Megyn Kelly said something racially offensive, and if anyone — including her bosses at NBC — is surprised, they shouldn’t be.
On Tuesday, the TV personality, imported by NBC from Fox News last year in order to lure a Trump-era demographic to the Peacock, stirred controversy and jeopardized her job by mourning the good old days of blackface on her “Today” show hour.
It was nothing new for Kelly, who was recruited by NBC News chairman Andrew Lack in 2017 for an at-the-time undefined role that might involve a daytime show, a weekly feature program, and participation in the network’s political coverage. Calling her “an exceptional journalist,” Lack hired her for a reported $23 million a year, making her the highest paid NBC host in the post-Matt Lauer era.
But during her 2004-2017 tenure at Fox News, Kelly repeatedly leaned on racial stereotypes involving the “anti-cop thug mentality” of black communities in her comments on Black Lives Matter. Discussing an incident in which a white Texas police officer was filmed throwing a 15-year-old black girl to the ground at a pool party, Kelly had said, “Listen, the girl was no saint either,” though she added she wasn’t defending the officer’s actions.
And, most famously, in 2013 she insisted that Santa Claus and Jesus are white and that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.” She said, “For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” later adding, “Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa.” Did Lack & Co. think Kelly’s views on race would change when she left Fox News?
If her blackface comments were predictable, so was her reaction to the backlash: a tearful apology Wednesday on “Megyn Kelly Today” and a claim of a teaching moment a national network anchor ought to have learned a very long time ago in her 47 years on Earth.
Kelly’s teaching moment has been a disaster for her, a news cycle cyclone. On Wednesday, she was condemned by her NBC colleagues, one of whom, news anchor Craig Melvin, called her remarks “indefensible” and “stupid” on the air. Her Thursday “Today” hour was a rerun, and she and her Hollywood agency, CAA, have severed ties. Before the blackface controversy, she’d been in talks to jump to another agency, UTA, but now UTA is passing on a deal.
Meanwhile, she has hired Hollywood attorney Bryan Freedman, perhaps meaning she’s heading into settlement talks with NBC. As of this writing, reports attached to unnamed sources were surfacing that Kelly’s “Today” hour is indeed over, and that she’ll be leaving the network.
Kelly triggered her implosion on Tuesday’s “Today,” during a segment about inappropriate Halloween costumes. She said that when she was growing up, it was acceptable for white people to dress up as black characters. She also argued against the criticism directed at Luann de Lesseps of “The Real Housewives of New York,” who dressed up last year as Diana Ross and darkened her skin. “People said that that was racist,” Kelly said. “And I don’t know, I felt like who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day. I don’t know how, like, that got racist on Halloween.”
Her claim of a lack of awareness of the history of blackface prompted wide criticism, including this stinging tweet from Padma Lakshmi: “I cannot believe the ignorance on this in 2018. You are on national television. You have a responsibility to educate yourself on social issues @megynkelly. This is so damaging.”
At an NBC staff meeting on Wednesday, even Lack, the architect of Kelly’s hiring, joined in the censure. “I condemn those remarks,” he said , according to unnamed sources at the meeting who spoke to media outlets including The New York Times. “There is no place on our air or in this workplace for them.” At the same meeting, he reportedly said that the critical coverage of Kelly’s comments by the anchors on NBC’s “Today” show and “Nightly News” “did this company and our audience a real public service.”
Lack didn’t make a decisive call, though, like Channing Dungey at ABC did by canceling Roseanne Barr’s boffo sitcom less than 24 hours after her racist tweets directed at Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Obama.
Only halfway through her three-year contract, Kelly has become a burden to NBC in other ways. After an awkward segment with the cast of “Will & Grace” and one of its superfans, Debra Messing wrote on social media, “Regret going on. Dismayed by her comments.” Kelly stirred guest Jane Fonda’s ire by asking her about plastic surgery, and, after her blackface comments, a number of “House of Cards” actors are refusing to do their scheduled appearance on Kelly’s show.
Making enemies isn’t what morning TV is about.
So NBC, which hired Kelly knowing, I assume, of her Fox News history, is now turning against her. In an act of disingenuousness, they are shocked-I-tell-you-shocked. Perhaps if the ratings of her “Today” time slot were higher — she is drawing an average of 2.4 million viewers a day, down 400,000 from before she arrived and lower than ABC’s competing “Live With Kelly and Ryan” — the network would not be quite so shocked and willing to push her out. What do you think?
The marriage between Kelly and NBC has been a failure from the start. The network seemed to think that she was a versatile player, so they gave her both news stories and softball stuff. But on her “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” she was way out of her league interviewing Vladimir Putin, and she gave right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones a nice piece of promotion by taking him seriously. The show, intended to challenge “60 Minutes,” failed to draw viewers and, while never officially canceled, has not returned since last summer. On her “Today” hour, she has never quite seemed relaxed, which is an important quality for a morning host; she doesn’t radiate warmth or trust.
Perhaps Fox News is ready to take her back.