NBC News’s Megyn Kelly is making a swift tumble from the upper reaches of American television. In a crisis precipitated by her pro-blackface remarks on Tuesday morning, the morning host appears ready to split with her employer, if she hasn’t already done so. She did not tape a live edition of “Megyn Kelly Today” on Thursday morning, as the network aired a rerun: “Happy Friday,” she said.
But maybe Kelly wasn’t all that to begin with.
After NBC hired her to do a bunch of things — a morning show, a Sunday night newsmagazine, other stuff — Chairman Andy Lack said, “She is a great journalist, I didn’t invest in her because of her ‘star power,’ Megyn Kelly is a serious journalist, her work on Fox commanded attention because of who she was interviewing, how she was interviewing them, and the information she was getting every night on that broadcast. She wanted to do a broadcast with broader audiences that only we on a broadcast platform could provide.”
So Lack and company equipped her with a contract that paid her $17 million or $23 million per year, depending on the report. Fox News had reportedly dangled an annual salary in the $20 million range to retain her services.
Surely Lack & Co. now wish that Fox News and its moguls at 21st Century Fox, James and Lachlan Murdoch, had been more persuasive. In just a year and a half, Kelly has become a divisive figure within the network, a status that surely owes something to her hefty salary and unproven bona fides as a morning-show personality. The TV-covering media bashed her early shows, sometimes unfairly, though Kelly provided several openings. She has rankled colleagues and bosses with her pointed remarks following the sexual harassment allegations involving Matt Lauer and others. And she advocated for an outside investigation of how network brass fumbled the investigation into Harvey Weinstein, which Ronan Farrow started at NBC News — a journalistically sound and perhaps internally unpopular stance. Through it all, she has won little in the way of deference from her colleagues, who bashed her without restraint over her ignorance about blackface. Jacob Soboroff, who participated in the Tuesday panel about Halloween costumes, tweeted:
Just how bad have things gotten? The network has covered Kelly’s blackface comments on the “Today” show and “NBC Nightly News” as if the utterances had issued from the mouth of the president, not some 9 a.m. television host.
Another problem: Ratings for “Megyn Kelly Today” have been lackluster.
So what’s the broader issue at play here?
Fox News, that’s what. Over her high-profile run as a host on the No. 1 cable-news network, Kelly earned a reputation as a relatively up-the-middle interrogator/personality. Whereas other prominent hosts at Fox News, particularly the “Fox & Friends” crew and Sean Hannity, coddled their ideological soulmates, Kelly had tough questions for them. She pressed Dick Cheney, she embarrassed Newt Gingrich and she shamed conservative colleagues for sexism. These cable-news moments became cultural moments by virtue of their having surfaced on the otherwise rigidly conservative Fox News. Who would have thought that such a platform would allow truth-telling of this sort?
Of course, self-counter-programming is something of a staple at Fox News, a part of the business model. Consider the contemporary role of Shepard Smith, the wonderful afternoon news anchor who, day in and day out, essentially fact-checks the work of the craven Fox News opinionators and shows. His program is an oasis of fact and reason — and his presence on the lineup thwarts sweeping and simplistic characterizations of Fox News content.
But even so! Kelly’s news sensibilities are the product of more than a decade at Fox News, where she’d started in August 2004 as a general assignment reporter. That’s a lot of news cycles to soak in the ethos of Roger Ailes, the Fox News founder who ran the network as a grooming organ for Republican candidates and a seedbed for conservative ideas and conspiracy theories. While Kelly did indeed conduct many excellent interviews at Fox News, she also — as has been widely noted again in the aftermath of her blackface comments — turned in racially offensive work, including the well-publicized comments about Jesus and Santa (they’re white, kids!), the hyping of voter-intimidation charges against members of the New Black Panther Party and other moments. With the support of her colleagues and Ailes, Kelly had no trouble weathering the outcries that followed these moments.
On the other hand: Had any of those instances occurred under the roof of NBC News, the backlash would have resembled what we’ve witnessed this week. Colleagues would have rage-tweeted; management would have scrambled; apologies would have streamed from the organization. Maybe NBC News executives determined that those Fox News scandals were aberrations, that Kelly wouldn’t pack those sensibilities with her when she moved into her office at NBC News. Whatever the case, they made a mistake. “I didn’t focus on what the Fox sensibility is versus what the NBC News sensibility is,” Lack said after Kelly’s hiring. “I did want to know that I thought she would fit into the NBC culture.”
She clearly did not.
Some mistakes by media executives are excusable; others are not. Into the latter category drops Lack’s lack of skepticism regarding Kelly. Not only did he fail to appreciate that pushing boundaries on race is a grand tradition at the cable-news network, but he also was apparently impressed with the audience she had mustered in her prime-time role there. However: Fox News is the “plug-in” network, as this blog has often called it. The genius of Ailes and Rupert Murdoch was to create a programming conceit targeting an entire population of Americans, a conceit that spread across the network’s lineup. Loyalty goes more to the brand, the channel, than to this-or-that anchor. That’s why Kelly didn’t bring her audience with her to NBC News.
And it’s also why Fox News has done just fine in the ratings even after the departure of Kelly, one of the medium’s most deft and agile hosts.
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