I am so over TV news’ obsession with the big “gets.” Maybe Megyn Kelly should be, too.
In her first few weeks anchoring NBC’s Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News host has made headlines for drawing Russian president Vladimir Putin to the interview chair and for attempting, at least, to introduce conspiracy peddler Alex Jones to a wider audience.
With an average of just 3.5 million viewers, the news magazine edition featuring the segment on Jones came in behind reruns of CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, and was down slightly from the 3.6 million average for the show’s second week, when Kelly interviewed sportscaster and Dancing with the Stars host Erin Andrews about being stalked and about her battle with cancer.
Kelly’s Father’s Day segment on radio host and YouTube provocateur Jones qualified as news because he supposedly has the ear of President Trump, not because he’d agreed to sit across from Kelly. Where the president of the United States gets his information matters to all of us, especially if it’s from a man who at one point claimed the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax involving child actors.
The edited-down interview that aired was better than many had expected — I look forward to NBC News ads featuring Washington Post critic Hank Stuever’s pronouncement that it was “far from dreadful” — but the wariness about giving Jones a platform for his views was justified. Kelly’s NBC news magazine’s June 4 premiere featured what she called “a tough conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” but what we saw appeared to be tougher for Kelly than for Putin, who swatted away her questions like so many flies while making his own points.
That’s not Kelly’s fault. It’s the fault of a format in which the person asking the questions can push only so hard before she risks looking worse than the person who’s not answering her. CBS’s Dan Rather found that out in 1988, when, after a testy on-air exchange with Vice President George Bush about the Iran-Contra affair, callers weighed in overwhelmingly against what was perceived as disrespect to Bush, who was then running for president.
Kelly’s questions to Putin were far more pointed than the Russian president received from Barbara Walters in 2001, when Russia wasn’t yet accused of interfering in a U.S. election. But Putin wasn’t about to hand Kelly a scoop after denying it to filmmaker Oliver Stone (whose four-night Showtime special, The Putin Interviews, was friendly enough to be deemed suitable for airing on Russia’s state-run Channel One). When Kelly asked whether Putin had damaging information about Trump, the former KGB officer played the incredulity card. “Have you all lost your senses over there?”
Jones, meanwhile, had agreed to be interviewed by Kelly in a venue and format he didn’t control. Why would he do that unless he figured he could steamroller her?
“It’s not going to be some ‘gotcha’ hit piece. I promise you that,” someone who sounds like Kelly says in a tape Jones released before the segment aired, saying he’d secretly recorded Kelly’s preinterview calls.
Kelly’s segment on Jones, which appeared heavily edited even by TV’s time-conscious standards, turned out to be far from chummy. But what gave it context — clips of Jones’ work and interviews, including one with Neil Heslin, who lost his 6-year-old son in the Sandy Hook shootings — didn’t require the subject’s cooperation, and could, with better planning, have been the story (with Jones, of course, being given the opportunity to respond).
But then it wouldn’t have been the branding opportunity that an interview with a hard-to-land subject is supposed to be.
What we should have learned over the years from watching Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and other stars of the big get is that high-profile interviews with newsmakers aren’t guaranteed to make news, even when they make headlines. Too often, they become an exercise in which the interviewees, not the stories that made them worth talking to, become central.
When Sawyer, in what I still consider one of ABC News’ greatest (and highest-rated) embarrassments, interviewed Michael Jackson and his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, for a PrimeTime Live that aired 22 years ago this month, it was clear Jackson and his team were determined to wring every promotional opportunity possible from the sit-down.
Sawyer might have been there to ask about Jackson’s history with the young boys he claimed just followed him into his bed for innocent sleepovers, but the singer was on ABC to promote a double album, and PrimeTime gave him plenty of opportunity, even devoting time to a nearly five-minute music video for his single “Scream.”
Let’s just say he won.
There’s a saying in journalism that goes roughly like this: “News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” Multiple versions of the quote are attributed to everyone from George Orwell to Katharine Graham, but they all make the same point: In the celebrity-interview world, news is likely to be the thing famous people don’t want to talk about. Which is why I try not to fool myself into thinking that interviews with them, though often interesting, are news.
In 2015, while still at Fox News, Kelly gave a much-quoted interview to Variety in which she noted that Barbara Walters had retired. “Diane Sawyer left her anchor role. Oprah [Winfrey] has moved to the OWN network and is doing a different thing now. So why not me?”
Maybe I want more for Kelly than she wants for herself, but I think she has more to offer than flashing her you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me face at recalcitrant dictators and fringe-media figures. And she’ll be needing more: Starting in the fall, Winfrey will be contributing to 60 Minutes.
Kelly, who will be here Monday for a public “conversation” with her Philadelphia-native husband, Douglas Brunt, at the Free Library’s Central Library about his new novel, Trophy Son, still has an opportunity to make Sunday Night more than the 60 Minutes wannabe it looks like now.
In the meantime, I’m holding out hope for Kelly’s interview with J.D. Vance, scheduled to air Sunday.
Vance is the author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, an account of overcoming his hardscrabble youth that’s occasionally cited in discussions of the 2016 election results (and that recently made Bill Gates’ list of recommended summer reading).
Maybe he won’t be as headline-worthy as Putin or Jones, but at least he offers Kelly the possibility of a genuine conversation.
Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly
7 p.m. Sundays, NBC