For anyone waking up out of a coma in 2017, the feeling must truly be like one of setting foot in an alternate, bizarro universe: Donald Trump is president; the CIA is a reputable source of information; and former Fox News and now NBC host Megyn Kelly is gaining a reputation as a well-respected journalist.
The deification of Kelly has been a long time coming, slowly but surely, as the now ex-Fox anchor dared to transgress more and more conservative norms on primetime television over the past few years. It has all culminated in Kelly’s shock announcement two days ago that she was leaving Fox News — the network that over the last decade nurtured her talents, gave her a national platform, and provided her with more than a fair share of unpleasant memories — to join NBC, becoming one of the few of the conservative network’s personalities to try make the leap to the same mainstream media despised by the channel and its viewers.
The seminal moment for Kelly’s gradual transformation into liberal media hero can probably be pinpointed to 2011, when Kelly, fresh from maternity leave, carried out a righteous takedown of a radio host’s labeling the paltry twelve weeks of unpaid leave mothers receive in the United States a “racket.”
Since then, Kelly has surprised viewers accustomed to Fox’s retrograde antics in other ways: she defended transgender people against a right-wing quack; took Mike Huckabee to task for his belief that women who swear are “trashy”; schooled Bill O’Reilly about white privilege and sexist language; grilled Dick Cheney on the Iraq War; helped bring down Fox CEO Roger Ailes over his serial sexual harassment; and, most importantly, earned the ire of Donald Trump when she questioned him about his use of derogatory language toward women.
Thanks to this, Kelly has lately ascended to the status of something of a feminist icon, becoming a media darling celebrated for her supposedly fearless work speaking truth to power.
The Boston Globe cheered that she would bring “attitude” to her new role at NBC. Variety wondered if she wasn’t perhaps the next Barbara Walters. Vanity Fair called her a “newly minted role model for women” and “a conservative champion who transcends politics with her skilful skewering of windbags of both parties.” Katie Couric sat down with her for a session of mutual back-patting that began with a prelude stating that Kelly had “taken on Donald Trump, championed women’s rights, challenged the Republican Party.”
It’s not that Kelly doesn’t deserve credit for taking these stands. No one would deny she deserves praise for challenging fact-allergic conservative dogma, particularly when it comes to the Right’s warped view of women.
But the praise heaped on Kelly for her eleventh-hour embrace of some feminist ideas — and for her meager adoption of some other concepts favored by the Left—is incredibly outsized. More importantly, it threatens to overwrite the many years Kelly has spent spreading noxious, ugly and sometimes downright fraudulent beliefs from her platform at Fox News.
Building the Kelly Brand
It’s not unusual for journalists to talk about Megyn Kelly’s “brand.” In fact, the more cynical among us might even view Kelly’s late-era turn away from conservative orthodoxy as at least somewhat part of a wider brand-building exercise as she takes her career to the next level. So it pays to ask: what has Kelly’s “brand” been for most of her reporting career, prior to this?
At Fox, Kelly spent a decade perfecting a style of journalism that could be described as one-two punch of bug-eyed, right-wing outrage and contemptuous, sarcastic dismissal. Along the way, she has championed some of the Right’s most damaging and irresponsible myths, provided an uncritical platform for a who’s who of right-wing kooks, and consistently—and often wrongly—backed the perpetrators of state violence.
More than any other, the subject of race is where Kelly has consistently displayed views that should disturb anyone remotely left of center. Viewers with a keen memory might remember Kelly’s 2010 headfirst dive into right-wing conspiracizing when she joined the Fox News pile-on on the “New Black Panther Party,” a small, fringe, racist and separatist group that has no connection to the original Black Panthers.
The NBPP’s claim to fame rested on a video that surfaced in November 2008 of two of the group’s nightstick-wielding members patrolling outside a Philadelphia polling station in military-style gear (and eventually being made to leave by the police), prompting full-blown conservative hyperventilation about widespread voter intimidation. Despite the fact that no similar incident was ever reported anywhere else, Fox News spent months magnifying the story, with Kelly one of the chief culprits.
Over one two-week period, Kelly devoted 45 segments adding up to more than three and a half hours to the subject, according to figures from Media Matters. It’s worth noting that Kelly did this while she was still part of the theoretically “fair and balanced” news section of Fox News, rather than its opinion wing.
Kelly’s race-baiting has not tamped down more recently. In 2015, she directed her righteous outrage at the Obama administration over its plan to diversify neighborhoods, citing nameless experts to call it “the most radical, politically explosive change President Obama has attempted” and “social engineering of the worst kind.”
