It is increasingly clear that we live a world turned upside-down. This is particularly obvious in the realm of the modern media where all the old rules have been dramatically upended while many in the business still haven’t fully come to that rather obvious realization.
In this environment, it should come as no surprise when actual outcomes have no real relationship to the way events transpire (like, for instance, our entire 2016 presidential election). This exactly what happened with regard to the televised showdown between NBC’s Megyn Kelly and nutty conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Before the segment aired, I was one of those who expressed concern that, based on a reading of the tea leaves (including a bizarre, all-too-friendly photo of them riding in a car together), the interview may not be as hard on Jones as he deserved. This anxiety was heightened when unaired video leaked of Kelly going super soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As it turned out, Kelly ended up doing a pretty good, though hardly perfect, job of exposing Jones as a terrible and dangerous person.
It seems clear that the segment got greatly strengthened after the controversy erupted (a scenario about which I specifically theorized), which probably saved Kelly from career-threatening embarrassment. My only significant criticism of the content of the piece which aired is that Kelly, seemingly because it might confuse her preferred narrative, completely neglected the recent revelation that Jones was forced to admit, in court, that he is really just a “performance artist.”
In short, Jones got totally exposed and utterly eviscerated. Even more importantly, President Trump was made to look completely ridiculous for overtly supporting Jones. In a rational world, both men would suffer severe consequences as the public learned the real truth about them.
But because we no longer live in that world, none of that will happen. In fact, the results of this episode, if any, will be the exact opposite of what they would have been even just ten years ago.
Jones lost this battle badly, but he won the war. His stature has been greatly elevated and, thanks to the controversy, his ability to claim to his cult-like following that he is so dangerous that the “mainstream” must conspire to destroy him, will be exponentially strengthened. Much like what happens when Trump is harshly criticized by the mainstream media, not one fan of Jones is going to suddenly stop following his antics because of what aired on NBC. If anything, their crazed enthusiasm for him will only be heightened.
Hilariously, Jones even picked up a significant media ally in Sean Hannity, as the Fox News host and fellow Trump sycophant publicly sided with Jones against his former colleague on the issue of whether the entire NBC interview should be released. This is particularly confusing since Jones has said he recorded the interview and has threatened to release it himself.
Amazingly, I doubt that Jones will even lose his connection to President Trump. After all, there is nothing Trump respects more than celebrity, and thanks to all of this, Jones is now officially part of that exclusive club within the media (even if he surely doesn’t get sent the invitations to their meetings).
Meanwhile, even though what aired was good journalism, Kelly lost here. Her show endured great criticism and even lost sponsors. She got exposed as making smarmy promises to Jones to get him to talk to her, and then engaged in those ill-advised photos.
She did this all so that she could give a platform, in just her third show, to a horrendous person who will not suffer any consequences, and will likely gain from the exposure. Then, in the ultimate ignominy, the program also did horribly in the ratings.
The tiny audience is at the core of why this all went down the way that it did. In the “old” days, a primetime show on NBC would automatically garner such a huge viewership that there would have been no need for Kelly to pander in any way to get an interview with a low-rent character like Jones. First, she would have had far better subjects from which to choose. Second, she would have had all the leverage in the relationship.
But, thank to massive media fragmentation, those days are gone forever. The audience is so small (on a percentage basis) that now even the “Jones needs to be exposed as the fraud he is” argument really doesn’t hold much water. He got destroyed in front of a couple of million people, none of whom were ever going to be fans of his, or even Trump’s. Big deal.
Kelly’s show has now seen a significant audience drop in each of the last two weeks. As I predicted after its premiere, it appears as if it will not end up being a success. I see this as a shame because I think we need more substantive news-oriented programing on network television.
Meanwhile, Jones is much more certain to keep thriving while cynically feeding from the very bottom of the media ocean. This dichotomy in the apparent fortunes of Jones and Kelly tells you virtually everything you need to know about how and why the modern media is completely and irrevocable broken.
John Ziegler hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org