Megyn Kelly’s highly anticipated interview with Alex Jones, the notorious peddler of conspiracy theories, aired as planned on NBC on Sunday night, despite widespread protests and Jones’s own attempts to sabotage the segment. People praised Kelly’s performance, with Politico’s Jack Shafer writing that “she took the mendacious Jones apart in such a textbook manner you had to wonder what all the shouting had been about.” But it was telling that there was no “Megyn Kelly moment,” the term Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times used to describe that point in an interview when “you, a Fox guest—maybe a regular guest or even an official contributor—are pursuing a line of argument that seems perfectly congruent with the Fox worldview, only to have Kelly seize on some part of it and call it out as nonsense, maybe even turn it back on you.”
This was Kelly’s way of distinguishing herself at Fox News—of building her reputation as a rare independent voice, even a feminist, in a crank-filled world dominated by the likes of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. It was moments like these that convinced the executives at NBC that Kelly could be a crossover star with mainstream appeal. But her inability to replicate that strategy in the non-Fox News world suggests we were giving her far too much credit, both as a feminist and as a journalist.
It was not supposed to go this way. The Jones interview was meant to be controversial enough to boost her ratings (which have been mediocre since she joined NBC) but not so controversial that it eclipsed the interview itself. Kelly quickly ran into trouble with the most sympathetic people in America, the parents of the children slain in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, which, according to Jones’s site InfoWars, never actually happened. (Jones’s theory is that the parents faked the deaths of their children to push for tighter gun control.) Critics said Kelly should not air the interview, since it would only give Jones a bigger platform. At least one NBC affiliate boycotted airing the show.
Meanwhile, Jones also called on Kelly to shelve the interview, claiming that it was unfairly edited to misrepresent his views. He spent the last few weeks riling up his fans about the controversy. On Thursday night, he pulled out the big guns, releasing secret tapes of pre-interview conversations with Kelly in which she stated, “I’m not looking to portray you as some kind of bogeyman” and promised to run the clips past Jones before airing them. Jones called on NBC to put the full unedited video on its web site, or else he would publish it.
Contrary to those who found the interview “important journalism,” I thought it was hardly worth the hype. Kelly ran through Jones’s most damaging conspiracy theories, including Sandy Hook and his defamatory accusations against the yogurt company Chobani. She also brought up Pizzagate, in which Jones claimed that the Democratic Party was running a child-sex ring out of a Washington pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, which prompted a man to enter the restaurant and open fire. Kelly stressed the symbiotic relationship between Jones and President Donald Trump, no doubt to bolster her argument that Jones is an important figure who needs to be interrogated. In an interview with Neil Heslin, one of the Sandy Hook parents, Kelly asked if he had a Father’s Day message for Jones. “I think he’s blessed to have his children, to spend the day with, speak to. I don’t have that,” Heslin said.
There was very little footage of the actual interview with Jones himself, which Jones’s supporters will likely claim proves that the video was heavily manipulated. And indeed the positive reviews Kelly has received were likely the result of the fact that Kelly reportedly drastically recut the show at the last second to address concerns.
Ultimately the controversy reveals less about Jones than it does about how the world continues to stoke Kelly’s reputation as an “intrepid gal reporter.” Her fencing with Trump during the campaign brought her great acclaim, with Kelly being hailed as the “new gold standard in American journalism.” Then she took a stand against Roger Ailes, becoming the most prominent member of a small army of women who had accused the former Fox News head of sexual harassment. She wrote a bestselling memoir, Settle for More, that cemented her reputation as a kind of hard-charging role model for women.
This was a remarkable turnaround for a person who made her name preying on white people’s fears about black people. Remember, this is the same person who once said that a black teenage girl who was slammed to the ground by a police officer “was no saint”; that student protesters who got pepper-sprayed were just getting hit with a “a food product, essentially”; and that it is a “verifiable fact” that Santa Claus is white. She consistently downplayed the issue of police brutality against minorities, was obsessed with claims that the New Black Panther Party was intimidating white voters, and called Black Lives Matter “obviously beyond the bounds of decency.” These all tapped into the conspiracy theory mindset that Fox News has excelled in popularizing. It was no surprise that, in the tapes he leaked, Jones himself can be heard saying, “I’ve always been a fan of yours until everything happened.”
Her elevation to respectability could only have happened with Fox News as a toxic backdrop. (The fact that her interviewing a conspiracy theorist has raised more backlash than all of her racist comments at Fox News put together is very telling.) Ditto her reputation as a feminist. As Jia Tolentino put it in the New Yorker, “She was a diamond partly because her company was so rough.” At Fox News, with Ailes and Trump looming over the network, Kelly was a veritable bra-burner without having to do much at all. Many of her signature Megyn Kelly moments came when she pushed for the rights of women in the workplace, such as when Mike Gallagher called Kelly’s maternity leave a “racket” and she invited him on her show to excoriate him. Even Gawker lauded it as a “momentary feminist triumph.”
All this despite the fact that Kelly rejects the term. In a review of Settle for More, Jennifer Senior of the New York Times observed, “The needle she threads has an almost microscopic eye. She is trying simultaneously to appeal to both her new Lean In fan base and the regular Fox News watchers who abhor identity politics.” In a world in which corporate titans like Sheryl Sandberg are lauded as feminist heroes, Kelly can make the transition to feminist icon herself. She is part of a Lean In circle and Sandberg herself once called Kelly to say, “I love you, you are awesome” after Kelly challenged conservative Erick Erickson for criticizing a rise in female breadwinners.
In fact, there is nothing that Kelly has said or done that runs counter to Sandberg’s empowerment feminism. Personal success is perceived to be inherently feminist, despite the fact that some people may have been steamrolled along the way. In Kelly’s case, there are a lot of people that have been run over: Newtown families, people of color, all other women. And until the world she inhabits changes, Megyn Kelly will continue to settle for more.