She waved away the racist emails found in the notoriously racist Ferguson police department on the basis that “very few companies” in America have no racist emails. (Perhaps she was just extrapolating from her experience at Fox.)
These are mere drops in an ocean of dubious, racist statements by Kelly, which have included her insistence to children watching her show that “Santa just is white” (which she later tried to claim was a joke), that “Jesus was a white man too” (he wasn’t), and her calling a Michelle Obama speech about the First Lady’s experience with racism an example of America turning into a “Cupcake Nation.” All of these incidents happened as Kelly was making her pivot away from conservative crank to beloved truth-teller.
Kelly’s dismissal of what her nemesis, Donald Trump, might term “political correctness” goes hand in hand with a reflexive defense of state violence.
When a video emerged in 2015 of a policeman in Texas pointing his gun at a group of black teenagers who had the gall to attend a pool party in a majority white neighborhood, with the officer eventually throwing one girl to the ground and handcuffing her, most people were disgusted. Kelly, however, ever the fair and balanced anchor, made sure to stress that “the girl was no saint either,” because “he had told her to leave and she continued to linger.”
After an officer casually pepper-sprayed a group of peaceful UC Davis protesters in 2011, Kelly allayed any concerns her viewers might have had about the incident by explaining that pepper spray is “a food product, essentially.”
Kelly’s championing of right-wing fantasies like the rise of the NBPP has real world effects. Her work on the NBPP was just one of a number of stories on supposed voter fraud, which found frequent expression in Kelly’s assault on the now-defunct community activist organization ACORN.
The organization was attacked by the Right during the 2008 election after a number of investigations of its employees were launched over voter registration fraud, as well as the release of a deceptively edited “sting” video launched by conservative huckster James O’Keefe purporting to show ACORN employees involved in illegal activity.
Kelly brought ACORN’s national spokesman on her show, whom she asked if the organization was planning on sending “child rapists” to conduct the Census, and proceeded to repeatedly conflate “voter fraud” and “voter registration fraud.” (One is making up people to cast extra votes for a candidate and illegally sway an election; the other is making up people to pretend you’ve done work and get paid, and has no effect on the ballot box.) She also gave O’Keefe, a well-decorated fraud, and his partner in the fake “sting” tape multiple friendly appearances on her show.
Kelly kept this up, inviting far-right racist Michelle Malkin (a frequent guest) on her show in 2010 to talk about what Kelly called “voter fraud on a massive scale with the intention of keeping Democrats in office.” Malkin proffered that “we are all voter fraud police now.”
Even though only thirty-one out of 1 billion ballots cast in the last sixteen years have been found to be fraudulent, the willingness of pundits like Kelly to give the fake phenomenon credence has helped conservatives around the country pass various voter suppression laws—the same laws which, ironically, may have helped sweep to power the man liberals now fawn over Kelly for “taking on.”
Her willingness to treat the misleading ACORN “sting” video with credulity can’t be written off as an isolated incident. As late as 2015 — less than half a year before Kelly’s flattering Vanity Fair profile — Kelly was giving prime air time to what might be termed “fake news,” in this case the misleadingly edited Planned Parenthood “sting” videos, complete with a head-shaking Kelly furrowing her brow in pained concern. The doctored videos were then used as the basis for an all-out right-wing assault on the organization.
This brings us to another point: Kelly’s supposed feminism has been wildly overstated by news outlets eager to turn her into a hero for her mild deviations from the Fox party line.
For one, Kelly herself still refuses to call herself a feminist, believing it connotes “a shrillness that I find unattractive.” And Kelly has repeatedly advanced positions that by any measure are anti-feminist.
Take the famous moment of Kelly excoriating her guest for his opposition to maternity leave. As the Daily Show pointed out at the time, Kelly had spent most of her on-air career prior to her pregnancy disparaging “entitlements” and even appeared to mock the idea of men getting parental leave — an issue she quickly shifted on when it affected her personally. A year later, Kelly dismissed audience debate questions about contraception and equal pay for women as “obvious pandering to women.”
Kelly repeatedly mocked women like Sandra Fluke who called for coverage of women’s contraception, claiming they were portraying themselves as “victimized.” In a moment of unparalleled cognitive dissonance, however, around that same time she told off Mike Huckabee for derisive comments about contraception, saying that “it’s not about seeing women as victims, it’s about getting them the medical coverage they need.” Women are “the ones who have to carry the babies,” she explained, “and by the way, sexual beings, and therefore, to be responsible when having sexual relations they need birth control.”
