Media

Inside the Megyn Kelly Phenomenon: Right-Wing Snarls and Sexy Smiles Add Up to Monster Ratings

Kelly's combined 2.5 million viewers are beating CNN and MSNBC combined; can her toxic mix of beauty and hate make it in the long haul?

Every intern, cameraman and anchor at Fox News knows one thing is true: no one ever went broke mongering white fear. Selling the idea that brown people are coming to get your stuff—whether it's your presidency, your kid’s rightful college slot, your medical insurance or the true racial identity of Santa Claus—has always been Fox's calling card. Over the years, that has proven to be a remarkably successful marketing strategy. But never has it been so winningly packaged as in the brand called Megyn Kelly.

Since its debut in October at the 9pm slot, "The Kelly Files" has killed in the ratings, raking in an average of 430,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic advertisers crave most. Her 2.5 million viewers are more than the combined averages of CNN, MSNBC and HLN in the same time slot. She’s been pulverizing Piers Morgan and Rachel Maddow. Variety last month observed that Kelly is “doing something extraordinary.”

Until last week’s no-black-Santa (and no-black-Jesus) remark, Kelly seemed to be crafting a career trajectory zooming her beyond the Foxbot brand and into mainstream television. Before she signed her last contract, Roger Ailes was quoted worrying that other networks would snag the 43-year-old lawyer-journalist.

There was talk of a possible future at GMA and "The Today Show."

“We’d love her to stay here and be even a bigger star,” Ailes said at the time. “I’d be stunned if she wanted to go to any other cable channel. That’s a real dive off a high cliff. If somebody wanted her to host The Today Show or something, she’d have to look at that, I suppose.” According to Brian Stelter, Kelly spoke with CNN, “which was very interested in hiring her,” and her reps sought a meeting at ABC.

The question that now must be on her agent’s mind is whether the no-black-Santa comment torpedoes that potentially rewarding mainstream career path. It all depends on whether Kelly’s viewers recognize the comment for what it was: the live-television version of a smiling horror movie pod-person cracking open to reveal the lizard within. And then, of course, it depends on whether those same fans secretly like the lizard.

Blonde, sleek and sassy, with publicity shots of herself supine in black silk, Kelly is visually a typical Foxbot. When she won the primetime slot, Stephen Colbert made a joke of switching the faces of Kelly, Greta van Susteren and Gretchen Carlson from under one blonde helmet to the next. “Fox is bringing in some fresh blood and not just for Rupert Murdoch’s wine cellar!” Colbert joked.

But Kelly brought elements to her career that elevated her above her peers. Like van Susteren, she’s a lawyer by training. Early on, she put those skills to to use as an “investigative” journalist, famously “revealing” that Obama’s Justice Department was soft on black radicals. Like Ann Coulter she knows how to harness the power of a sassy quip delivered from inside a black halter top. And, she’s managed to brand herself as a Palin woman, rejecting “interest group” feminism, proudly flaunting three on-air pregnancies while snappily shooting down neanderthals like Lou Dobbs and right-wing blogger Erick Erickson on women’s proper roles in society. She’s useful in branding Fox for women. As Alyssa Rosenberg noted on ThinkProgress after Kelly excoriated Erickson about women being genetically made for housework:

“The Republican Party as a whole may draw accusations that it’s fighting a war on women, an impression aided by a lot of male politicians who show a decided implication to chow down on their own shoe leather. But Fox News can use Kelly’s defense of working mothers, and of maternity leave, as proof that it isn’t utterly beholden to the least competent elements of the party with which it often finds itself identified.”

For a tough-talking professional woman to survive and thrive on the right, she must be careful always to give lip service to the joys of motherhood even if single, and if a mom, exude satisfaction with domesticity. Kelly’s Twitter profile reads: “Happily married to Doug, crazy in love with my children Yates, Yardley and Thatcher and anchor of the Kelly Files.”

Her half-a-million-plus Twitter followers can have no idea how truly happy or unhappy that home life is, with husband Doug, a former IT security company executive now bricked up in the mansion as a stay-at-home dad and novelist. His first novel sank like a rock, and Kelly rather scandalously interviewed him about it herself. 

