It helped that Neil Heslin, whose 6-year-old son, Jesse, was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre that Jones claimed never happened, agreed to sit down for an interview (after several parents declined), telling Kelly: “I lost my son. I buried my son. I held my son with a bullet hole through his head… You know, [Jones’ ‘false flag’ rants are] disrespectful to me where in fact I did lose my son. And the 26 other families lost somebody. And I take that very personal.”
“You know this piece is going to air on Father’s Day… What is your message to him?” Kelly asked.
“I think he’s blessed to have his children to spend the day with, to speak to. I don't have that.”
It probably helped even more that former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, the 77-year-old conscience of the Peacock Network’s news division, generously threw Kelly a life preserver by lending his credibility to the proceedings. Sitting at the anchor desk with his freshly minted colleague near the end of Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly, Brokaw delivered an impassioned commentary against “the poisonous claims of Alex Jones and others like him.”
And Kelly—chastened by speculation that she would go soft on Jones and the humiliating spectacle of being bounced from emceeing last Wednesday’s anti-gun violence fundraising dinner sponsored by parents and relatives of the 27 Sandy Hook victims—presented what amounted to an editorial of her own.
While it didn’t match Edward R. Murrow’s legendary 1954 prosecution of Joe McCarthy, Kelly’s 18-minute long segment (reportedly revised and toughened up at the last minute in a frantic effort by NBC to placate critics) amounted to a thoroughgoing indictment of the man. Jones, she said, has “spent nearly two decades on the fringe, shouting his conspiracy theories into any microphone he could get in front of,” and currently attracts millions of fans, including President Trump, while making his handsome living through “reckless accusation, followed by equivocations and excuses.”
The segment covered other dangerous conspiracy theories Jones has pushed—notably “Pizzagate,” the bogus Hillary Clinton/John Podesta sex ring claim that provoked a gun-toting idiot to burst into a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor and fire shots into the ceiling.
Conservative pundit and Never Trumper Charlie Sykes, meanwhile, appeared in the segment to speculate that “there’s a conspiratorial turn in the president’s thinking and in his imagination. And those darker impulses are fed into by Alex Jones…
“What he has done is he has injected this sort of toxic paranoia into the mainstream of conservative thought in a way that would have been inconceivable a couple of decades ago. We’re talking about somebody who traffics in some of the sickest, most offensive types of theories.”
When the program opened, Kelly—outfitted in a funereal black dress and wearing a grim expression—looked uncharacteristically nervous and off her game, probably because she knew how high were the stakes for her future career as NBC News’ much-celebrated and equally derided $17 million star.
Kelly—a controversy magnet herself in her former prime-time perch at Fox News, especially after earning the ire of Trump and some of his more threatening acolytes with a hostile debate question about the candidate’s misogyny in August 2015—had just endured a personal hell week, with her own credibility and journalistic chops under withering attack.
The past seven days included PR missteps by herself and NBC News, damaging leaks of tape recordings by Jones in which she fulsomely flattered and flirted in order to obtain his cooperation, growing demands for the segment to be spiked (which it was on Sunday night by the NBC affiliate that serves Sandy Hook Elementary’s Newtown, Connecticut, viewers) along with vigorous second-guessing by media types who suggested that Kelly might give her pernicious profile subject a free pass.
That was the widespread impression prompted by NBC News’ ill-considered release of a less than confrontational clip last Sunday of Kelly interrogating Jones—an unfortunate notion supported not only by Kelly’s apparently clinical demeanor in the clip as Jones explained his various Sandy Hook theories (“That’s a dodge,” she offered calmly), but also by Jones’ release of a photograph in which he and Kelly are sitting companionably in his car, smiling into the camera and wearing sporty sunglasses.
It didn’t help Kelly’s case when the 43-year-old Jones—who is nothing if not wickedly clever—released edited audio snippets of Kelly’s seductive telephone pitch, in which she ardently promised not to do a “gotcha” hit piece and to explore Jones’s “fascinating” human side as a loving dad, while describing herself, perhaps too revealingly (and, at least in two respects, perhaps too charitably) as “a combination of Mike Wallace, Oprah Winfrey, and Larry the Cable Guy.”
In her Alex Jones piece, Kelly was at pains to prove that she is actually a tough-minded shoe-leather reporter as well as a broadcast television star worthy of NBC’s massive investment. So how did she do?
On the whole, while she clearly isn’t the reincarnation of Mike Wallace (or, for that matter, the embodiment of Oprah), I think she survived to fight another day. For instance, she was badly served by the much-criticized promotional clip, which didn’t do justice to her effective grilling—as befits her trial-lawyer experience in a former life—of Jones on his evil Sandy Hook fantasy.
It was much more in-your-face than the clip suggested, with Kelly at one point holding her head in frustration as Jones spun his weaselly prevarications.
“But Alex, the parents, one after the other, devastated. The dead bodies that the coroner autopsied,” Kelly interrupted, raising her voice.
One could almost feel the shuddering sigh of relief emanating from 30 Rock as the tweeted verdicts came in.
“Nailed the scumbag,” wrote Daily Beast founder Tina Brown.
“Watching @ megynkelly interview with Alex Jones, I'm even more convinced that her piece wasn't just ok to do, but important journalism,” wrote ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams.
In the end, an NBC News executive’s prediction to me several days ago wasn’t far off the mark:
“Her style is not that she’s going to reach across and grab him by the neck and shake him. But she will challenge him aggressively on the facts. She does not let him dodge. She does not let him deflect.
“If you’re looking for him to say, ‘I know I’ve caused a lot of pain to families based on perpetrating a big lie for profit and I feel terrible,’ I guarantee you will not have that satisfaction. What you will have is a probing, challenging interview of an unfortunately influential figure in the new political world we live in.”