Nation & World

Megyn Kelly is again in trouble, but NBC colleagues rejected her long before

Megyn Kelly speaks during the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in Dana Point, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Patrick T. Fallon, Bloomberg
Megyn Kelly speaks during the Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference in Dana Point, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Patrick T. Fallon, Bloomberg

Megyn Kelly might be experiencing deja vu.

In the fall of 2016, she had begun to see her position at Fox News as untenable. Her comments, offered on book tour, about the sexual harassment she says she suffered at the hands of Fox exec Roger Ailes grated on colleagues so much that they began calling her “Me-again.” Jealousy in the cutthroat newsroom was further fueled when the network’s owners offered her $25 million a year to stay at the channel, even as she openly considered options elsewhere.

Kelly decamped soon after for NBC, where she is — for now — host of the “Today” show’s 9 a.m. hour, but she hasn’t left newsroom tensions behind. Even before her comments earlier this week about the palatability of wearing blackface for Halloween, she’d found her NBC News colleagues could be as unwelcoming as her old Fox compatriots.

Two people familiar with internal negotiations said that Kelly’s “Today” show hour will stop airing, although the timing and details remain uncertain. She has split with her CAA agent and briefly worked with another agency, United Talent Agency, before dropping that firm as well.

The relationship between Kelly and NBC News Chairman Andy Lack — who wooed her to the network in 2017 with the promise of freedom and a large paycheck — had been strained for months. As previously reported by the New York Times, the two spoke earlier this month to discuss how the show was not working and to figure out a way forward, possibly with Kelly adopting a different role.

“Given the circumstances, Megyn Kelly Today will be on tape the rest of the week,” said NBC spokeswoman Dana Klinghoffer.

In interviews, a half-dozen current and former NBC staffers, all of whom requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, outlined a compounding list of problems: Inside the building, colleagues had grown envious of her large salary, exasperated by her on-air gaffes and disdainful of her low ratings.

“Everyone’s feeling is, even if you have to pay her (the remainder of her contract), pay her,” said another NBC staffer. “Andy, you can save face with this entire thing. Just get rid of her.”

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Lack hinted Wednesday morning in a meeting with NBC staff that the situation was far from resolved, “as we sort this through with Megyn,” he said, but he wanted to assure colleagues that NBC was a place they could feel proud of.

Before coming to NBC, Kelly had garnered glowing coverage — including a Vanity Fair cover — for her question in an early debate to then-candidate Donald Trump about his demeaning comments about women. After Trump’s election, NBC hired several conservative personalities seemingly to better connect with the conservative electorate that ushered Trump into office.

Lack reportedly offered Kelly a three-year, $69 million contract for an undefined role. “We are lucky to have her,” Lack said the day she was hired. Though other executives were involved in wooing Kelly to NBC News, Lack was the person most associated with her arrival at the network.

“I think she became, in NBC’s eyes, a ‘voice of moderation’ because of the question she posed to Trump in a 2015 debate about the debasing rhetoric he’s used in talking about women,” Bill Grueskin, professor at Columbia Journalism School, said in an email. “That was a good question, but it didn’t, and doesn’t, absolve her of the insensitive, bordering on idiotic, things she’s said about racial issues.”

Major talent shuffles at television news divisions are rarely smooth for all players involved. To make room for Kelly, the network bumped two African-American hosts, Tamron Hall and Al Roker, out of their 9 a.m. “Today” show slot. Hall left the network.

As Kelly faltered almost from the get-go at NBC — think Alex Jones, Vladimir Putin and Jane Fonda — Lack appeared saddled with an expensive misstep. In her first year on the show, the 9 a.m. hour of “Today” averaged 2.4 million viewers, a drop of almost 400,000 viewers from before she arrived, according to Nielsen.

“She doesn’t understand that she represents more than just herself when she is here,” said one NBC colleague. Another NBC staffer noted that Kelly’s interactions with Jane Fonda were “very un-’Today’ show like.” Fonda had reacted negatively when Kelly asked her about her plastic surgery on her show. Kelly fought back with a monologue attacking Fonda, referring to Fonda’s Vietnam-era protests and her nickname “Hanoi Jane.”

