Michael Marsicano

Can Megyn Kelly Escape Her Past?

Fox News’s former star has downplayed her full role in an ugly election.

Fox News was founded in 1996, when the entertainment impresario and conservative political consultant Roger Ailes acted on a pair of insights: that most people found television news boring and that a significant number of conservatives didn’t trust it to represent their interests and values fairly. The TV producer in Ailes saw a marketing niche, and the political operative in him saw a direct way of courting voters. Rupert Murdoch owned the network, but Ailes was its intellectual author. In the two decades since, the network has thrived without legitimate competition of any kind. It has proved to be a big tent, sheltering beneath it some excellent reporters but also a collection of blowhards, performance artists, cornballs, and Republican operatives in rehab from political failures and personal embarrassments. With the help of this antic cast, the Fox audience has come to understand something important that it did not know before: The people who make “mainstream” news and entertainment don’t just look down on conservatives and their values—they despise them.

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By 2010, the network had become so popular that—according to Gabriel Sherman’s biography, The Loudest Voice in the Room—Ailes added a new goal to the mission: the election of the next president. The team did its best for Mitt Romney, but he lacked both the ability to excite crowds and the blood instinct necessary to “rip Obama’s face off” in the debates, which Ailes believed was essential for victory. Almost as soon as the election ended, Fox News went back to work on the mission, emphasizing a variety of themes, each intended to demonize the left. At the top of the list was the regular suggestion that Barack Obama was an America-hating radical, an elaboration of Glenn Beck’s observation (on Fox) that the president had “a deep-seated hatred for white people.” Other themes included the idea that straight white men were under ever-present threat from progressive policies and attitudes; that Planned Parenthood was a kind of front operation for baby murder; that political correctness had made the utterance of even the most obvious factual statements dangerous; and that the concerns of black America—including, especially, those of the Black Lives Matter movement—were so illogical, and so emotionally expressed, that they revealed millions of Americans to be beyond the reach of reason.

There is zero evidence that Fox was motivated to help Donald Trump over the other Republican candidates, although in retrospect he seems almost the dream candidate of the new agenda, embodying all the signature Ailes moves, right down to ripping off his opponents’ faces and threatening reporters. (“How would you like it,” Ailes once asked the journalist Kurt Andersen, if “a camera crew followed your children home from school?”) We will never know to what extent Fox created or merely reported on the factor that turned out to be so decisive in the election: that to be white and conscious in America was to be in a constant state of rage.


In the middle of all this, feeding clips of ammo into the hot Fox News machine, was Megyn Kelly. To watch her, during one of her interviews on the subject of race and policing, interrupt a black guest to ask her whether she’d ever called white people “crackers” was to see Kelly in action, fired up and ready to go. In some respects, she was an independent actor at Fox, with her own show and ultimate control of its editorial content. But she was also a cog in something turning, and what the great machine ultimately produced was President Donald Trump.

But a funny thing happened as the election season unfolded. Kelly—the darling daughter of the conservative network—began to change before our eyes. She took on some of the most powerful Republican men in the country, including Newt Gingrich (“You know what, Mr. Speaker? I’m not fascinated by sex. But I am fascinated by the protection of women”); Roger Ailes (“I picked up the phone and called Lachlan Murdoch: ‘You need to get your general counsel on the phone’ ”); and Donald Trump himself (“You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals”). Over the summer she joined a group of vocal Hillary Clinton supporters—Lena Dunham, Emma Watson, Kerry Washington, Eva Longoria, and others—to take part in a Sheryl Sandberg initiative called Lean In Together (its name suggestive of Clinton’s own “Stronger Together” motto) that was dedicated to some vague vision of a female utopia.

And she published a best-selling memoir, Settle for More, that buffs away her long history of strongly argued and often principled conservative opinions and emphasizes her handful of progressive ones, packaging herself as an independent. The book never once mentions that the network she worked for is a platform for conservative ideas. Writing a book about a career at Fox without mentioning its conservative agenda is like writing a book about a career at the Vatican without mentioning its Catholic agenda. Kelly, it seemed, was cleaning up her record. Why? The answer came in January, when she announced her big new job at NBC.

