By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008
NEW YORK -- It's just after 10:30 Monday morning on "America's Newsroom," and Megyn Kelly has bounced from riots in Paris to storms in the Midwest, from a truck-and-train collision to a strange interview about the 1969 Manson family murders with the sister of slain actress Sharon Tate.
But the Fox News anchor doesn't seem truly animated until senior producer Tom Lowell says in her ear: "Megyn, remember the bee story? Think you can ad-lib us a tease here?"
Kelly looks into the camera and exclaims: "Imagine what happened when you're driving by that truck and out come bees! Tens of thousands of bees!"
She is causing quite the buzz herself. Four years ago, Kelly was a Washington lawyer pleading with WJLA-TV for part-time work. Now she's the co-anchor of two Fox shows, including a new 5 p.m. hour on the presidential campaign.
"When I was practicing law and had to do these 13-, 14-, 16-hour days, I was miserable," she says. Now, "you get off the set, you have that post-show high."
Most of the stars at Fox are highly opinionated men. Kelly, 37, is a former legal affairs correspondent who mostly keeps her views out of her on-air work. That may be a more circuitous path to cable stardom, but it is becoming more common.
MSNBC has given political shows in recent weeks to NBC correspondents Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, who also fills in on "Today." CNN has given programs to former CBS correspondent John Roberts and former NBC correspondent Campbell Brown, and is tapping reporter John King as a substitute anchor. They all serve up analysis but stop short of commentary.
What makes Kelly unusual is the sheer speed of her ascent. "She has learned television news very quickly," says Bill Hemmer, her co-anchor. "She cares about the news, she studies it, and she has a wicked sense of humor. There is a chemistry that's required, this Fred-and-Ginger dance you have to perform every day on the fly."
Kelly, who grew up in an Albany, N.Y., suburb, was practicing law in Chicago -- securities law, contract disputes and the like -- when she took some journalism classes and served an internship at the NBC station in town. After moving to Washington in 2003, she reduced her legal load and persuaded WJLA, the ABC affiliate, to give her reporting assignments a couple of days a week.
Within a year, Kelly sent Fox a tape, which immediately impressed Brit Hume, the Washington managing editor, and his wife Kim, then the bureau chief.
"Here is this woman who was strikingly attractive but has tremendous air presence and a very strong voice," Hume says. "We were knocked out. It was screamingly obvious that this was someone with tremendous potential."
What's more, says Hume, "she seemed to get what we've talked about with 'fair and balanced news' . . . She came in believing there was a left bias in the news. That's not common." He quickly created an opening for her.
As a Washington correspondent, Kelly specialized in legal issues and was an early skeptic of the sexual-assault charges against the Duke lacrosse players who were ultimately exonerated. She enjoyed reporting but "thought it would be fun to have a job where you could show a little bit more personality."
Her first attempt was nervously filling in as the host of Geraldo Rivera's weekend show: "I thought, 'Oh my God, it's so cool.' " Kelly sees parallels to the lawyer's trade: giving a presentation, keeping it concise, maintaining energy and trying not to let them see you sweat.
Thirteen months ago, Fox executives summoned her to New York for a new mid-morning show that replaced "Fox News Live." Ratings are up 15 percent since then.
Did good looks play a role in the promotion? Kelly was voted a "hottie" in a contest on the Fishbowl DC Web site, and some bloggers have blathered on about her appearance, with one calling her "Leggy Meggy." YouTube features a series of videos such as "Hot Collection of Megyn Kelly" and one simply titled "Leather Boots & Skirt." On the morning show, Fox puts her on an open set that showcases her long legs.
But Kelly says success hinges on inner beauty. Still, she says, "In the industry, women have a hard time because there's an assumption that maybe you've moved up for reasons other than your mind."
Fox's morning show has what's known as a high story count, forcing anchors to race from one item to the next. Kelly recalls Lowell saying they would try launching the program as "America's Newsroom on crack," and later try a version on Valium, but "we never got off the crack."
Kelly can be a tad on the bubbly side, saying things on the air like "hiya" and "see you, guys." As a nervous flier, she told an airline safety expert last month: "You're freaking me out a little bit."
On this particular morning, Lowell tells Kelly that she may need to do an unexpected interview with Sen. Charles Schumer on the economy. During a break, Kelly e-mails a couple of financial analysts for suggested questions. But, she says, "I generally try not to know too much about complex financial news, because then you try to conduct an expert interview. Our viewers aren't experts." The interview falls through at the last minute.
In her "Kelly's Court" segment, the anchor moderates a debate over a California court ruling that parents do not have a right to home-school their children. She makes her disdain obvious in her questions, saying, "It sounds more like a court that is picking and choosing the facts it wants," before delivering her verdict: The decision "smells arbitrary" and is a "slam against home schooling."
On another day she sides with a photographer who refused to work at a lesbian wedding, saying discrimination laws don't require the woman "to sacrifice her religious beliefs in the name of social harmony."
Kelly says that "my job is to do the interviews, not be the opinion-giver," but she feels free to offer her views in these legal arguments. Occasionally, though, there are hints of her political outlook. During the weeks when Fox News was making a major issue of the offensive sermons by Barack Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Kelly told viewers it was "pretty stunning" that Wright got a cheering welcome at a Chicago church while President Bush was booed at the Washington Nationals home opener. "No respect for the president of the United States when he showed up to throw out the first pitch," she said.
Kelly, who began her television career as Megyn Kendall, explained to viewers that she was reverting to her maiden name after her divorce. When she was about to get remarried last month, colleagues showered her with gifts on the air, from balloons to a hand-painted wine glass. "I love you guys, too!" she exclaimed.
Before she went honeymooning at a Mexican villa with Internet entrepreneur Doug Brunt, the New York Times reported that she had met her man on a blind date at the Washington mezze bar Zaytinya (actually a semi-blind date; the matchmaking friend had showed her Brunt's picture).
"I don't love talking about my personal life, but you try to stay connected with your audience," Kelly says. "We try not to be these little automatons who sit there and read the news."No Comment
Nearly three weeks after apologizing for having published a story based on fake FBI documents, editors at the Los Angeles Times are remaining silent.
After other media debacles -- Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Jack Kelley at USA Today, Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Janet Cooke at The Washington Post -- those responsible have eventually fielded questions about what went wrong. But even after last week's formal retraction of a story that accused associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs of involvement in the 1994 shooting of rapper Tupac Shakur, Editor Russ Stanton and his deputies have declined to grant a single interview with outside news organizations.
To their credit, Stanton, Deputy Managing Editor Marc Duvoisin and reporter Chuck Philips quickly apologized after the Smoking Gun Web site revealed the hoax. But the Times' own coverage has not addressed Stanton's degree of involvement or whether anyone has been disciplined. Would the paper accept such conduct from a government agency?
Pressed for comment, a Times spokeswoman released another statement in which Stanton said the paper "has taken this matter very seriously" and that the retraction and apology "speak for themselves."