Megyn Kelly’s Original Sin

The host, now leaving NBC, claimed that her morning show would be apolitical. It was a convenient act from the beginning.

Phillip Faraone / Getty for Fortune / The Atlantic

When Megyn Kelly launched Megyn Kelly Today, in late September 2017, the host made a great show of how apolitical NBC’s new show would be. “The truth is, I am kind of done with politics for now,” Kelly informed the audience, at home and in her soft-lit, blond-wooded, fresh-flowered studio, her tone managing to be confessional and conspiratorial at the same time. The assembled crowd roared with approval. “Right? I know!” Kelly said, gaining buoyancy as, line by line, she discarded the heavy mantle of political responsibility. Kelly shifted, first person to second. “You know why!” she continued. She shifted again, first-person plural: “We all feel it. It’s eeeverywhere. It’s everywhere.”

Kelly, in that introductory episode, wasn’t merely professing her new apolitical agenda, shedding Fox’s bulky stole in favor of a new and more modern wardrobe. She was also cleaning house. She was undergoing a willful and cheerful conversion ritual, on national television. In her laughter at the notion of “politics” as a practice was distilled a broader effort—made by Kelly herself, and by the network that had brought her on as part of its brand—to absolve Kelly of certain elements of her own extremely political past: all those Fox-friendly arguments she’d made about white Jesus, about white Santa, about Michael Brown, about Sandra Bland, about Mark Fuhrman, about the “thug mentality,” about the black teen girl who had been manhandled by police at a swimming pool in McKinney, Texas, being “no saint either.” Her long history of I’m just asking questions here provocations related to race: That’s politics, Kelly suggested last year as the crowd cheered and the flowers bloomed and that which was old was made new again. Megyn Kelly, erstwhile prosecutor, had professed her innocence.

Life, like a soft-focused morning show, often operates on a tape delay. It would take just over a year, it would turn out, for the absurdity of Megyn Kelly Today’s founding proposition to come to its full fruition. Earlier this week, Kelly, leading what was meant, apparently, to be a timely and lighthearted segment about Halloween costumes, wondered aloud, to a panel of fellow white people, what was so wrong, really, with white people incorporating into those costumes … blackface. “But what is racist?” Kelly mused, just asking questions, claiming that when she had been growing up, such a thing was, “as long as you were dressing like a character,” perfectly “okay.” (Megyn Kelly, for the record, is not 150 years old.) Kelly went on to mention the Diana Ross costume that had been donned last year by Luann de Lesseps, one of the Real Housewives of New York. (De Lesseps, Kelly perhaps had not realized, later apologized for the costume.) “I don’t see how that is racist on Halloween,” Kelly said. “Who doesn’t love Diana Ross?”

For this, Kelly was swiftly condemned. (Not, however, by her fellow panelists, white people all, who, while apparently taken aback by the turn the conversation took, proved themselves either unwilling or unable to explain the cruel history of blackface to Kelly or her audience.) Things moved rapidly from there. On Wednesday, members of the cast of House of Cards announced that they would be canceling a scheduled appearance on Megyn Kelly Today. The same day, news reports began claiming that NBC would be ending Kelly’s show—a cancellation that had been in the works, apparently, before the blackface conversation—and transferring the host to a more news-oriented role at NBC. Later that day, news broke that Kelly and her agent had parted ways. On Thursday, reports leaked that NBC, rather than reassigning Kelly within its news division, had in fact severed all ties with her. Another bit of reporting came with the rest of it: Megyn Kelly, despite and to some extent because of the casual racism she had aired to a national audience, may be receiving a $69 million payout.

None of it, from the shrugging racism to the golden parachute, comes as a surprise. Nor does the fact of the ways-parting itself. Yes, Andrew Lack, the chairman of NBC News, went out of his way this week to talk about how inappropriate Kelly’s comments were (“I condemn those remarks”; “very unfortunate”); yes, NBC Nightly News featured a discussion of the comments on its evening air; yes, the Today show featured an even more extensive one on Wednesday morning; yes, NBC employees gave interviews to media outlets expressing their own disdain for Kelly’s comments.