That Kelly should have ended her tenure at Fox not just bullied by Trump but threatened by some of his deranged followers (she had to bring an armed guard with her when she took her children to Disney World last spring) falls somewhere between a dark irony and a sick statement of where we are in the year of our Lord 2017. That she should chart a path forward while downplaying her full role in an ugly election that helped fuel her rise hardly marks her as unusual—many on the right are eager to blur the norm-breaking excesses of the recent past. To judge by Kelly’s cover-her-traces strategy, her trajectory also conveys another message: Making the crossover to a major network requires a conservative to change her stripes, which is one reason why so many Americans have lost faith in the mainstream media.

Megyn Kelly arrived at Fox at age 33, in 2004, with almost no experience in the field. As a teenager, she had not heeded her mother’s warning that “they don’t give scholarships for cheerleading.” She was popular, boy-crazy, obsessed with her weight, and the shining star of her high-school sorority. She had hoped to attend the fabled Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, but she whiffed the SAT and got rejected. She didn’t turn her back on the “planned pursuits” she had enumerated in her high-school yearbook: “College, government, and wealth.” She enrolled at Syracuse, majored in political science, and fell in love with a lax bro who knew how to encourage this fatherless daughter to be a winner. “You got this, little girl,” he would tell her when she set out to claim another prize.

Kelly decided to go to law school so that she could become a prosecutor “and be respected.” But once again she came up short, rejected this time by Notre Dame, so she packed up her aerobics leggings and Tri-Delt T-shirts and headed back to her girlhood bedroom and the Albany Law School, where a frenemy told her people were calling her Barbie (“Shove it up your ass,” Kelly said when she’d had enough: problem solved). She loved moot court, where she discovered she liked “being ‘on’ in a room”; she also spent too much money and ruined her credit. Public service was not going to put her right with the collection agencies, so she set her heart on Bickel & Brewer, the firm that pioneered “Rambo litigation”:

At twenty-three years old, I loved it. Kill or be killed! We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to win! You sue my client? F— you and your request for an extension! You want a settlement conference? Pound sand! Our offer is screw you!

After a decade in the trenches in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., making bank and cruising toward partner, Kelly had a little talk with herself: “I am more exciting than this!” she wrote in her journal. “I am more interesting than this! I am more interested than this! I need more out of life!” What she needed, it turned out, was to leave the law and become a TV news reporter. She bought a killer Dolce & Gabbana dress and made a demo tape. (“Only you would spend a thousand dollars to interview for a job that pays seventeen thousand a year!” her first husband said playfully, unaware that he was soon to be moved into the I am more interesting than this! category.) Sure enough, the dress, the tape, and the moxie got her a job moonlighting with Washington’s local ABC affiliate, and soon she was making a run at Fox News, the only major news network that actually prefers to hire reporters with little or no journalistic experience. In short order, she was in Roger Ailes’s office, making a case for herself.

As she tells it, one of the first questions Ailes asked her was “how the daughter of a nurse and a college professor understood anything other than left wing dogma.” She replied that although she’d been raised in a Democratic household, she had always been apolitical. She got the job. “He wasn’t looking for a Republican reporter,” she writes. “He just wanted someone who was open-minded.” More accurately, he wanted people who hadn’t been tainted by the left-wing media machine, so they could be trained in the attitudes and opinions the network had been founded to advance.

Ailes taught Kelly how to adjust her on-air personality for maximum effectiveness, an area of expertise in which he is without rival. (He is the person who suggested that Richard Nixon warm up his image by touching Pat more often when they were on camera together, a small price to pay for bombing Cambodia to his heart’s content.) His signal advice to her was “to not try so hard to be perfect” all the time on air, and to allow herself to show “who I really am”—perhaps not exactly the counsel he had offered Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or Bret Baier, but la difference is big at Fox, and she followed along. Kelly learned to be more playful on camera, to crack herself up and not take herself so seriously when she flubbed a line. She developed a bantering rapport with regular guests, even those she evidently disdained, like Al Sharpton. She leavened her big-city style by developing a series of folksy nicknames for regulars. She called Sharpton “Rev” and Mike Huckabee “Gov,” and (surreally) she called Cornel West “Doc,” as though he’d just ambled over to the front porch on Hee Haw with his medical bag.