In another segment, Kelly provided this bit of sage life advice for young women: “Don’t sleep around! Don’t be easy! It’s not empowering, it’s embarrassing! You will be the butt of men’s jokes! You won’t be respected.”
Kelly’s disapproval of female sexual empowerment predictably didn’t extend to herself. When Donald Trump criticized her for a GQ photo shoot she had participated in years earlier, she rightly struck back that she wasn’t ashamed.
Besides this, despite Kelly’s reputation for supposedly “skewering windbags of both parties,” she’s often used her show to give a platform to various right-wing extremists without challenge.
Other than O’Keefe and Malkin, Kelly ran several segments on conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary America: Imagine the World Without Her. D’Souza — who believes his 2014 felony conviction of campaign finance fraud was personally directed by President Obama, a man who in D’Souza’s eyes is motivated by “anti-colonial” rage — was allowed by Kelly to expound on his views with no criticism, with Kelly at one point asking him to elaborate on the idea that progressives “guilt people into thinking — and shame them about success and wealth” in order to “justify policies that tap into that wealth.”
This is a consistent pattern with Kelly. She’s cited Ann Coulter’s nativist, anti-immigrant tome Adios, America in her broadcasts as backing for Trump’s anti-immigrant comments. She has frequently featured anti-gay bigots on her show as “experts,” at one point avoiding asking the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins about his comparison of homosexuals to terrorists and his endorsement of a Ugandan homosexual death penalty bill when explicitly challenged to do so.
In an interview with conservative wingnut and soon-to-be CIA director Mike Pompeo, Kelly allowed him to make statements that the United States has “got to take the Arab-Muslim world to task,” and that “the ideology inside of this Islamic world, it just cannot exist like this,” without a single challenge.
Apart from this, Kelly subscribes fully to going after the typical conservative bugbears. The only thing that appears to obsess Kelly more than the New Black Panthers is Obamacare, which Kelly has produced story after story after story attacking.
In memorable segment, Jon Stewart pointed out the dishonest nature of Kelly’s reporting on Obamacare, which involved interviewing just four seniors (one of which appeared to have received her talking points from Fox) to demonstrate health care reform’s supposed unpopularity. It also saw Kelly consistently cite polls saying the American public didn’t want Obamacare, even as other polling suggested otherwise, and not long after Kelly herself warned her viewers not to trust polling when it favored an Obama election win (all deeply ironic, given that Kelly would later receive plaudits for asking Karl Rove if he had simply made “math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better”).
In another segment, where Kelly welcomed Ben Carson to the Fox team, Carson claimed that Lenin “said socialized medicine is the keystone of the arch to the socialist state” because “it gives you control of the people,” to which Kelly replied simply: “It’s a serious question.”
In another case, Kelly ran a segment called “Robbing Our Youth,” stating: “Our officials seem incapable of cutting spending, reining in entitlements or making the choices that promote stronger economic growth.”
She approvingly played a clip of Fox contributor John Stossel mocking elderly recipients of government assistance: “I’m going to take this. And — no, no. I’m the old person. I need this. You have to take care of me. I want it. It’s mine.”
Tepid Encounters with Reality
All of this is just a small sample of the questionable-at-best ideas Kelly has used her career at Fox to advance over the years.
Kelly’s more recent work doesn’t inspire much optimism either. For all her newfound status as a crusading truth-teller, Kelly’s much-hyped one-on-one interview with Trump was a flop, with Kelly barely challenging the then-presidential contender on his various odious views and policies and using a significant amount of the running time to instead humanize him.
More recently, Kelly released a tell-all book that, aside from covering her awful treatment by Trump, his team and his supporters, detailed how Trump offered her and other reporters favors — read: bribes — which some journalists accepted, a newsworthy tidbit that Kelly didn’t reveal until Trump was safely in the White House and her book was due to come out.
When asked by NPR why she decided to hold the information back for her book instead of reporting it at the time, Kelly replied that Trump’s “offerings to [her] were none of anybody’s business” and that “I’m under no obligation just because I’m a journalist to reveal anything about my personal life.”
Whether or not Kelly was intending to or not, she appears to have hit on a perfect formula: Conspicuously criticize one high-profile right-wing figure; get away with providing a sympathetic ear for legions of others. Adopt a few liberal talking points; get away with airing all kinds of retrograde views and falsehoods.
Megyn Kelly deserves sympathy for the various ordeals she experienced, both at Fox and from Trump. And she has come around to reality in a number of areas. But that deserves only the faintest amount of praise. If the media is looking for feminist heroes, there are plenty out there who, unlike Megyn Kelly, haven’t built their careers on peddling right-wing racist conspiracies and elevating cranks.