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Megyn Kelly and the Problem With Being Conservative Media’s Most Elegant Talking Head

Variety logo Variety 1/3/2017 Sonia Saraiya
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For years, Megyn Kelly has been the one anchor at Fox News who is granted grudging respect. Partly this is because she is so different from her peers; where they are frequently graying or balding older men who seem to be frothing at the mouth, Kelly is a poised, still-young mother of three, sharply dressed, and strikingly beautiful. She deviates from mainstream assumptions about what a conservative is supposed to be like, which adds dimension to the network and to her own personal brand. Unlike her peers, she has crossover appeal — she is an all-American heroine, with a spotless, tranquil family life, roots in upstate New York, and a look that is always ruthlessly poised, as if a stray hair would signal the end of days. Her image projects an elegant refinement, a sense of class and poise, of traditional values. These are qualities Fox News hilariously lacks, when it comes to both the sometimes-seedy reputations of its anchors and the network’s splashy and outdated graphics and production.

Mostly, though, this is because Kelly is usually a remarkably poised host and anchor. Her image is merely a tool; Kelly’s talent is in knowing how to wield it. Conservative media beyond Kelly often resorts to cartoonishly intolerant statements about immigrants, Muslims, and the environment; in the Obama years, Fox News has been constantly on the verge of dissolving entirely into conspiracy and aggrieved outrage. Kelly is not the first pretty blonde woman to become a conservative heroine, but unlike Ann Coulter, Tomi Lahren, and Kellyanne Conway, who are each outrageous and/or despicable in their own ways, Kelly maintains a kind of rigor and poise that is not just about style, but about character. Integrity is hard to find in media, and even when you disagree with her — and there are plenty of things to disagree with her about, from black Santa to Black Lives Matter — it’s difficult to deny that her statements come from some kind of principle.

This principle has been enough to spur her criticism of GOP’s statements and stances on women’s issues. Kelly would not call herself a feminist, but she was one of the few journalists to hold Donald Trump accountable for his statements about women; her opposition to him was not about belief as much as it was about the more ephemeral quality of dignity, and how obviously the then-candidate lacked it. Fox News can be a monolithic political entity, but Kelly’s broken from them both politically and personally on some of these topics, leading to awkward spats with Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. And in the biggest accidentally feminist news of all, Kelly’s statement that Fox News CEO Roger Ailes had sexually harassed her was the final straw for his employers, leading to Ailes’ ouster in July 2016. Her defensive stance against both Trump and Ailes endeared her to mainstream viewers, but alienated her from her own viewership; following the Trump debacle, Kelly received death threats and had to hire security. That was when she began to look for work at another network: Her particular brand of refined conservatism no longer seemed to have a place at Fox News.

But it is unclear if Kelly’s shtick will have a place at NBC, either. Despite being a personality with mainstream appeal, Kelly’s brand is not a standalone one; her profile is contingent on being the sole sane person “over there.” She is to Fox News what Ivanka Trump is to her father’s political career — a sanitizing, legitimizing force, one that profits off of proximity while offering a veneer of respectability. It’s not a fantastic role to have, but it is a role, and one that has been very lucrative for her. But a persona developed entirely in the context of one of the most unusual media organizations in history doesn’t necessarily transplant well to new soil.

Especially because her move to NBC will be to two entirely new formats — a new daytime show to air on weekdays, as well as a new Sunday-night newsmagazine show. When Kelly was first trying to expand past Fox News, she wanted to emulate Barbara Walters; but the special she hosted for Fox primetime was a flop, both in terms of viewers and critical acclaim. This move to daytime resembles instead Katie Couric’s attempt to transition demographics — a transition which ultimately failed. Kelly is not a natural fit for daytime; her strengths are in being incisive, not welcoming, and she’s several degrees cooler than the warmth of hosts like Ellen DeGeneres. She might be a better fit for a Sunday newsmagazine, but Kelly’s not exactly a host, either; she’s at her best when she is drawing on her legal past to ask questions, engaging in conversations about the issues that matter to her. And though she probably could have been an excellent nightly news anchor, even she has been so partisan at Fox News that a more objective career might yet be out of reach.

The bet, on NBC’s part, is that Kelly’s comfort with the mantle of traditional motherhood and her ability to parlay that into conservative political commentary would make her a palatable choice for the primarily female daytime TV audience. This is quite a bet. Not only does it put enormous stock in Kelly’s ability to pivot audiences, but instead of a more conservative landscape, it frames Kelly in opposition to a far more liberal one; Oprah Winfrey and DeGeneres are two examples of entertainers from marginalized groups finding mainstream, longstanding appeal, and “The View” and “The Talk” both field panels with a diverse range of experiences. Fox News is a lucrative but specific bubble; NBC, and daytime television, are quite another. It is difficult to anticipate how a woman whose defining feature is how coolly she can keep herself separate from the riffraff of her network will make a mark in a demographic that talks about celebrity gossip over coffee mugs.

Difficult, but not impossible. Kelly is nothing if not determined, and NBC has a lot sunk into making this deal work. Kelly might find being outside the constraints of Fox News to be a freeing experience, too; perhaps without fears of reprisal from viewers and bosses, she might finally publicly state what her stance is on abortion rights. The question is really how much Kelly liked being in her unique position at Fox News; will she miss the constant murmur of right-wing conspiracy that gave her the biggest lead-in in cable news, or will she breathe a sigh of relief to finally be able to hear the world outside of the bubble?

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