Ailes was her boss—the unchallenged “king” of Fox News, she has called him—but Brit Hume, who had come to Fox from ABC during the new network’s first year, was her ideological father. Kelly writes that when she first entered the ambit of Hume and his wife, Kim (then Fox’s Washington-bureau chief), she felt “like little Orphan Annie seeing the mansion for the first time.” She was determined to work with them, and the pair became “actively involved in my development.” Kelly learned to seek Hume’s approval above all others’. Brit Hume is a deeply accomplished, very smart, heart-on-his-sleeve conservative. He is also a Christian who has said he has committed his life to Christ “in a way that was very meaningful.” This one fact alone might be enough to freak out many more-conventional journalists. (After the election, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times, made an astonishing confession about his newspaper: “We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives,” by which he meant that the paper doesn’t get the role of Christianity in people’s lives—something Fox understands deeply.) Kelly’s own father, who died suddenly when she was 15, was a devout Catholic who had “considered becoming a Christian Brother” before marrying, and often encouraged his children to think of what Jesus was like “as a man.” Hume—authoritative, partisan, religious, and besotted with Kelly in a deeply affectionate, paternal way—taught her the ropes, and maintains that her rapid rise at Fox was because “she believes in our mission.”

Kelly is an unbelievably talented broadcaster—smart, funny, quick-witted, and able to handle a bit of fluff with as much zeal as she tackles a serious story. There can’t have been anyone more telegenic in the history of the business. Her understanding of the legal aspects of news stories and her tendency to conduct interviews as hostile cross-examinations (“Stay in bounds!” “I’ve already ceded the point!” “Don’t deflect!”) made her a riveting journalist-entertainer, the Fox ideal. She moved up quickly through the Fox ranks. Starting as a general assignment reporter, within two years she was co-hosting a show with Bill Hemmer, “America’s Newsroom,” on which she evinced her signature political stance: free-market enthusiasm combined with Nixonian law-and-order conservatism. “Enjoy prison!” she would call out after showing a video of an especially inept criminal enterprise.

She popped off the screen—fun, sexy, tough—and became popular not just with conservatives but also (in the mode of a guilty pleasure) with many progressives, including her sometime nemesis Jon Stewart, who once said she was his favorite Fox personality. She boldly waded into waters that the mainstream news outlets wouldn’t go near. Some of her set pieces—unpacking the liberal cant about the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, for example—were sensational bits of theater. One night she went into a rant about the new federal guidelines on college sexual-assault adjudication: “Once you are accused, you’re done,” she shouted, speaking up for male students. “You can’t have a lawyer in there representing you, and the rules say, ‘Don’t allow the accused to cross-examine the accuser, because it could be intimidating and threatening for her.’ Well—she might be a liar! She might deserve a little intimidation!” It was harsh, it was politically incorrect as hell, it was antifeminist (women who report rape might need to be intimidated?)—and within it was a desperately needed kernel of pure truth, some “cool water over a hot brain,” as she has described her style of truth-telling.

But Kelly’s rise to national attention, in 2014, featured a different sort of spectacle. She conducted her career-making interview with Bill Ayers, a co-founder of the Weather Underground, whom Fox never expected to land as a guest and whom Kelly calls “the gift that kept on giving.” In Settle for More, she describes the background to that exceptional event this way: “During the 2008 election, it was reported that Barack Obama launched his career in Bill Ayers’s living room. That was a little inflated. They were both in Chicago and in the same social justice circles, and Ayers had a cocktail party for the then aspiring politician.”

That’s a fair enough assessment of the situation, even sounding vaguely like something you’d hear on MSNBC—“social justice circles”! But for a stark contrast to this measured opinion, go look up the original interview. “Professor Bill Ayers admits to terrorizing this country, bombing buildings, and committing other crimes during the 1970s,” Kelly says by way of introduction, “and he got away—scot-free. Because this is America, he wound up as a college professor who even helped a president launch his political career.” Then—without any explanation or context—an old John McCain ad plays. To the accompaniment of Exorcist-style music, images appear on a devilish red-and-black background, and a creepy female voice says, “Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers … Friends. They’ve worked together for years … But Obama tries to hide it … Why?” In between segments of the interview, Kelly reminds us of the “launching” of Obama’s campaign in Ayers’s living room, and says she will ask Ayers an important question: “Will he bomb America again?”

Not likely, given that he was a 69-year-old grandfather at the time, the classic tenured radical working on his TIAA-cref retirement account more than on his violent manifestos; Kelly looked liked she could have reached across her glass desk and bench-pressed him if she’d wanted to. But the premise for hauling this old lefty out of mothballs, shaking him awake, and interrogating him was to remind viewers how dangerous he—and by implication Obama—was to the country, so the question had to be raised.

