Here is the sequence of events:
1. Newly minted NBC “star” Megyn Kelly announced that she would be interviewing infamous right wing political troll and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on a segment of her new show.
Jones is a fringe media figure and a proven liar, but he has been cited positively by President Trump, and has successfully caused some wide-spread comtoversy and offense, such as when he claimed that the Newtown massacre was a hoax. There is nothing wrong with interviewing such figures; indeed, it is important to interview them. provided ethical journalism standards apply.
Unfortunately, as this episode demonstrates, journalists no longer know what those standards are.
2. In order to persuade Jones to agree to the interview, Kelly promised him—Jones had a tape—that he would be treated fairly. Note: when you tell someone they will be treated fairly in order to have him trust you, your definition of “fair” must be his definition of “fair.” If he is thinking, “Ah! She will be neutral rather than adversarial, and will not be looking for gotchas!,” but she meant, “It’s fair that I fillet you like a trout, you bastard!” then the interview subject has been deceived.
3. The parents of the victims of the Newtown shooting, as well as their sympathizers and allies, protested the interview, as I wrote about here, saying that NBC was giving Jones a platform. Sympathy and grief are not excuses for censorship. The fact that the parents hate Jones suggests that they shouldn’t watch him be interviewed. They should not seek to interfere with my right to see how he presents himself, and companies (like J.P Morgan) that responded to the threatened boycott by pulling their ads told me that they will go as the winds blow, no matter how totalitarian the direction it might be.
Good to know. To hell with them.
4. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking of progressives with muddled values, wanted NBC to pull the segment.. The NBC affiliate in Hartford refused to air the episode because the “wounds of that day that have yet to heal.”
Yes, by all means, journalists should never report news or do stories that might upset anyone.
5. Showing the integrity of a sneak-thief, NBC and Kelly furiously re-cut the interview and added a segment in which some Newtown parents could attack Jones.
6. Before the interview aired, Alex Jones released audiotape showing how egregiously Kelly misled him.
7. The interview aired last night, and reviewers were satisfied that Kelly was “tough enough” with Jones, and signaled with her voice, facial expressions, tone and questions that she thought he was scum. “Short of waterboarding him,” one critic wrote, “I don’t know what more Kelly could have done to expose Jones’ dark methods.”
- An interview, to be ethical, should be handled the same way regardless of whether the subject is Gandhi or Satan. This was something even the now deified Tim Russert wouldn’t accept. An interviewer who indicates to the audience that he things his subject is scum is biasing the interview and making it difficult for viewers to come to their own conclusions, which is what good journalism is supposed to foster. It is virtue signalling and manipulation when interviewers sneer, and glare, roll their eyes, and act like a prosecutor cross examining a serial killer.
I saw Russert interview David Duke this way, and he—Russert, that is— looked like a jerk. Katie Couric interviewed Ross Perot similarly, and CNN does this pretty much to every Republican or member of the Trump administration. These journalists aren’t trying to enlighten their audiences or give them any new insight; they just want to make sure that the audiences they care about know they feel feel the same way about the interview subject as any “decent” person out there.
- There is nothing wrong with an “Alex Jones is horrible, and we’re going to show you why” TV news magazine segment, but that is punditry piece, not journalism. I, for example, don’t need to be told how bad Jones is; I know already. I would, however, benefit from seeing a fair, open, tough but unbiased interview with him. That is what Kelly initially promised, and indeed promised Jones, until she was blasted into submission by a chorus of “Think of the children!”
That she and the network capitulated to outside interest group pressure to turn what was initially a straight interview into a hit piece represents the depths of unethical journalism. This is packaging the news to appeal to audience biases, not presenting facst and allowing the audience to make its own judgments. It is cowardice. The same instincts of base survival that made NBC pull a bait and switch on Jones are why the New York Times, the Washington Post and the networks are on a perpetual Trump-bashing orgy. Facts, objectivity and objective reporting will get them into trouble, they fear. Example: when President Trump announced last week that he would not be seeking to deport so-called “Dreamers,” illegals carried across the illegally when they were infants or toddlers, the New York Times headlined the story as Trump once again breaking his campaign promises.
- Bringing in a panel of foes to attack an interview guest without giving that guest a chance to confront his accusers is unethical, especially without informing the guest beforehand.
What would have been the reaction, do you think, if a typical Hillary Clinton soft-ball interview on “60 Mintutes” during the 2016 campaign had a tacke-on segment, in response to a letter campaign, where the Banghazi victim’s families vented about how they felt Clinton had lied to them?
- Because nobody in the news media likes Jones, no TV or media critic saw anything wrong with Kelly lying to Jones, or delivering an “interview” that was really an inquisition. The most-used rationalization was, “Oh, journalists do this all the time.” Not ethical journalists, they don’t. Wherever those are now.
Playing with passenger pigeons and Tasmanian tigers, perhaps.
- David Susskind, who launched the genre of giving televised interviews to the worst of the worst on PBS, usually had the balance right. He interviewed dictators, IRA terrorists, Nazis, Klan members, pimps, drug-dealers, pederasts and more, always politely and without signalling contempt, asking probing questions but not spitting them, sometimes looking shocked and bemused but never going out of his way to make sure his audience knew that he really, really hated these people. Susskind approached most interviews with the objective of learning something, not bludgeoning his guests with what he had already decided.
In short, David Susskind correctly followed the Golden Rule: even deplorables should be treated the way you wish they would treat others.
- We learned from this episode that today’s journalists take their cues from polls and boycotts, and march to the tune dictated by their partisan masters. They have no courage or principle, and as long as someone is unpopular enough that the public is willing to discard fairness regarding their treatment, then lies and misrepresentation are acceptable in dealing with them.
“It’s time once again to quote Janet Malcolm, “The Journalist and the Murderer”:
Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. …
The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist—who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things—never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.