino. “Having them seep their way into the White House is, quite frankly, another thing. And if these left-wing conspiracies are moving their way up, that is also a concern.”

“So to me, this is about an absence of leadership,” she continues. “It is up to the nation’s leaders to provide such moral leadership, to speak out against the kinds of views Jones promotes, and not support those who violate our sense of decency,” she continues, acknowledging the pain it causes the Sandy Hook parents.

“We are who we are, and we tend to believe in all sorts of possible conspiracies, but you depend on leadership in a democracy to provide a pathway to guide you, and a press to describe the contexts on these paths,” she says.

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