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The spectacle strengthened the Fox objective of undermining the Obama presidency by suggesting that he was someone akin to Ayers, whom Kelly described as sounding “like Osama bin Laden” at one point and as “like Hitler” at another. But there’s nothing about that in her book, nor is there any mention of her emotionally laden reporting on abortion, which often features luminous sonogram images of “babies” in utero. After the Center for Medical Progress released its sting videos of Planned Parenthood meetings on the handling of fetal organs, she interviewed her mentor Hume about what to make of them. He explained to her that “when you wrest from the woman’s womb this little human creature and kill it, that’s not a tidy little minor ‘procedure,’ really. That’s the taking of a human life.” Kelly has often said that her feelings on abortion are private and unknown to the public. But you can clearly see from her show that, at the very least, abortion after the 12th week horrifies her. In this, as in so many other regards, she is a conservative. Why, to ask a classic Megyn Kelly question, does the topic go all but unmentioned in her book?

More important, why has she left her vigorous—and much discussed—interviews about the Black Lives Matter movement out of Settle for More? In her memoir, she observes that Fox News anchors are frequent targets of unfair accusations of racism. That bothers Kelly, who regularly and appreciatively hosts black conservatives on her show. But to see her segments on Black Lives Matter—which first aired as the primaries were getting under way and continued until the general election itself—was to see how Fox often stirred up racial anger among its viewers, a kind of anger that was crucial fuel for the Republican outcome Roger Ailes so desired.

When Kelly was a litigator in high-stakes lawsuits, she learned a skill of the trade: taunting her adversaries until they snapped. “I might say something passive-aggressive just to get opposing counsel mad,” she writes. “And then when he got worked up about it, I would say calmly, ‘You seem upset. Do you need a break? We can take a moment if you’d like to step outside and get yourself together.’ ” She became “an expert in making them lose their cool.”

She brought this technique to her most contentious interviews on Fox, often generating more heat than light, while also getting a fair share of electric moments. But in her regular application of it to black activists, she contributed to an ugly mood that was the hallmark of Fox all last year: one of white aggrievement at a country gone mad, led by a radical black president supported by irrational black protesters who were gaining power. In regard to Black Lives Matter specifically, Fox anchors wanted to know why so many in the movement continued to invoke the names of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray when police officers in those cases had been exonerated. This was a fair question, and one politically volatile enough that the mainstream media largely steered clear of it. (CNN famously promoted the “Hands up, don’t shoot” narrative before there was any evidence for it.) But the way Kelly went about seeking answers—often by applying her “make them lose their cool” approach—was disturbing.

She invited the comedian and radio host D. L. Hughley to her studio to discuss the shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota in July 2016. After he was seated at the glass desk, she turned first to do a surprise interview with one of her favorite Fox News contributors on race and policing issues: Mark Fuhrman, the former Los Angeles Police Department detective—and enthusiastic collector of Nazi memorabilia—whose racially charged past proved so central in the O. J. Simpson trial. That he should be one of Fox’s paid consultants on these topics is a telling comment about the network. He told Kelly that Castile’s girlfriend, who had described the shooting in a live Facebook video, was a liar. When it was Hughley’s turn to talk with Kelly, he was understandably a bit stunned by what had just transpired. “I think it was interesting to hear Mark Fuhrman, who was actually—got in trouble for perjuring himself, calling somebody a liar,” Hughley said. “It’s ridiculous to me.”

“Mmmhmm,” Kelly said, ignoring the point. They talked a bit about the case, and whether or not the girlfriend was credible. Kelly compared the incident to the Michael Brown case, and began almost shouting at Hughley: “ ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was a lie, and Michael Brown was the aggressor.”

Hughley looked down at the desk, obviously restraining himself from saying something he’d regret. “Wow,” he said mildly, countering her furious tone with a controlled one. “Don’t ‘Wow’ me,” Kelly said angrily. Why was she so angry at him? It was never clear; she just seemed to be trying to get him to bite back, and she continued pushing him on Brown, raising her voice in the manner of an outraged teacher letting a class clown have it. Hughley said that Fox didn’t acknowledge racism. “That’s insulting,” she told him sharply, and gestured toward the camera. “You’ve just insulted millions of people watching this channel.”

