This post has been updated with Nielsen ratings and Kelly's response to Trevor Noah.
If there was an upside to being the target of constant berating by Donald Trump, it was this: For nine months, Megyn Kelly was virtually unassailable by her media colleagues.
In coverage of the Aug. 6 Republican presidential debate, when Kelly asked Trump about the many insults he has hurled at women, she was depicted as a bold crusader, even by journalists and news outlets that don’t often praise Fox News Channel personalities.
“Megyn Kelly grills Donald Trump over sexist comments,” declared a headline on the liberal ThinkProgress. Peter Beinart, a liberal writer for the Atlantic, tweeted mid-debate that Kelly was “killing it.”
And as Kelly maintained her composure through wave after wave of Trump fury, the plaudits continued. A profile in the February issue of Vanity Fair included glowing remarks from some of her peers.
Prominent female journalists from rival networks can’t help but praise her uncanny charm. “She doesn’t talk down to her audience,” says Campbell Brown, who hosted her own prime-time show on CNN and now leads a nonprofit in education. ... ” Jessica Yellin, a former chief White House correspondent for CNN, says, “She defies all the pigeonholing that usually happens to women on TV. She’s smart, strong, sexy, fierce, sympathetic all at once.”
Veteran newswoman Katie Couric praises her dogged interviewing skills, crucial when interrogating dodging politicians. “She takes no prisoners and takes no BS,” says Couric.
On “The View,” even Hillary Clinton lauded Kelly as a “superb journalist” (though the likely Democratic presidential nominee still declines to appear on “The Kelly File”).
But as Kelly and Trump appeared to put their nasty — largely because of Trump, we should note — feud behind them in an interview that aired on the main Fox network Tuesday night, the 45-year-old lawyer-turned-journalist’s status as a media darling appeared to disappear.
In the Los Angeles Times, TV critic Mary McNamara was brutal: “Megyn Kelly didn’t ask Donald Trump to headline her Fox special ‘Megyn Kelly Presents’ so she could pin him down on foreign and domestic policy issues, or even confront him about the months-long troll attack he launched after she dared question him during the first Republican debate about his penchant for misogynistic language. No, she invited him to costar in an hourlong infomercial for her new book.”
In the New Yorker (headline: “Megyn Kelly’s guide to surrendering to Donald Trump”), Amy Davidson mocked the Fox host’s remark that she had always imagined the billionaire candidate mean-tweeting her while wearing a “crushed velvet smoking jacket.”
“Crushed velvet may not have been what Trump was wearing, but it is a fair description of Kelly’s questions,” Davidson wrote.
The Post's Hank Stuever had a similar view.
Greeting her viewers from what appeared to be the bridge of a spaceship made of nutrition-free marshmallow, Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly made an awkward and unimpressive landing with her first hour-long interview special Tuesday night on the Fox network. “Let’s just dive right in,” she said, and then proceeded to never dive into much of anything, even during her ultra-hyped interview with Donald Trump, the presumed Republican presidential nominee.
Other journalists tweeted their disappointment.
It's not fair to say Megyn Kelly threw Trump softballs. That would imply her Qs were substantive, but soft. All she threw was airballs.
— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) May 18, 2016
This Megyn Kelly interview of Trump is so bad and so soft that if I were Fox News I would worry about CNN trying to poach her.
— Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) May 18, 2016
Way too easy on him! Donald Trump Talks of ‘Great Respect’ for Megyn Kelly in First Sit-Down Interview https://t.co/tTlASTnOv4 via variety
— Claudia Eller (@Variety_Claudia) May 18, 2016
Even fake journalist Trevor Noah, host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, lamented that the interview wasn't a "bloodbath."
"Megyn Kelly, I don't get it," Noah said. You spent months lambasting Trump for his sexist comments, and now you're just laughing it off? I can't believe this."
Kelly sarcastically offered her gratitude for Noah's advice on Thursday.
So grateful I have men like @Trevornoah 2 advise on how to deal w/gender attacks- I'm sure his life experience far better than mine on this!
— Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly) May 19, 2016
At least the ratings were good. “Megyn Kelly Presents” averaged 4.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s almost double what “The Kelly File” draws on most nights.
It’s worth noting that the sit-down was taped roughly two weeks ago. Pressing Trump on current events wouldn’t have made much sense because the questions and answers might well have been outdated by the time they aired.
And anyone who expected Kelly to shred Trump for his conduct toward her must not have been paying attention to the policy of non-engagement she has followed since his rhetorical assault began last summer. An angry altercation would have made exciting television, but it would have been wildly inconsistent with Kelly’s previous conduct.
What’s more, Kelly seemed to view Tuesday's interview as a bridge to other — presumably newsier — interviews in the future. She told People magazine earlier this month that her private meeting with Trump on April 13 and the subsequent interview was “a chance to sort of clear the air and get back on solid footing so we could go forward, I hope, in a more positive way. And perhaps he'll come on ‘The Kelly File’ from time to time.”
In other words, Kelly believed there could be no hard-hitting interviews on her prime-time show (which Trump was boycotting) without repairing their professional rapport first. Some of her journalistic colleagues clearly didn’t like her conciliatory tone — or her plugging of a new book — but her goal in a pre-taped, Barbara Walters-style special didn’t appear to be drawing blood. And if anything, the negative reviews might be attributed to unrealistic expectations and way too much hype — we documented all of it here — for an interview that was never going to make a ton of news in the 2016 campaign.
The real test of whether Kelly has actually gone crushed-velvet soft on Trump might be the next interview, not the one we just saw on Fox.