For 18 turbulent months at NBC, when Megyn Kelly stumbled, her former employer was lurking in the shadows—eagerly waiting to kick her while she was down.
Soon after Kelly departed her highly rated prime-time perch at Fox News in early 2017, Fox News’ notoriously ruthless public-relations and communications arm began encouraging outside reporters to cover negative stories about Kelly—a practice that continued right up to the “blackface” comment that proved to be her downfall.
Multiple sources tell The Daily Beast that top Fox flack Irena Briganti’s team suggested other media outlets write not just about Kelly’s “blackface” remarks, but about several other missteps throughout her NBC career.
According to two sources familiar with the situation, when Megyn Kelly Today showed initial signs of terrible ratings at NBC, the Fox News comms apparatus flagged those numbers for media reporters.
Late last year, when Kelly endured an online backlash for asking a Will & Grace fan if he was influenced to become gay because of the show and its lead character—and when Will & Grace star Debra Messing subsequently criticized Kelly—Fox PR quietly pushed the news to entertainment and media scribes.
Another instance: Hollywood Reporter journalist Jeremy Barr tweeted last week that Fox PR gave him “a tip” to try to deter him from reporting on a different story about a current Fox News host, telling him he should instead cover the “NBC/Megyn stuff” that was just starting to explode.
According to three people with direct knowledge, Briganti deeply resented Kelly, in large part because she privately blamed Kelly for leaks that painted the top Fox flack as an enabler for former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes amid the sexual-harassment scandal that ended his career.
Fox News said in the statement that the allegations were “wildly inaccurate and patently absurd.”
It denied urging reporters to jump on Kelly’s Will & Grace gaffe, saying the blunder created an “instant firestorm” that required no contribution from Fox News. It said that any conversations about Kelly’s ratings were in the context of Fox News beating her show.
As for Barr’s tweet, Fox said he “mischaracterized” the exchange and that a PR rep was just pointing out “that there was bigger news on the media beat to cover” than the story he was pursuing.
“The Daily Beast is relying on outdated information from former employees,” the statement said. “The PR department here defends and protects the Fox News brand and all of its talent on a 24/7 basis. There is no war whatsoever and no resentment against anyone who formerly worked at the network, including Megyn.”
“Irena has been wrongfully tagged with this narrative—no one is resentful here and everyone moved on two years ago. If anything, Irena (and the entire PR team) actually feel sorry for Megyn.”
Fox said its current PR team was being blamed for tactics employed by Briganti’s predecessor, who left in 2013.
Yet just last year, Kelly publicly accused Fox News of attacking her. During a segment about former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s history of alleged sexual harassment, Kelly noted on NBC that Briganti was “known for her vindictiveness,” and had shopped stories about alleged victims of Ailes.
“To this day, she pushes negative articles on certain Ailes accusers, [including me],” Kelly said.
A former senior Fox employee said Kelly had a point.
“Megyn Kelly was one of the single biggest beneficiaries of Fox News comms when she worked there. It was turned on her the very moment she packed up for… the competition,” the ex-staffer told The Daily Beast.
Those even passingly familiar with how the Fox News comms office has functioned know that this behavior is par for the course. In fact, the situation with Kelly was not the only time Fox News has dished on its own talent—current or former.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, ex-Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle was the subject of a whisper campaign—waged by her foes at Fox—following her exit from the network in July. Sources close to the situation revealed how Guilfoyle’s enemies within Fox attempted, during tense exit negotiations, to plant negative stories about her, accusing her of workplace misconduct, including hotly disputed dick-pic allegations.
Another one of those salacious stories involved Guilfoyle’s alleged abuse of the network’s makeup staff. The Daily Beast learned that this alleged misconduct included asking in-house makeup artists for favors like applying cosmetics for non-work activity.
Fox News has also conducted ops against its own hosts and stars while they are still employed at the network, according to private emails and interviews with various well-placed sources.
The operations are often viewed as a tactic by the network’s cutthroat PR enforcers to punish on-air personalities for infractions. Other times, it was done to draw potentially bad press away from Fox’s most prized assets by diverting media reporters’ attention to a less-liked or less-valued host, according to five former and current staffers.