“And you know what? I’m insulted by the things I hear on this network, so we’re even,” he said. “I could care less about insulting people who insult me on a daily basis.” At the end of the segment, Kelly thanked Hughley crisply and then rolled her eyes at the audience: This is what we’re dealing with.

According to Settle for More, Kelly’s great moment of racial awakening took place when she watched the black receptionist at her law firm cheer the O. J. Simpson verdict. She writes that the moment “opened my eyes to the reality that two people can see the exact same facts and come to vastly different conclusions.” She says this insight made her “check” her own “bias” in her reporting.

During the Republican National Convention in August, sitting in a skybox awaiting a speech by the black conservative sheriff David Clarke, she introduced her TV audience to Malik Shabazz, the president of Black Lawyers for Justice and a former president of the New Black Panthers Party. Shabazz is a radical—an anti-Zionist who believes that Jews dominated the Atlantic slave trade and were involved in the 9/11 attacks, he is in a sense far more radical than Bill Ayers—but Kelly did not tell the audience that. Nor did she tell them that she had had Shabazz on her show in the past. The two proved useful to each other; he got to go deep behind enemy lines to spread his theories, while she got to show her audience members a black man who really does hate them. But to the casual viewer, he seemed like merely another Black Lives Matter supporter, no more or less extreme in his views than D. L. Hughley.

Within two minutes, Kelly was speaking to him in her raised, angry voice—and she got him. “Your attitude is part of the problem,” Shabazz told her. “You believe that your lives are better than ours.” She told him it was hard to take him seriously; he told her—in a low, careful voice—“Oh, take me very seriously.” “So there’s no reasoning with you,” she said.

He made some points that might have enlarged the discussion, had Kelly been interested in hearing them. “This type of campaign which promotes racism and division,” he said, “it’s going to create more police who desire to kill us.” Kelly wasn’t going there. “Do you believe that white people are inherently evil?” she suddenly asked, reading from notes. “Do you use the term cracker to refer to white people? … Did you say we should kill every G-damn Zionist in Israel? That their G-damn little babies, that old ladies should be blown up?” No one familiar with Malik Shabazz would be surprised by these statements, but Kelly knew she had fodder for an audience that had come to revile the Black Lives Matter cause. She scolded Shabazz for taking “antagonistic positions when it comes to white people as a group,” and sent him on his way, another dangerous black man among millions.

This was Fox News last spring and summer and into the fall: a place where black guests were always a few prodding questions away from telling the audience what they really felt about whites, and a place where white hosts were quick to defend other members of their race from unfair accusations of bias. These tactics were integral to the network’s mission: to get conservative ideas out there, to help elect a Republican president, and to make exciting television while doing it. Kelly proved adept on all fronts.

Fox News can turn a nobody into a star—but only of a certain size. You can’t become a Katie Couric or a Diane Sawyer or a Barbara Walters at Fox, so Megyn Kelly is off to the big time, which will crush her. NBC is not going to let her roll her eyes at black activists, or tell her audience that Santa is white, or hector a Planned Parenthood supporter with a horrified “Where’s your humanity?” Her recent adoption of Sheryl Sandberg–style “you go, girl” feminism isn’t going to help her either. There are only so many uplifting reports on workplace mentoring you can file before sleepy viewers start clicking around. The reason Kelly was so great at Fox is that, unlike just about every other woman to be called this, she actually is a badass. Settle for More aside, she’s spent her career really not caring if you think she’s a racist or a pro-lifer or a bully. She’s a strong, strong woman—but she won’t be one at NBC. She’ll be like everyone else.

No matter, it’s still the honeymoon. Kelly has been approved for general consumption by The New York Times (“unlikely feminist heroine”) and Vanity Fair (“feminist icon of sorts”). She gave an interview to Terry Gross in which she sounded not like Fox’s avenging angel but like a good liberal, saying that she was concerned about the “relative lack of power of certain minority groups and the fear they’re feeling in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.” She had a brief badass moment soon after that, at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast, where she told the audience she had “high hopes” for Donald Trump, and that there was “much to admire about the man.” But the Women of Hollywood booed her, and Kathy Griffin flipped her the bird. They’ll get her in line. And who knows? Maybe all this time she was just a gun for hire. If so, she took some very cheap shots over the past few years. And she hit the target.