If Kelly plays fast and loose with the rules, she can do so because she knows their limits. Born and raised in upstate New York, with a law degree from Albany, she put in 10 years at the mega-law firm Jones Day, representing credit agency Experian, that faceless wall of bureaucracy and trove of personal data collection. She’s connected and knows how to use her connections. When she married Doug, the New York Times covered the wedding but mysteriously omitted all mention of her first marriage, which ended in divorce. Asked about the omission—since the paper never covers marriages without mentioning prior nuptials—the paper said it was just an oversight.

Kelly combines a little actual news sense—disagreeing with Karl Rove on his bad Ohio call in the 2012 election; being the first broadcaster to call Virginia for Terry McAuliffe last month—with the Fox standard, sowing fear and suspicion with a smile and Chiclet teeth. She purveys a slightly more presentable version of the urban legends that frightened white people email to each other, about brown people who place baby carseats on the side of the road and lie in wait in the woods for well-meaning travelers who stop to investigate, or bad guys lurking in suburban mall parking lots waiting to jump into your car.

Her chief claim to fame in the investigative department was tracking the “New Black Panthers” and endlessly recycling a spurious claim that this shadowy if not mythical outfit was planning to violently suppress white voters. According to Media Matters, she devoted 45 segments—three and a half hours of air time—to the New Black Panthers over two weeks, churning the story which then was picked up and amplified by the radio frothers.

She found a disgruntled ex-DOJ Republican to claim Obama's DOJ gave a pass to Black Panther depredations against whites. At the time, she had an afternoon slot called "The Kelly Factor," primetime for priming the fear pump on stay-at-home mothers. In Kelly's interview ex-DOJ employee and GOP activist J. Christian Adams alleged the Department of Justice wouldn’t prosecute black people for voting crimes. “Do you believe that the DOJ has a policy now of not pursuing cases if the defendant is black and the victim is white?” Kelly asked. Adams replied: “There’s no doubt about it.”  

Even her fellow Foxbot Kirsten Powers called her out on that story, accusing Kelly of "doing the scary black man thing."

She’s also reliably anti-immigrant. In 2010, she went to town on a story about how immigration groups were trying to get reporters to exchange the terms "illegal aliens" and "illegal immigrants" in favor of "undocumented immigrant." Kelly compared that request to criminal defense lawyers asking reporters to rebrand rapists as "non-consensual sex partners." 

"You could say that a burglar is an unauthorized visitor. You know, you could say that a rapist is a non-consensual sex partner which, obviously, would be considered offensive to the victims of those crimes," Kelly said. "So how far could you take this?"

Last week’s comment about black Santa and black Jesus was only the clarified essence of the Kelly “brown people are coming to get you” brand. “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” Kelly said at the time. “But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But Santa is what he is.”

She continued: “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know? I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa—I just want the kids watching to know that.”

Two days later she offered not an apology but an explanation: She was making a joke and the humorless, possibly envious left didn't get it.

“I offered a tongue-in-cheek message for any kids watching,” she explained. “Humor is a part of what we try to bring to this show, but sometimes that is lost on the humorless. Many questioning whether I understand that Santa is a mythical figure, others suggesting that I am a racist who is outraged at the idea of a black Santa. Well, this would be funny if it were not so telling about our society, in particular the kneejerk instinct by so many to race-bait and to assume the worst in people. Especially people employed by the very powerful Fox News channel.”  

The pretty deliverer of ugly messages is nothing new in the television age. In Videocracy, documentary filmmaker Eric Gandini made a study of the use of pretty woman by the Berlusconi media empire during the last several decades. “In Italy you get the feeling that this cultural banality has been a tool to destroy democracy,” he told me in an interview. “It's not a question of ideology, it's a question of lack of values, lack of morality. Italy has become a country where words don't work anymore. 'Videocracy' means the power of the image. … Impressions are much more valuable than truth.”

In America, that now-salty dog in a black cocktail dress, Anne Coulter, long ago proved the bankability of the lithe, red-meat-tossing, right-wing blonde. A sharp, pretty woman willing to provoke and arouse for ratings will always attract the attention of the networks, eventually. But black Santa will be the test of whether the Megyn Kelly brand of racial provocation makes it across the shrinking divide between Fox and the mainstream. Does she go Hasselbeck or Coulter? Coulter’s more fun, Hasselbeck’s more money. The decision may not be hers to make now.

Nina Burleigh has written for the Washington Post, Rolling Stone and New York magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaburleigh

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