She spent more than a decade honing her prosecutorial voice at Fox News. Now her apolitical morning show, Megyn Kelly Today, is struggling to stick
One year ago, Megyn Kelly was on top of the world. Her nightly Fox News program The Kelly File had briefly unseated The O’Reilly Factor at the top of the ratings. The host had begun – despite a 12-year tenure at the network of Roger Ailes – to ingratiate herself with conservatives and liberals alike. She even seemed, for a moment, impervious to the fickle nature of newscasting: the critics who excoriated her history of racially insensitive remarks would just as easily anoint her a feminist firebrand for her takedowns of Newt Gingrich and Anthony Weiner. With a forthcoming memoir and contract negotiations looming, she was in pole position. But Kelly was, to hear her tell it, unhappy; being an enemy of Donald Trump’s can have that effect.
So she went to NBC, which offered her $18m a year to host a morning show. For someone who made her name first as an attorney and later as a clinically pugnacious anchor on Fox, the bait-and-switch to airy, apolitical morning programming came as a surprise. On The Kelly File, sandwiched between the bitter broadsides of O’Reilly and the conspiracies of Sean Hannity, she seemed like a graceful outlier on a network of abrasive dogmatists. NBC, then, was perhaps convinced that since Kelly stood up to Donald Trump’s misogyny, most famously at the GOP primary debate, she had a kind of rare crossover appeal: one part soccer mom to one part school principal.
Fast-forward several months, when Kelly’s stint at NBC began in June with a Sunday Night news magazine show. Her interviews with Vladimir Putin and Alex Jones were not quite the train-wrecks they were perceived to be, but they didn’t display any journalistic prowess either. The show was cancelled two episodes before its finale, and NBC hoped her morning program would have better luck.
But Megyn Kelly Today, which kicked off last month with a monologue from its host (“I’m kind of done with politics for now”), was greeted with a lukewarm critical reception and satisfactory but hardly world-beating viewing figures. If Kelly once deftly employed her skills as a prosecutor to pick apart foes like a roadside corpse, she now spends her mornings talking about the season’s best fabrics – velvet – or whether one should be best friends with their spouse (hint: Kelly is). Watching her, one gets a strong sense of claustrophobia; without a desk to sit behind and guests to interrogate, she seems stifled. The show is, to put it kindly, a profound misuse of her talents, and it makes one wonder how NBC thought Kelly a shoo-in.
The answer has as much to do with Kelly as the inflammatory environment she’s attempting to flee. Her transition to morning programming proves that in 2017 one can’t be an enemy of Donald Trump’s while remaining above the political fray; it’s a lesson Nordstrom, Jemele Hill and Miss Universe contestants have had to learn the hard way. Moreover, it’s an unfortunate fact of the country’s polarization that once the president tweets angrily about someone, they become both a faux-torchbearer for the resistance and a token adversary of the Trump faithful.
But perhaps Kelly’s greatest folly was how swiftly she expected a new audience would embrace her. If the 46-year-old planned to move to NBC and retain her conservative fanbase, she underestimated how much that fanbase has been subsumed by Trumpism and, therefore, Trump’s disdain for her. If she thought that by switching to a more liberal network she might acquire new fans, she must have forgotten that, at her old network, she used chunks of airtime to insist the death of Eric Garner had nothing to do with race. Even as she appeared considerably more grounded than her Fox News colleagues, Kelly still dutifully adopted the network’s twisted pedagogy.
Watching Megyn Kelly Today, one can so clearly see its host attempt to expunge that past self. She says, repeatedly, that she isn’t a political person, wasn’t raised in a political household, and was dismayed, throughout 2016, at how darn political everything came to be. (“Politics has become like race, you can’t talk about it at all,” she told Ellen Degeneres.) That Kelly spent over a decade ginning up anger over both politics and race is, apparently, a moot point.
All of this, one might argue, is external to the show itself. But as far as morning hosts go, Kelly is no Katie Couric or Kelly Ripa. Those hosts possess the ease and affability audiences seek out in the morning. But where Couric is warm and Ripa jubilant, Kelly performs bad versions of both warmth and jubilance, talking often with her hands and coaxing guests the way she did at Fox. When interviewing celebrities, too, Kelly tends to bungle the delivery. “Do you feel well in the body you are in or have you been a victim of the body shaming that we do to everybody in the country?” she asked This Is Us star Chrissy Metz, who politely explained how the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
That’s not to say Kelly hasn’t had her moments. The first real triumph of Kelly’s morning show came this past week, when she had a segment on Bill O’Reilly’s $32m sexual harassment payout and his statement that no one at Fox ever complained about his conduct. Kelly knew that to be false, since she herself emailed Fox co-presidents about O’Reilly’s behavior last November. What followed was a forceful rebuke of her old colleague and a quietly moving monologue on “powerful men and the roadblocks one can face in taking them on”.
Excerpting the email she sent to Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, Kelly was back in her element, reverting to an appropriately earnest and withering cadence. It’s a posture that comes naturally to her, having investigated sexual assault cases in college and, in stark contrast to other Fox News anchors, addressed Trump’s Access Hollywood tape on The Kelly File. In the last few weeks she’s given a platform to several victims of Harvey Weinstein’s, too. Her skillful navigation of the topic only makes it more bewildering that she considers morning TV her true calling.
Megyn Kelly Today is evidence that it’s not, despite how sick and tired of politics Kelly claims to be. Her stint at NBC thus far amounts to a sly-but-unsuccessful bit of revisionist history – images of Kelly’s bellicosity are too firmly etched in our brains – and it’s hard to imagine the show surviving for much longer despite the company’s massive investment. But if morning programming is indeed the last bastion of culture not inundated by politics, Megyn Kelly isn’t exactly the host you want to have coffee with.