Megyn Kelly is one of television news’s defining personalities — and her recent contract negotiations, ending with her reported move to NBC, were suffused with all the drama that tends to follow a star. It’s a splashy move from a figure who’s grown increasingly adept at staying in the public eye and at the center of many conversations. More than that, Kelly’s decision to leave Fox News seems canny. Her assiduously groomed image as an asker of tough questions — unafraid, most notably, to face down Donald Trump — ran too forcefully, into the buzz saw of the network’s ongoing repositioning for the Trump era. There was no other way forward.
To be clear, the move to NBC will provide Kelly with plenty of perks. The New York Times’ reporting indicates it is to come with an ambitious suite of programs, including a daytime show and a Sunday-night broadcast. But even if the author of Settle for More had settled for a bit less, it’d still be a win, as she extricates herself from a tricky spot at Fox. Kelly’s questioning of Trump during the first presidential debate placed her out of step with other powerful voices on Fox News before his election. Now that a news network that generally leans right will be reporting on a Republican White House, Kelly’s willingness to air both sides of the conversation seems not just provocative but out of step. And that’s leaving aside her allegations of assault by former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, which her fellow Fox News host Bill O’Reilly attacked her for in a CBS News appearance, saying she made the network “look bad.”
Tension between TV news personalities is hardly new — just ask Ann Curry — but there was something about Kelly’s stances that came to feel unsustainable at Fox News, a network that had already been roiled by Ailes’ turbulent departure. There was an ideological flavor to the O’Reilly-Kelly beef, as though Kelly’s advocacy for herself was simply unwelcome. And while Fox News has long made stars, Kelly’s tendency to become bigger than, and operate outside the established norms of her network came to seem like the sort of thing that wasn’t ever supposed to happen there. The network may be more multifarious in outlook than its most ardent critics allege, but a Fox News anchor getting in an argument with favored guest Newt Gingrich is not standard operating procedure. Nor is a star anchor hinting that a Republican presidential candidate may have been involved in a plot to poison her, as Kelly seems to do in her book (written before the election) and totally disavowed while promoting it (after). Kelly now sunnily indicates that everything between her and the President-elect is copacetic, even as her book tells a dark story of harassment and malfeasance.
It’s that reversal that indicates what Kelly has to gain by turning the page on her career on the front lines of ideological broadcasting. No one would argue that Kelly’s a liberal, but she was intriguingly able to bring nuance and shading onto a network whose viewers have come to expect red-meat political rhetoric. Booking Gingrich was the right choice, even if he was fundamentally opposed to Kelly’s right to ask the questions she was asking. How would a viewer base that supports President Trump deal with an anchor known as his bête noire?
Kelly’s unsuccessful one-night newsmagazine on Fox made clear she has wide-ranging interests beyond politics, and pursuing those in a venue in which she’s set up to succeed (with more resources, more time to work, and the question of her future settled) will provide her a chance to develop her viewership. But presumably she’ll remain engaged with the world of politics. And now she has room to maneuver.
The funny thing about her infamous debate question that set off her feud with Trump and seemed to presage her difficulties with colleagues was that it wasn’t actually that harsh. It was just, as Kelly so often found to be the case, harsh by the standards of Fox News. Kelly will no longer be the most aggressive interviewer in the room, which may indeed seem like a comedown for her. But leaving seemed, to any viewer tracking Fox News’ positioning itself as safe haven for the “deplorables,” was the only real option she had.