NBC’s fake-news foray could have real fallout

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 19, 2017.
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INFOWARS came to my hometown three years ago. Dan Bidondi, who identified himself as a reporter for the website that hawks extremist views and fake news, arrived with a video camera at the municipal centre of Newtown, Connecticut, to cover a routine Board of Education meeting. Bidondi was not interested in hearing how a New England hamlet of 27,000 was dealing with bus schedules or budget priorities.

Instead, he was there to give a man from Florida a platform upon which to express his delirious beliefs. Wolfgang Halbig and a bevy of followers, including a man clad in 18th-century patriot garb, showed up to bully community leaders into proving the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School actually occurred. 

On Sunday, Comcast’s flagship network, NBC, extended a similar courtesy to Infowars by airing a segment on Alex Jones, its founder and conspiracy theorist-in-chief. Megyn Kelly, the former Fox News anchor whom President Donald Trump accused of bleeding “from her wherever” when she challenged him during an election debate, interviewed Jones for her new prime-time programme. 

The decision unleashed a well-deserved backlash against NBC. Viewers are calling for boycotts. Petitions crawl across Facebook and Twitter demanding NBC withdraw the piece. JPMorgan Chase temporarily pulled advertisements, and others may follow. The furore forced Kelly to withdraw from a fundraiser last Wednesday for a charity led by parents who lost children at Sandy Hook, and one which I helped to found.

Just a few weeks into her tenure, Kelly — who had been offered US$20 million (RM85.6 million) to stay at Fox News, according to media reports — has put NBC into a pickle that could have commercial ramifications for its parent company. If the broadcaster forges ahead with a segment that serves to legitimise Jones, Infowars and the falsifications they peddle, sponsors may further withdraw their custom.

As Uber and other companies have learned, uprisings can mushroom quickly in the social-media age. In the short term, that would make Kelly’s much-ballyhooed show a casualty.

There is a bigger risk from Kelly’s embrace of Jones for the US$200 billion cable operator controlled and run by family scion Brian Roberts. The willingness to elevate a bonkers theory that Sandy Hook and other tragedies either did not happen or was an elaborate hoax perpetrated by shadowy government actors to deprive Americans of their freedoms creates a false equivalency that threatens the mission at NBC.

The network launched by David Sarnoff at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens prides itself as “a company uniquely positioned to inform, empower and inspire, we embrace the opportunity to create conversation and mobilise action to address some of the world’s most critical issues.”

To remain true to those values, Kelly and NBC really have but one option: the show must go on, and it must expose the real danger of the fake news Jones and his ilk pose not just to NBC’s mission but to the wider American social fabric. She can start by revisiting video from the Newtown Board of Education, where she will see Halbig and a procession of other adherents to Jones’ conspiracies disrupting the normal course of business in a town traumatised by tragedy.

To pull the broadcast would be far too damaging. It would suggest either a lack of editorial independence at NBC, or a failure to produce good work by Kelly — or perhaps both. Worse still, it would allow Jones to cry censorship by what he calls the “dying dinosaur media systems of information suppression.” That would only validate the warped world view of his audience, and maybe even grow their numbers.

Since releasing a trailer and a smiling selfie with Jones, Kelly and her producers have been scrambling to make their piece more critical of Jones and Infowars. In a series of phone calls last Wednesday evening, Kelly reached out to a handful of Sandy Hook parents. They repeated their demands that NBC not broadcast the interview, and declined to participate on camera.

Jones, perhaps sensing both opportunity and risk, released a video last Thursday night including audio recordings in which he claims Kelly can be heard promising him a fair shot: “It’s not gonna be some gotcha hit piece.” Kelly and NBC News face an extremely high bar, with potential implications for the company’s income statement. They cannot withdraw and they cannot produce a puff piece. If they fail to expose Jones’ cruelty to the truth, they devalue the network. 

There is a solution, albeit not a flashy one. NBC could run the video from when Infowars visited Newtown. It shows Halbig and the “patriot,” who identified himself as Melbourne Sann of Rome, New York, interrupting a meeting of unpaid volunteers, Republicans mostly and some Democrats, doing their best to provide a good education for children, some of whom were in the school when a gunman killed their peers and six of their teachers.

As they will see, Halbig is not particularly rude. Sann, who operates a day care centre in his town, is polite, too. And yet they embrace a fiction that Jones pioneered and parlayed into notoriety, a nod from Trump and White House press credentials for Infowars. That is what makes him so dangerous to the country, and perhaps even to Comcast’s bottom line. — Reuters