Tonight, conspiracy peddler Alex Jones will have a major network as a platform to hurl demonstrable lies at a nationwide viewing audience. For the uninitiated, Jones’ greatest hits include that 9/11 was an inside job and that the mass shooting of children and educators at Sandy Hook was a “false flag.” Jones’ Sandy Hook denial calls the parents of murdered children liars. Thanks to Kelly and NBC, he will get to do so on Father’s Day.
Jones didn’t break into NBC studios and grab a mic. New NBC entertainer Megyn Kelly, fresh from her stint as a Fox News entertainer, invited him, and defends her choice by claiming she’ll address the “considerable falsehoods” that Jones peddles. Her defense does not explain why Jones’s presence is necessary for this exercise — because it isn’t.
Her failure to comprehend this — and NBC’s failure to push back — is the tragic and logical outgrowth of our collective failure to remember that the point of a free press is to help enlighten us so we may govern ourselves effectively. There is absolutely nothing that a professional liar like Jones can do to further that goal.
I teach at American University School of Public Affairs. Most of my students are working toward a multidisciplinary government degree in Communication, Legal Institutions, Economics, and Government — CLEG. It’s a mouthful, so I shorthand CLEGing (if adult can be a verb, so can CLEG) to problem solving. We’re the Department of Government and our courses are about governing; in my experience as a legislative, lawyer, and communications adviser, I’ve observed governing involves heaping helpings of C, L, E, and G.
So when I came to AU, I thought my big task would be to show my students how to CLEG, both the substance (this is how you read a SCOTUS opinion, create a one-page lobby doc, write an op-ed) and the process (don’t be late; proof your emails; you are not above making binders). I didn’t anticipate the extent to which their lifelong immersion in uncurated opinion pieces would undermine that goal.
I start from the presumption that governing requires facts. How much will this legislation cost? Who will benefit? These are not always straightforward questions. Democrats and Republicans will debate, for example, whether a tax cut will result in economic growth, which would then be factored into the bill’s cost. But they will not demand, e.g., that Mr. Met be allowed to testify on a tax bill because he believes taxes alter the Earth’s magnetic pull around Citi Field (you tell yourself whatever you need to, Mr. Met).
In that, lawmakers across the political spectrum are removed from today’s students (high school class of 2017 was born in 1998, god help us) and, I suspect, many other media consumers. I opened one government course with a clip in which John Oliver takes on false equivalency. In it, he explains that we don’t need an opinion poll on whether climate change is real. He explains: “You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?’”
To my dismay, many of my students challenged the idea that we didn’t need to listen to the person who says five is bigger than 15. If 15 really is bigger than five, then the best argument will win out. Never mind the abundant research (which I showed them) that shows people hang onto misinformation — a phenomenon that has claimed lives in the case of vaccine denial, a still-popular movement based on a 1998 study that was debunked in 2010.
I brought up the question in a second class and delved into it further. To exclude one “voice” would be “elitist.” There would be a slippery slope that peer review, tests of relevance, and even demonstrable falsity could not cure. And then there was just… well… everyone’s entitled to our opinion, and we’re all biased.
One of the most stark differences between my generation of professional CLEGers and my students (who are bright, hard-working, and – thanks to their Boomer forebears — heavily in debt) is that they don’t acknowledge a difference between expertise and bias. The process of reaching a conclusion results in bias and opinions, once formed, constitute bias. This is equally the case for #pizzagate believers who saw something on Alex Jones and scholars who have studied objective reality and tested their findings.
Therefore, every source of information, from a peer-reviewed academic journal to a Daily Kos diary, is equally trustworthy and equally suspect. Every opinion, from Debbie Wasserman Schultz stole Bernie’s lunch money to Hillary Clinton was one of several officials who needed to sign off on a uranium trade, is equally defensible or indefensible.
(Note to liberals, don’t be smug about this; they are not Fox News watchers. To be honest, if Fox said a meteor had hit the AU quad, my students would dismiss it out of hand without even looking out the window. We need to work on that, too. These students, like their Fox-watching grandparents, are products of an information landscape that Fox perfected. They happen to consume a different set of un-curated opinions.)
Megyn Kelly, you built that. By toeing the Fox party line that journalists are untrustworthy and objective reality is anti-Republican (if the shoe fits). By giving a platform to fantasy and calling it useful; by presenting misleading stories and claiming to expose the truth; by making a profession of denigrating truth-tellers as biased; by profiting from an infotainment industry that sells people emphatic confirmations of what they want to hear — you built that. Tonight’s shameful episode, in which you give a pathological liar an opportunity to make his case to a nationwide audience, is the sick but predictable outgrowth of everything you, Fox, and the cable news industry has built.
This is a problem for those of us who want to govern — which in a democracy is supposed to be all of us.
Our Constitution, which I’ve actually read (I’ve read Julius Caesar, too, in my English-major days. Spoiler alert- it doesn’t promote assassination as a means of achieving policy goals), protects free speech and a free press precisely because we gave ourselves the responsibility of self-governance. Putting a liar on TV does not help us govern ourselves; it’s at best a distraction and at worst perpetuates Jones’ lies.
The Pentagon Papers case, New York Times v. US, (as freshly relevant as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale), reminds us of why our Constitution protects journalists like Megyn Kelly claims to be:
In the absence of the governmental checks and balances present in other areas of our national life, the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the areas of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry - in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government. For this reason, it is perhaps here that a press that is alert, aware, and free most vitally serves the basic purpose of the First Amendment. For without an informed and free press there cannot be an enlightened people.
Checks on the executive sound pretty good right now. But so does an enlightened people, boy, does it.
Megyn Kelly misrepresents good journalistic practice in defending her choice, saying “as journalists, we don’t get to interview only the good guys — that’s not journalism.” Her defense implies that in order to shine a light on what Alex Jones has done, she has to let him speak directly to people. But this is preposterous. Alex Jones is not an authority on what’s wrong with Alex Jones.
Megyn Kelly has the freedom to smear feces on her studio walls (arguably as worthwhile as letting Alex Jones in there) because we don’t trust the government to decide what she can present or what we need to see. That doesn’t mean that she should.
She has an opportunity to share knowledge that will help us to better govern ourselves. Tools for an enlightened people to solve the problems we have. We do not have a problem discerning whether real human beings were murdered at Sandy Hook. At least we didn’t have that problem, until Alex Jones introduced that non-question and numerous people bought it.
I’ll most likely use Kelly’s shameful publicity stunt as a case study in information literacy next semester. I’m sad to say some students will state that just like the theory that five might be bigger than 15, Sandy Hook denial has a place in our marketplace of ideas. It’s not because they love Alex Jones or because they’re not smart. It’s because Megyn Kelly and her ilk have been peddling garbage like this since before my students could read, and our marketplace of ideas is full of products that do more harm than good.
That makes my job infinitely harder.
(see my follow-up blog, Megyn Kelly’s Silly Exercise)