In their first interview since they became the center of a major and upsetting controversy, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar made a case for their parenting. Whether it is credible or not is up to their legions of fans.
The TV personalities — and parents of 19 on the now-on-hiatus reality series 19 Kids and Counting — have been in the spotlight for years, but always one that’s been favorable and flattering. The allegations of past sexual abuse against minors by their then teenage son, Joshua, have significantly tarnished to the point of potentially destroying both their reputation and, less important but more potentially lucrative, their public profile in the entertainment industry. This interview was necessary both to preserve the family’s good name, if possible, and to shore up a franchise that had heretofore been unassailable.
The interview, with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, would seem to have been startlingly uncomfortable for the uninitiated. Jim Bob did the vast majority of the talking, including finishing sentences Michelle had begun. And while the pair’s defense of their son as akin to a Biblical lost lamb was moving and well-taken, it was startling to see how little consideration had been taken toward exposing the family to reality-TV cameras after this family issue had been, per Jim Bob and Michelle, dealt with. Michelle listed rules the pair had put in place, including banning male babysitters and not allowing male relatives to hold babies. Where do cameramen invited into the home enter into this equation?
The Duggar family — Jim Bob, Michelle, and their 19 children — has always felt somehow lost in time. Their appeal, based as it is upon their deeply-held religious beliefs and socially conservative approach to family life, isn’t just out of vogue; it exists practically nowhere else in mainstream popular culture but for Duck Dynasty and the stop-start public fame of football player Tim Tebow. In recent years, a sort of parallel popular culture has come to the fore, where those who feel alienated by a perceived widespread decadence and libertinism can make movies like God’s Not Dead or albums by Hillsong Music a hit, despite the fact that few less ardent believers would ever contemplate taking part. The Duggars were among the last few cultural entities who married widespread general popularity with traditionalist beliefs.
This makes for an uneasy marriage, allegations aside; the Duggar parents, whose continued fame has real consequences for the bottom line of Discovery Networks, seemed at times confused about what was expected of them. A more media-trained pair, perhaps, would have allowed Michelle to speak without her husband’s implicit OK. That hypothetical media-trained couple might not have framed apparently accurate reporting of family events, subsequent to opening the family’s life up to the media, as “an agenda,” as Michelle did.
But they at least figured out, or were told, the media outlet to turn to. Megyn Kelly is widely seen as the most evenhanded of all Fox News hosts, and asked tough questions in the interview, as when she questioned why the Duggars would have signed off on a family reality series after the allegations against Josh. But she also exists within a news organization that was operating in a predictable manner when it portrayed the Duggars as victims of a “liberal backlash.”
Kelly, within the confines of an hour, asked all the tough questions, but was limited in her ability, or interest, to follow up. That the show’s penultimate moments were devoted to the Duggars decrying the craven media whose attentions dredged up alleged past misdeeds was perhaps a failing on the part of Kelly to keep her eye on the ball, in terms of what the story is. But that the show’s actual final moments were dedicated to a promotion for her forthcoming interview with Josh Duggar’s siblings (on a future episode of The Kelly File) was proof she knows exactly what she’s doing. In the midst of apparent family tragedy, the endlessly promotable Duggars, begging the media for some semblance of privacy as they sit before the cameras, will get ratings for one channel or another.