Fox said the staffers’ claims were “completely inaccurate and dead wrong.”
But emails reviewed and verified by The Daily Beast show that Fox’s communications staffers planted negative pieces about Fox Business Network host Stuart Varney, who still works at Fox; and Bill O’Reilly, who at the time was the network’s ratings leader soon to be felled by allegations of serial sexual harassment.
At the moment, Kelly’s career in media is dramatically uncertain, at best. If she does try to make a play to return to Fox after striking out at NBC, she will be headed back to a news organization whose PR shop worked behind the scenes to highlight her shortcomings.
Ironically, it’s a dirty and underhanded game that Kelly herself played and used to get back at Fox adversaries during her time at the network, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge.
In O’Reilly’s case, one negative story pitched years ago—a story that suggested O’Reilly was jealous of Kelly’s rise to stardom and mainstream-media adoration—came from a member of Kelly’s camp, according to one of the emails reviewed by The Daily Beast. The anti-O’Reilly material was sent to the media because Kelly was angry with O’Reilly, and she explicitly instructed a Fox PR staffer to retaliate and get it out there, the sources confirmed to The Daily Beast.
During her time at Fox News, Kelly had a reputation for being a skilled knife-fighter against her internal foes. “She gave as good as she got, even better maybe,” one knowledgeable source recalled.
Kelly’s rep and NBC did not respond to requests to comment on the record for this story.
Her bureaucratic savvy at Fox, however, did her little good at her new home. As Kelly prepared to move to NBC last year, it became clear to many in the industry that this next chapter in Kelly’s career would be a tough sell from the very start.
Two years ago, during Kelly’s decision-making process prior to her high-profile jump to NBC, a potential media partner of Kelly analyzed and evaluated her social-media accounts and activity for an informal study. At the time, there were questions throughout New York City media about whether Kelly—a Fox News superstar who came with her own baggage of racial controversies and unalloyed appeals to right-wing grievance culture—could make herself palatable to a much less conservative audience.
The potential media partner determined at the time, based on the raw data, that because her brand appeal and success were so heavily rooted in a large audience of old white males and built-in, conservative Fox viewers, it would be remarkably difficult (if not impossible) for her to transition to anything like an NBC morning show.
The skeptics were, of course, correct. The average overall viewership for her show between September 2017 to September 2018 fell 13 percent from the previous 9 a.m. iteration of Today.
While Kelly earned plaudits for her #MeToo coverage—often in the face of network hostility—her time at NBC was colored by several news-making embarrassments and shortcomings, such as dismal ratings and an interview with Russian leader Vladimir Putin that was widely panned.
In recent years, Kelly had also become a prominent target for Trumpworld’s scorn. During the 2016 election, then Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Kelly famously feuded, with the latter asking him during a GOP debate about his treatment and misogynistic talk of women, and the former stating that she has “blood coming out of her wherever.”
However, there has been little public “Megyn-freude” smack talk from Trump’s circle this and last week, and some were decidedly sympathetic on the record.
“I feel badly for what is being done to her. I have no ill will for what she said or did during the election season. 2016 wasn’t my best year, either,” Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign official and regular presence on Fox competitor CNN, told The Daily Beast. “I do not condone the ‘blackface’ comments, but what is being exerted on her by multiple unnamed executives really feels like it’s been pent-up.”
Though she was never the most popular anchor among Team Trump, there was one important person in Trumpworld with whom Kelly really tried hard to patch things up: Donald J. Trump.
According to a person familiar with what transpired, Kelly called then President-elect Trump during the transition to congratulate him on his historic victory and compliment the political campaign he helmed. The source characterized it bluntly as a “kissing-his-ass” kind of phone call, and that Kelly discussed potential opportunities (read: NBC interview) going forward.
However, that never panned out. Along with everything else she wasn’t able to accomplish in her short time there, Kelly leaves NBC without landing a Trump exclusive for the network.
—With additional reporting by Andrew Kirell