When the news broke Tuesday that Megyn Kelly was leaving the Fox News bubble to pursue a broader audience at NBC, my initial thought was: Who cares? Talking heads frequently switch networks, and Americans increasingly get their news not from TV, but from social media sites.
But Kelly’s imminent move is huge because it’s Kelly. The very fact that NBC covets her polarizing “brand” is vivid evidence of how profoundly the broadcast media has changed since the kinder, gentler era of Uncle Walter Cronkite.
Back then, long before cable news and the Internet, the TV anchorman (always a man) was broadly and implicitly trusted across the political spectrum. In the words of journalist-historian David Halberstam, the anchorman “represented in a real way the American center ... a mass figure who held centrist attitudes for a mass audience.” But today, the mass audience has been fractured and narrowcasted to the point where it’s difficult to locate even a shrunken American center.
Years ago, a commercial network would never have pitched an eight-digit annual salary to someone like Megyn Kelly, whose every utterance infuriates millions of viewers. But in the current environment, NBC is fine with hiring someone who declared on air (in 45 segments) that the New Black Panthers were a major public menace, and that it was “a verifiable fact” that Santa Claus and Jesus were white (Santa is fictional, and scholars say that Jesus was of Mediterranean stock and looked like today’s average Palestinian).
It’s noteworthy that after the news of her hiring broke yesterday, Kelly’s Facebook page was flooded with denunciations from both ends of the spectrum. That’s de rigueur for any anchorperson in our wildly disputatious nation ---- Uncle Walter would be shocked ---- but even more so for Kelly. Left-leaning critics called her a front of right-wing disinformation, and attacked NBC for rewarding her. But right-wing critics called her a fake conservative who’d sold out to the enemy.
Many in the conservative camp have long been mad at Kelly. They fumed when she questioned Donald Trump, during the first Republican debate, about his misogynist history; when she told Newt Gingrich that he needed to work on his “anger issues”; when she confronted Dick Cheney over his horrific Iraq track record (“You got it wrong”); when she tore into a male guest who called paid maternity leave “a racket” (her retort: “What a moronic thing to say”). They’ve long been ticked off that liberal commentators have praised Kelly as Fox News’ lone “sane” anchor.
Indeed, part of her appeal ---- at least for those outside the Fox bubble ---- was that she seemed far more professional than the bloviating mouth-breathers (O’Reilly, Hannity) who bracketed her evening show. How that appeal, and her polarizing past, translates to NBC is anyone’s guess.
Reportedly, she’ll try to soften her image by launching a daytime weekday show (in her words, “a little Charlie Rose, a little Oprah, and a little me”), but that format has been a graveyard for lots of TV personalities, and it’s debatable that anyone cares to watch her swap celebrity gossip. She has also been tapped to launch a Sunday evening show to compete with “60 Minutes,” but that aging audience seems intractably loyal. She will reportedly join the NBC News team to cover major events, but that ensemble format (and the strong competing egos) could dilute her edgy brand.
But NBC is clearly hoping that Kelly can bring along some of her viewers ---- notably, Republican-leaning women ---- and thus broaden its ideological reach. For a broadcast news division on the cusp of the Trump era, a news division widely tagged as “liberal,” hiring Kelly is probably smart. If she can boost the ratings by asking tough questions with a conservative sensibility, NBC’s money would be well spent.
After Kelly’s recent clash with Newt Gingrich, Trump social media director Dan Scavino tweeted a not-so-veiled threat: “Watch what happens to her after this election is over.” Well, now we know.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at email@example.com