Inside Megyn Kelly’s 2020 Campaign—for a New Job in Right-Wing Media
Megyn Kelly’s antipathy towards Donald Trump may torpedo a return to right wing media—while the NBC ‘blackface’ controversy may prevent her from rejoining the media mainstream.
Nearly six months after NBC News chairman Andy Lack abruptly cancelled Megyn Kelly Today—the culmination of a series of unwelcome controversies, coupled with weak ratings, that imploded with her blurted endorsement of white people wearing Halloween blackface—the former Fox News star is starting to formulate a comeback strategy and getting ready to test the marketplace.
“Part of that readiness is just getting informed on the landscape,” said a source close to Kelly, who was reportedly paid an eye-popping $23 million a year by NBC, and is pocketing the full value of her three-year deal—an estimated $69 million—although she was taken off the air after only 17 months.
“She has always been such a hard worker. It has always been nose to the grindstone, like ‘I’ve got to put on a great show for these 60 minutes.’ So she’s never really looked up at what do new media-type things look like, what do podcasts look like, what does radio look like? So part of it is just a real broad step back and a look at media generally.”
This person added: “The urgency to fire it back up for the next day to three months is pretty low. But ever? Like in a year? Much higher. It’s not like she’s sprinting and saying ‘I gotta get there now.’ But she does want to get informed and get to a place where she can make a really good decision. So she’s sort of setting herself up for that now and patiently going about that process. But no doubt, the engines will fire up at some point.”
The 48-year-old Kelly has been “healing” and “chilling,” according to friends, since last Oct. 24, her final day of work on network television—going to yoga classes, attending school events and field trips with her kids, experimenting in the kitchen, skiing in Montana, and having date nights with her husband.
Kelly herself predicted—to a TMZ crew that miraculously ran into her one January night on an Upper East Side sidewalk—that she’ll be back on television sometime this year. The encounter was a prelude to what looked to media observers like a planted Feb. 26 Page Six item headlined “Megyn Kelly eyes October return for 2020 race.”
But it’s going to be, by most accounts, a challenging reboot.
During the 2016 presidential campaign that cast Kelly as a polarizing adversary of the eventual winner, Donald Trump, she became perhaps the biggest star in television news, worthy of a Vanity Fair cover story that celebrated her as “a newly minted role model for women… and a conservative champion who transcends politics with her skillful skewering of windbags of both parties.”
Barely two years after Kelly joined NBC News—with the sort of media fanfare generally reserved for a conquering hero—she is unemployed.
A spot survey by The Daily Beast of her most financially rewarding possible destinations—ABC, CBS, CNN—didn’t turn up any current enthusiasm for her services. At Fox News, where some former colleagues might welcome her return, a larger group both behind and in front of the camera is said to reject it out of hand.
“It would be difficult for a mainstream news network to hire her,” said a longtime industry executive, “given what she said” in the blackface controversy that cost Kelly her job, even though she made an apparently heartfelt apology both on the air and inside NBC; never mind that her African-American Today show colleagues Al Roker and Craig Melvin—and Andy Lack himself—publicly condemned Kelly’s blackface comments in the harshest of terms.
Melvin, for one, called them “ignorant and racist” as well as “stupid” and “indefensible.”
In the immediate aftermath, Kelly parted ways with her high-powered Hollywood talent agency, CAA—ostensibly because it also represented NBC News President Noah Oppenheim—while her urgent talks with rival agency UTA quickly fizzled.
She ultimately settled on Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Bryan Freedman, who negotiated an exit package that places no restrictions on her future employment.
“Whoever embraced her would, I assume, just be unapologetically right-wing, and unafraid to embrace dog-whistle racism, even if hers was unintentional,” the industry exec added.
Donald Trump-friendly outlets such as Newsmax, Sinclair and One America News Network—mentioned by industry insiders as possible future employers—would be unlikely to offer Kelly the level of financial compensation to which she has grown accustomed.
Newsmax chief (and presidential confidant) Christopher Ruddy, for one, has said that he’d welcome the opportunity to speak with Kelly about a potential role, but such a meeting has yet to occur.
“She’s the biggest free agent on the market,” insisted the source close to Kelly. “Very few people can command the level of attention she does, not by her choosing. She has become a big star within the news. Not only only that, she’s got the goods. If she were doing a nightly news show, wouldn’t you watch it?”
An obvious problem when it comes to a future job in right-wing media, industry insiders said, is Kelly’s lingering public persona as an enemy of President Donald Trump—which Trump and his campaign underlings relentlessly promoted (to the point where she received credible death threats and was compelled to hire a security team) after she asked him that famous question about his misogyny at the August 2015 Fox News debate.
Requesting anonymity, several industry insiders speculated that Fox News, which critics have tagged as both the president’s principal policy adviser as well as an extension of the Trump propaganda machine, could nevertheless be a logical destination for Kelly.
After all, she spent a dozen years there under the tutelage of Fox News founder Roger Ailes (whom she ultimately accused of sexually harassing her when she was a cub reporter in Washington), and she thrived in primetime with her 9 p.m. program The Kelly File.
