Fox News announced today that, in a major shakeup of its lineup, Megyn Kelly, the afternoon anchor who’s built an increasingly high profile for herself, would move to primetime once she returns from maternity leave. Kelly’s promotion would be big news simple for its implications for Fox News’ long-standing evening roster. But because of the particular position Kelly occupies within the Fox News ecosystem, her jump to evening news raises a rather more complicated question. Can Megyn Kelly go mainstream? And if she does, can she take Fox News with her?
Kelly’s often garnered mainstream attention for going charmingly mano-a-mano with obviously extreme figures, or issuing sharp takedowns of obviously extreme positions, particularly when she can speak from personal experience. In 2011, she told Dr. Keith Ablow, one of the more noxious figures to regularly make the rounds on Fox News, that his theory that Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing With The Stars would lead to widespread gender confusion among children was “irresponsible and dangerous and could result in some real problems,” and pressed the argument with Bill O’Reilly that “This group of people is persecuted already and now you have Dr. Ablow telling people that if your kid sees one in a manner that is something akin to a celebration, your kid may wind up being one of them. Now there are people in this country that will react to a transgender person when they see one at the McDonald’s or at some event and that’s irresponsible.” On Election Night in 2012, when Fox News commentators were quibbling about whether to call Ohio for President Obama, Kelly–by virtue of her brand as a more reasonable commentator, and because it gave the network the opportunity to show off her legs–ended up being the person who was portrayed actually going to talk to Fox’s number crunchers.
And Kelly had perhaps her biggest hit earlier this year when she called out Red State’s Erick Erickson for arguing that women were biologically determined to be homemakers, asking him “What makes you dominant and me submissive and who died and makes you scientist-in-chief?”
Her takedown made for terrifically exciting television, and it was a nice boost for Fox’s brand, too. 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.
A willingness to speak her mind on social issues, or in her own self-interest aren’t the only skills Kelly brings to bear. Her law degree from Albany’s let Kelly host a series of legal segments called Kelly’s Court, which focus on issues ranging from the possibility of indecency charges over an Erykah Badu video to the Erin Andrews Peeping Tom case. The clips might not make Kelly Fox News’ answer to Jeffrey Toobin, but the give her a novel angle on culture and human interest stories that could make her valuable to a morning show like Today, a slot that some have speculated might be in Kelly’s future someday.
But opportunities for Kelly to put sexists on blast or to bring her legal expertise to bear don’t come around every week, and in between those mainstream moments, Kelly has a lot of hours to fill. She’s often done so by flogging conspiracy theories, and by interviewing people a more sober analyst recognize as just as disgraceful and damaging as Ablow or Erickson. In May, she invited Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North on her show to discuss the attack in Benghazi, a tragic event Fox’s attempted to turn into political hay for months. Since 2010, Kelly’s flogged the idea that the New Black Panther Party represents some sort of threat to the republic. In 2009, she gave then-Rep. Michele Bachmann a platform to suggest that Americans refuse to fill out their Census forms. As engaging as Kelly’s list of mainstream moments can be, she’s spent more time selling scandals than advocating for LGBTQ people or policies that would benefit working mothers and their families.
The question is whether, in moving to prime-time, Kelly will try to build up her mainstream credentials, or play to Fox News’ base with the kind of scandal coverage that’s so often filled her daytime slot on the network. The answer could be revealing.
It wouldn’t be a bad play for Kelly to continue to build a generally conservative brand. Van Susteren took over the slot Kelly will occupy now in 2002 and held onto it for a decade. If Kelly wants to settle in with Fox News for the long term, she’d have reasonably high expectations of job security. Fox may have ditched some of its more extreme contributors in recent months. But Kelly’s current approach seems to fit its new business model, which involves regular pot-stirring with a pinch of sanity that’s in line with Kelly’s own self-interest or general common sense, and that doesn’t go too far to challenge Fox News viewers’ preconceptions about Democratic politicians, race, or class.
But if she wants the option to go somewhere else some day, Kelly’s move to primetime and a higher profile might be a smart time for her to start reigning in the most extreme theories she’s promulgated during her time on the network. There’s a widespread perception that Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s conservative politics made her less-appealing to audiences for the daytime talk show The View, and contributed to her departure from the program this year. If Kelly doesn’t want to face the same perception on either a morning show, or in a news position for a network where scrutiny of her past coverage would be even more intense, she might start refining her brand to be more about straight news now–Major Garrett, who went from Fox News to CBS did a stint at the non-partisan news magazine National Journal (where, disclosure, I once worked as a fact-checker, though our tenures there didn’t overlap) in between his television jobs.
While there’s no question that Fox News sees Kelly as a major part of the network’s future, judging by her promotion and the new contract she signed this spring, the perception that network news programs or talk shows might try to poach her could be useful for Fox News’ brand in much the same way that Kelly’s signature moments have been. Moderating herself in prime-time might require Kelly to shift her brand. But it could improve her job prospects elsewhere should she find Fox News too constrained, and recasting herself as more mainstream could end up bolstering the perception of Fox News in the long run. If Fox News personalities aren’t ideologically tainted by their time at the network, and in fact can prove that they’re worth poaching, that would lend credence to Fox’s insistence that the network is actually fair and balanced, a place that produces journalists rather than ideologues.