Victory for Megyn Kelly
As news spread of Megyn Kelly's move from her 12-year stint at Fox News to NBC News, what struck me was how eager everyone was to pronounce the change a Good or a Bad Thing when it is, at most, an Interesting Thing.
It's an epilogue to a long, ugly psychodrama at Fox News, and a weathervane for what news coverage promises to be at NBC. It's interesting, because Megyn Kelly and Donald Trump — enemies who reconciled over an interview until Kelly released details of his intimidation tactics in her book — will be colleagues at the same network. In an age of executive-producing reality television presidents, whether Kelly's move is good or bad seems quaintly and spectacularly beside the point. This isn't ethics, it's drama. And it sounds — to paraphrase Kelly herself — like great TV.
But what does it mean? Well, it certainly shakes up the TV news landscape, particularly its conservative fringe. Rupert Murdoch issued a statement wishing Kelly well, but losing their second most-watched personality had to sting — Fox reportedly offered more than $20 million to keep her. (Paired with rumors that no other network would match that offer, this has led to speculation that Kelly's reasons for leaving were not financial.) When Fox founder Roger Ailes was ousted thanks to allegations of serial harassment by Gretchen Carlson and many others, the big question in media circles was how Fox would transform in response.
Initially, it seemed this might herald a sea-change in how even conservative news treated women's rights and hostile work environments. But given Trump's victory — which suggested mistreating women wasn't the public relations disaster everyone thought — would Fox News stay the course? Or would it still try to become a less ideological, more serious journalistic outfit? Kelly, thanks to her popularity, her gender, and her willingness to challenge Trump (while her co-worker wooed him with milkshakes), was widely seen as crucial to that rebranding if it was going to happen. Kelly became an accidental barometer for how Fox News would react to a Trump presidency now that it was no longer under Ailes' control.
That Kelly is leaving suggests a Fox News rebranding is unlikely. The O'Reilly faction won. Kelly's replacement will define the network's aims going forward, but what's clear is that a struggle over how to deal with Trump has ended: Everyone except for Kelly seems to be of one mind. This no doubt gratifies the network's viewership; Kelly faced a huge backlash from viewers who resented her for being the sole Fox personality to question Trump and regarded his unhinged Twitter attacks against her as both justified and deserved.
This is the only point where it makes sense to me to label Kelly's move a Bad Thing. Kelly matters to the extent that Fox News matters, and Kelly may have been the last occasionally-dissenting voice on a network watched by millions of conservative Americans whose news ecosystem is growing narrower and stranger and more extreme. If this election has proved anything, it's that Fox News succeeded at a decades-long campaign to convince their viewership that every other source of news is fake. When you convince millions that you're the only source of truth and then remove that last dissenting voice, bad things can happen.
It's no secret that Ailes created an environment where loyalty was paramount; in her book and elsewhere, Megyn Kelly described him as a de facto king, and some of his subjects remain loyal to this day. Bill O'Reilly seems to have taken the network's scandals particularly hard. "I'm not interested in making my network look bad," he said when asked about the rampant sexual harassment that afflicted his female co-workers. On his show, he obliquely reproached Kelly for besmirching Fox's reputation: "If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance," he said. "You don't like what's happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave."
She couldn't go to human resources — that was the whole problem — but she deposed the king, and she left.
Is this something to celebrate? It seems to me value-neutral, and yet I feel the pull to have some kind of strong reaction to the news that this woman switched channels.
The reason, of course, is that Kelly became an astonishingly polarizing figure thanks to Trump's attacks on her during the presidential race — so much so that the circumstances almost force an affective response. (Unsurprising that she's the second most-watched personality on Fox, given how many people went to the trouble of seeking out her Facebook page just to tell her how much they never watch her.) Trump's unrelenting animosity toward her earned her some unlikely fans and some even less likely enemies. To be frank, I'm not sure I've ever seen anything quite like the ideological confusion the Kelly vs. Trump feud produced. Evangelicals were defending an adulterer who's as close to a modern-day Pharisee as we're likely to see, and liberals were championing a woman hell-bent on establishing that Jesus, like Santa, was white — and who objected to a black protester staring at a police officer, saying, "it's not a question of what his constitutional rights are! It's a question of what's appropriate."
These kinds of crossed wires seem to actually cause people to double down, as if to compensate for their doubts and reservations. Kelly activates "team" instincts on both sides, but it's useful to examine that point-hunting impulse whenever it crops up for a public figure. Is Megyn Kelly's move away from Fox to NBC a win for liberals who want Fox News to lose ratings? For conservatives who want more representation at NBC? For Trump supporters tired of Kelly's confrontational attitude toward their sacred cow? For feminists who believe Kelly to be secretly one of them?
No. It's a win for Kelly. Her book is titled Settle for More for a reason: She believes, firmly, in her own self-interest. The reasons she didn't reveal the ugly details of Trump's offers of gifts before election day — or his intimidation tactics, or Corey Lewandowski and Michael Cohen's threats — were financial. If boosting one's book sales by withholding information seems less ethical than opportunistic, her defense is that "we're under no obligation to report our own personal experiences just because we also happen to be journalists. In that regard, we're sort of half-private citizen, where it's up to us whether we want to reveal our personal stories."
An unconvincing defense, to be sure, but in this climate, it's hard to care — or to blame her. Look at what happened to every woman who accused Trump of something. Why not get paid to tell your story on your own terms? Yes, it would have been useful to know, before election day, that the future president was attempting to bribe journalists in exchange for positive coverage. My main takeaway from reading her book was: I wish we'd known. But Kelly contends, probably rightly, that it wouldn't have mattered. "I mean, do you think if the Access Hollywood tape didn't make a difference and the 12 female accusers didn't make a difference and the Khan family and Judge Curiel, none of that mattered," she asked Anderson Cooper, would an anecdote that he threatened her with his "beautiful Twitter account" really be a game changer? The difficult truth is: She's right.
So the scoreboard should read: Megyn Kelly wins, Fox loses, NBC takes a gamble. The rest of us are pretty much where we were, and the Good and Bad Things are off somewhere else, finding something more worthy of their time.