Megyn Kelly’s Inevitable Downfall

The onetime Fox News star was never going to succeed as a network morning-show host.

Megyn Kelly
Mike Segar / Reuters

Scarcely 24 hours after stepping on a land mine that she herself had planted, news broke that Megyn Kelly had recently parted ways with her agent, Matt DelPiano of Creative Artists Agency. It wasn’t exactly sporting, because that guy was the hardest-working man in show business. He’s the one who got her $23 million a year for doing a job she’d never done before, and at which she was clearly going to flop. Anyone who’s spent any time watching network morning shows (warm) and Kelly’s Fox News program (cold) knew it would be a disaster. Tone was only one problem. As I wrote last March, NBC was inevitably going to squash what was original about Kelly—a kind of badass conservatism matched with an obvious and quick intelligence—decide that the new version was a bore, and then let her go. The question was: When?

The tactic the network employed is time-honored: As soon as NBC tired of her (which was soon after realizing it had overpaid), it let her destroy herself, and then claimed credit for taking the high road of firing her for the exact kind of racist comment it had decided to overlook when it hired her.

At Fox, Kelly was a uniquely talented broadcaster. Her politics were in line with the network’s, and she had free rein to be as confrontational as she wanted. Before going into television, she had been a prosecutor, and that was how she conducted interviews with people she didn’t like. One of her tricks was to repeatedly bait her guests until they lost their temper, and then to respond with great calm, making the guests look unreasonable. She exuded an excellent kind of TV energy: intense, hyper-focused, always ready to surprise. And then there was her beauty: cold, unapproachable, half Hitchcock blonde and half what Bill Ayers called her after his disastrous interview. Most of all, what was on display was her intelligence, which was riveting to watch. Rachel Maddow reads a script, uninterrupted; Don Lemon shoots fish in a barrel. Megyn Kelly conducted live sparring matches with smart opponents, and no matter what they said, she was ready for it.

How in the world was she going to make the transition to the sunniest corner of morning television, where she was to have her own hour? By uploading some new software. Over two ghastly days last September, as Kelly launched her new show, she let us know that she had logged off her Fox account and signed into NBC.

Standing alone on a bare stage, the woman who’d had several complex interactions with the future president announced, “The truth is, I am kind of done with politics for now.” She said the truth was that “I was missing too much of myself.” Which would somehow be resolved by hosting a morning chat show and adopting a new mission: “to deliver hope and optimism and inspiration and empowerment.” At the end of the episode, she brought a nun onstage and gave her a giant gift card to Ace Hardware so that she could continue her good work. It was like she’d read The Feminine Mystique backwards. Or maybe it was just a testament to what people will do for $23 million a year—money that quickly became a questionable investment for NBC. Her ratings were never great and the nighttime newsmagazine that was part of the deal flatlined after a few episodes, never to return.

And then, this Tuesday, came the Halloween-costume remark. It was so short that it was really just a sentence. “But what is racist?” she asked the white guests whom she’d invited on to discuss Halloween costumes. “Truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface at Halloween,” she said in the tone of someone discussing the absurdities of PC culture. And then—as this line of thinking always does—a complaint about the present morphed into a reminiscence about the arcadia of the recent past, her own childhood. “Back when I was a kid, that was okay, as long as you were dressing as a character.”

I’m 10 years older than Kelly. It would have been inconceivable for a child to trick-or-treat in blackface. How could an extremely plugged-in Manhattan media person not know that this was a bizarre thing to say?

It fits into a pattern. At Fox News, she addressed any kids watching with jolly Christmas news: “Santa just is white,” she said.

At Fox, Kelly also had a habit—apparently a crowd-pleasing one—of asking controversial black guests onto her show ostensibly to discuss some anodyne subject, and then in the middle of the interview, suddenly confronting the person about some other topic in an aggressive way, possibly as part of her tactic to throw them off guard. In an interview with the comedian D. L. Hughley, he was surprised by the venom of her assertions. “Wow,” he said mildly, to which she snapped—with real anger—“Don’t wow me.”

Pause now to remember that NBC hired her in full knowledge of her Fox News race-baiting and decided it wasn’t a problem. Ratings über alles.

If she had made the remark about the costumes on Fox News, she probably would have been fine. If she’d made it at the beginning of her time at NBC, the network probably would have helped her make amends. But NBC is tired of Kelly. She’s expensive and her star power is gone. Her comments about blackface were a subject on NBC Nightly News; it seems that her colleagues have also had enough of her. Variety has reported that she was recently in talks with the network about ending the show at the end of the current season and moving into some kind of news job. Now even that might not happen.

Perhaps—a long shot, because people don’t pay you $23 million a year to keep your options open—she will be accepted back at Fox. If so, she can drop the earnest pose of helpfulness and abandon learning about the history of the term blackface. At Fox, she can achieve the objective of every morning-show segment ever produced on the subject of how to be happy and popular and successful: She can be her authentic self.