Then came Kelly’s comments earlier this week about “the costume police” who were cracking down at the University of Kent in the U.K., prohibiting Halloween costumes depicting cowboys, Nazis, Harvey Weinsteins, and the deceased and allegedly prolific British sex offender Jimmy Savile, among others.

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“What is racist?” she asked her all-white panel. “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween,” Kelly continued. “Back when I was a kid, that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as a character.”

Commentators on Twitter seemed to answer Kelly’s question by handing her a mirror. She quickly wrote an apology to her staff. Some gathered in their offices and complained that Kelly’s off-the-cuff comments often landed them in a difficult position.

“We try to produce a segment and then she goes off the rails,” said one staffer on her show. Her executive producer, Jackie Levin, was heard sobbing in NBC’s offices Tuesday night, according to two NBC staffers. “You could hear her through the floor,” one of them said.

That night, on “Nightly News,” Morgan Radford, a young black NBC correspondent assigned to report on Kelly’s comments, highlighted the racist history of blackface as well as Kelly’s earlier racially charged assertions on Fox News that both Santa and Jesus were white.

The next morning on the 7 a.m. hour of the “Today” show, the same clip played again, with Radford appearing on set to explain that the conversation Kelly led with her all-white panel was one that “people generally have in a private space where there are no repercussions, but this learning moment really gifted us the opportunity to have this conversation in a public discourse.”

Roker, who was seated across from Radford, said: “The fact is, while she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country.” Craig Melvin, also seated at the table, added that her comments were “stupid” and “indefensible.”

Kelly’s comments may have gifted an opportunity to have the conversation out in the open. It also may have gifted Lack with a way out of his Megyn Kelly problem.

Kelly delivered a tearful on-air apology to her studio audience Wednesday morning. Hours later, Lack openly rebuked her.

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“I condemn those remarks,” Lack said, of Kelly’s blackface comments, in a town-hall-style meeting held in NBC’s midtown headquarters, according to two people who were there. “There is no place on our air or in this workplace for them.”

The last time Lack delivered such stark remarks was after he fired his friend and former “Today” show star, Matt Lauer, following multiple allegations of sexual harassment. (Lauer said he acted inappropriately but was not coercive, as some women asserted.)

Even before Lack’s comments, Kelly had begun to feel alienated from colleagues and told friends, according to one, that she suspected NBC colleagues of leaking negative stories about her.

When Kelly covered Lauer’s dismissal aggressively on her show, many “Today” show staffers bristled, according to one person in a position to know. Ironically, it was the one topic on the show that connected with viewers, and Kelly seemed to almost find her feet. Aside from covering the harassment allegations against Lauer, she also gave airtime to accusations against Tom Brokaw and covered comments from reporter Ronan Farrow and his producer, Rich McHugh, alleging that NBC had quashed their reporting into Harvey Weinstein. (NBC denied doing so.)

Unlike the public show of support that NBC colleagues granted Brokaw and Lauer, Kelly received open opprobrium.

Jacob Soboroff, an MSNBC correspondent who was on Kelly’s initial panel along with Jenna Hager Bush and Melissa Rivers, was “beside himself” that Kelly had put the panel in that position, according to someone who spoke to him about it. He later tweeted that her comments were “vile,” and said he was “ashamed” that he didn’t’ speak up more forcefully during the show.

Sarah Glover, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, blasted Kelly’s “flip comments on blackface” and called them “inexcusable,” adding that her apology was insufficient and that “a real effort to educate oneself and one’s followers about racism in this country would be a great start.”

“If she was going to apologize, she should’ve delivered a mea culpa about her long, pointless tirades about the ‘New Black Panther Party,’ a small fringe group that briefly intimidated a few Philadelphia voters in the 2008 election,” said Grueskin, the Columbia Journalism professor. “As a Fox personality, she spent episode after episode dwelling on this theme, trying to draw connections between the group and (former Attorney General) Eric Holder, (former President Barack) Obama and the Department of Justice.”

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Kelly may not get any more opportunities to apologize on her own show. She was scheduled for jury duty on Thursday, and was planning to be out of the office even before the scandal broke, according to someone who spoke with her. But even so, many of the guests and panelists booked for the remainder of the week have already canceled.

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