“This woman needs a show on Fox News and she will do great,” said a television insider. “I would take Megyn Kelly on in a heartbeat. She’s polarizing, but so was Bill O’Reilly. And guess where polarizing personas succeed? Cable news, and Fox News in particular. She’s already got the familiarity there, and not everybody who watches Fox News is blindly in love with Donald Trump—which is where she first alienated that audience. I do not understand—other than the Murdoch pride factor—why they wouldn’t rehabilitate her and bring her back.”
As Kelly was considering her professional future in late 2016, Rupert Murdoch publicly expressed his desire that she remain; rumors circulated internally at Fox News—stoked by Kelly, some suspected—that Rupert, Lachlan and James Murdoch had offered her a long-term contract worth $100 million, an offer she ultimately spurned.
In recent months, however, Kelly has been sending what media observers see as signals that she would not be averse to a Fox News homecoming. At the web site Mediaite’s holiday party in December, she was seen in convivial conversation with Sean Hannity, an erstwhile rival at the Murdoch cable network.
Meanwhile, her Twitter feed has become a reliable source of center-right media criticism where she happily tangles with the likes of CNN’s Brian Stelter and Christiane Amanpour and especially her former NBC News antagonist Craig Melvin.
“No, actually @ craigmelvin, Chicago PD’s reputation is not ‘damaged’ here at all,” she scolded her ex-NBC colleague last week, after Melvin suggested that the Jussie Smollett imbroglio had damaged the reputation of the Chicago Police Department. “Even the state’s attny said CPD “did an outstanding job” & their decision to charge was right. Check your facts.”
“It looks like she’s campaigning for a job in right-wing media,” said an industry insider.
After what many industry insiders considered NBC’s ill-conceived experiment that miscast Kelly as a warm and fuzzy morning talk show host, she has re-occupied her more authentic public persona as a pugilistic former litigator—a presence that, for now, is restricted to Twitter.
Kelly is said not to regret her decision to leave for NBC, even though her Sunday magazine show, her initial project there during the summer of 2017, was cancelled after a mere eight of 10 planned episodes. Even Kelly is said to accept that her efforts to reinvent herself as a homey, female-friendly morning television host were less than successful.
Within Fox News, it is at best a minority view that Kelly could attract better ratings at 7 p.m. than Martha MacCallum’s The Story—which decisively beats the cable competition, but, like its 7 p.m. rivals, has experienced a falloff in the 25-54 age demographic on which news advertising is sold. That scenario, in any case, would appear to be a non–starter.
“As we have said numerous times, we are extremely happy with every hour of our line-up and we have no intention of making any changes to it,” a Fox News spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
Indeed, the door at Fox, for now anyway, seems to be slammed shut. Lachlan Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of Fox News’s corporate parent Fox Corp. (the new Murdoch-controlled company that emerged after Disney recently bought 21st Century Fox’s film studio and other entertainment assets) said as much last November.
“Look, I’m a big fan of Megyn’s, I like her a lot. We didn’t want her to leave Fox when she did,” Murdoch told CNBC host Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times DealBook conference. “Having said that, I’m very happy with our current lineup on Fox, and we won’t be making any changes there.”
“Is she damaged because of of this whole experience?” Sorkin asked.
“Sure,” Murdoch answered. “I think she is.”
“Do you think she can go back into media after this?”
“I hope she does because she’s very talented.”
Fox Corp.’s chief spokesperson, Executive Vice President Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director and Donald Trump confidante, this week emailed The Daily Beast: “No change.”
While acknowledging Kelly’s obvious talents as a sharp-witted interviewer and on-camera pugilist who possesses a flair for drama and a face for television, most industry insiders agreed that Kelly would be a risky hire, given the negative narratives that have attached to her image like barnacles.
Indeed, she did little to endear herself to coworkers at 30 Rock—where her show’s fired head writer, Kevin Bleyer, claimed in a leaked memo that Megyn Kelly Today fostered a “toxic and demeaning” workplace environment—or at her previous employer, Fox News, where she was seen by many as an uncollegial diva.
Still, that portrayal is at odds with the private Megyn Kelly that friends and acquaintances describe as charming, funny, and down-to-earth—an attentive mother to the three young children she shares with her husband of the past 11 years, businessman-turned-novelist Douglas Brunt.
“I know that her family means a lot to her,” said Heather Mullins, Kelly’s friend since middle school in the upstate New York town of Delmar more than three decades ago.
Mullins wrote an impassioned letter to the Albany Times Union defending her old friend during the blackface flap. As Kelly wrote in her 2016 memoir, Settle for More, in a chapter titled “Mean Girls,” it was Heather who befriended 12-year-old Megyn, conspicuously sitting next to her in the middle school cafeteria when Megyn was a vulnerable social outcast and getting bullied by her classmates.
“I thought she handled it like a champ,” Mullins told The Daily Beast about the NBC News controversies. “I really admire Megyn’s courage, her bravery—to be out there in front of everybody. And I think that she has handled every setback and every adversary with grace and dignity, and I just think she rises above all the controversy.”