These, too, for NBC as a network, are performances of innocence. The overriding fact of the matter, after all, is that Kelly’s tenure at NBC has been a failure, by pretty much any measure but especially the one that network executives have been conditioned to care about: the commercial. Kelly’s first venture at NBC, the prime-time interview show during which she gave airtime to Vladimir Putin and Alex Jones, faded, quietly, into television oblivion. The ratings for Megyn Kelly Today have been notoriously lackluster; the show never found its footing. That’s in part because the Megyn Kelly of Today never seemed to figure out how to be friendly to audiences without seeming, at the same time, faintly condescending to them. It’s also because politics exist even in spaces that have been insistently deemed “politics-free.”

And yet NBC—there is a creaking inevitability to every element of this—is now trying to get ahead of the story that happens to be, once again, about itself. It is attempting to frame Kelly’s departure as a matter of morality rather than a matter of money. (I condemn those remarks. Very unfortunate.) And, thus, the network—the one that reportedly restrained Ronan Farrow’s reporting about Harvey Weinstein; the one that reportedly held onto the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump until they were leaked to The Washington Post; the one that protected Matt Lauer; the one at which, per one recent report, many more sexual harassers “thrived”; the one that hired Megyn Kelly, knowing very well what it was buying—has this week gone through its own ritual of attempted public conversion. NBC, too, is apolitical, the network is suggesting on its own behalf, as it reportedly prepares to pay Kelly a massive sum to take her act elsewhere. It, too, is innocent. After all, couldn’t the newscaster who insisted that “Santa just is white” have changed her attitude, under NBC’s warm influence? Can’t a tiger change its stripes? NBC, too, was just asking questions.

Here is another question, though: What if, when Megyn Kelly wondered aloud why blackface is bad, her ratings had been high? What if she had been a darling of advertisers? What if she had proved better able to return on the massive investment NBC had made in her, and for her? Here is the answer: NBC would very likely, right now, be selling a line about the relatability of Megyn Kelly’s confusion—about how so many Americans have more to understand about their shared history and shared culture, about the ways Kelly’s questions, innocent if ignorant, represent, in the end, a learning opportunity for all. Megyn Kelly, right now, would very likely be undergoing another time-honored American ritual, this one anchored in the sweeping demands of celebrity: the solemn ceremonies of “moving on.” Apology, forgiveness, forgetfulness—the prodigal daughter, returned to 30 Rock once more.

In an essay considering Kelly’s tenure at Fox published shortly before the debut of Megyn Kelly Today, my colleague Caitlin Flanagan observed one of Kelly’s signature rhetorical moves, as she played the role of a no-nonsense TV prosecutor. In her more hostile interviews, Flanagan observed, Kelly would repeatedly provoke her guests, steadily escalating, poking and prodding, until, sometimes, the guests would break, losing their temper and/or their ability to keep a straight face on national television. Kelly, meanwhile, would present herself, in the exchange, as the calm one, the cool one, the collected one, the correct one—the one who had enough distance from the topic at hand to be rational about the whole thing. The one who, uniquely—within the particular confines Kelly herself had created—held claim to reasonability.

This strategy was another way to manufacture innocence. It was another way, as well, to impersonate the apolitical: It’s easy, after all, to stay calm about a conversation when you’re not personally invested in its outcome. It’s easy to stay cool when it’s all just a performance. But news, whether it’s airing in the evening or the softly lit morning, is more than a mere show. And American life, whether in Congress or on Facebook or in the stadium or in the restaurant or on TV talk shows that chat about Halloween costumes, is inherently political. It is deeply and stubbornly and constitutionally political. To deny that is to confuse innocence with ignorance. Politics, as Megyn Kelly cheerfully declared in her Today debut, is “eeeverywhere. It’s everywhere.” The problem, now as always, is when it’s more “everywhere” for some people than others.