Not so long ago, Megyn Kelly was one of the highest-paid broadcast journalists in the industry. In the autumn of 2018, the Fox News anchor transitioned from cable news’s top-rated show into the coveted third hour of NBC News’s Today morning program. That meteoric run ended when she used her post to question the role of NBC, her own employer, in silencing a number of #MeToo-era scandals. Not two months later, NBC used specious racism charges to pull her off the air. NBC executives succeeded in, once again, putting a lid on sexual-misbehavior accusations within the company.
That helps explain why Kelly’s long-awaited comeback, two years later, comes via her decision to be the first traditional news superstar to depart legacy media willingly in order to launch her own podcast company and show. Kelly recently sat down with the Washington Examiner to discuss the new venture, one she boasts will have “no corporate overlords.”
With her reported $15 million final-year Fox salary and her $69 million contract paid out by NBC, Kelly might have remained out of the spotlight. But even away from cable news, she continued to make headlines, owing to several high-profile interviews conducted from her YouTube account and the release of Bombshell, the Academy Award-winning dramatization of her experience at Fox News.
Indeed, given all this, it’s hard to believe that any network wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to snag Kelly, a telegenic talent who brings to her work a combination of wit, legal brilliance, and fearlessness. But Kelly knows firsthand the value of full editorial freedom.
Kelly, alongside producer Steve Krakauer, is happy to become a digital pioneer, setting out along the mostly uncharted paths of other independently funded podcast stars such as Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro, whom Kelly cites as a friend. And it’s not hard to understand why.
It was Sept. 4, 2018, that Kelly earned the plaudits of Amy Holmes of PBS on-air for interviewing Harvey Weinstein accuser Lauren Sivan. She then subsequently investigated NBC’s potential silencing of investigative reporter Ronan Farrow when he was an NBC employee. Six weeks later, Kelly was taken off the air for an insensitive but objectively harmless and not ill-intentioned remark that a public figure such as Luann de Lesseps darkening her skin to portray Diana Ross as a character wasn’t unforgivable. Perhaps the sentence would be justified if Kelly herself had been published wearing blackface makeup, but unlike, say, Jimmy Fallon, an untouchable NBC star who actually wore blackface on-air, Kelly wasn’t even arguing it was a good thing to do, rather that it was one that ought to be given a pass by well-meaning citizens. Still, NBC found its excuse to break with Kelly.
She will not talk about her NBC days in specifics, but she views them through the eyes of a litigator. “I don’t think there’s any question that Matt Lauer, you know, built a lot of loyalty while he was inside NBC News. I think we’ve seen this across the #MeToo movement,” Kelly said. She added:
“When somebody gets accused, whether it’s Roger Ailes at Fox, Matt Lauer at NBC, people struggle to understand how this person they knew in a different way could be this guy. People looked at Roger, and they said, ‘Well, he’s kind of bawdy, we know that.’ Or they looked at Matt Lauer, and they said, ‘Oh, you know, he’s kind of a womanizer. We know that.’ But that they struggle to then take the extra step of, ‘Well, wait — but Ailes is actually harassing people, he’s conditioning career advancement on sexual favors,’ or ‘Matt Lauer is ruining the careers of young women whom he slept with and then discarded?’ They struggle.”
Kelly still demands that NBC allow an independent investigation into the actions and decisions made by network executives, just as Fox did: “Steve Burke is gone. Andy Lack was gone. Noah Oppenheim is still there. So, what’s the point? Right, you got rid of the two top guys. So, let’s do it. Now. What’s the harm? If he didn’t do anything, if you got nothing to hide, and it’s not just that Lauer has been accused, bring somebody in. That’s what the women inside of NBC have been saying very publicly now. And [NBC] just won’t do it. And, to me, that just shows a disrespect for the women on the workforce there.”
Kelly’s independence puts her in a position to interview figures such as Tara Reade, the former Senate staffer who has accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of sexually assaulting her when he was a senator in the 1990s. Kelly also recruited Rich McHugh to produce her exclusive interview with Reade. McHugh was a former NBC producer who resigned, as Kelly puts it, “in disgust” over how NBC handled Farrow’s reporting on Weinstein.
“How does the New Yorker publish Julie Swetnick’s claims and not do an in-depth piece on Tara Reade?” Kelly asked when pressed on the media’s treatment of right-leaning versus left-leaning figures accused of sexual assault. “There’s no credible journalistic reason not to go both places.” Another example Kelly cites is CNN host Don Lemon, who has inexplicably escaped scot-free from the allegation that he rubbed his hand on his own genitals at a bar in the Hamptons and rubbed them under the nose of a nonconsenting man.
“A woman at Fox made an allegation about Tucker Carlson that was part of like a hodgepodge of allegations she was making against Fox News,” Kelly said of the contrast between Lemon and Carlson. Carlson flatly denied the accusation, yet Kelly noted the story was still everywhere. “It was in every publication, all over Twitter. Tucker just got killed with these allegations that presented it like it was true because she alleged it, like that’s the end of this. What about Don Lemon? Don Lemon is accused of shoving his hands down his own pants, fondling his own testicles, and then rubbing his hands on a stranger’s face in a bar. There’s an eyewitness who saw it, a bartender who says he mocked the guy and then realized he was causing real pain. And then the guy was actually really upset about what Lemon had allegedly done and has come forward to testify on this guy’s behalf. Why haven’t I seen that everywhere? Because the media is not interested in going after Don Lemon. And I’m not saying this guy’s telling the truth. I don’t know whether he’s telling the truth or not, same in the Tucker case. None of us were there. But if you look at the difference in coverage, and the breathless excitement when it’s a Republican or it’s somebody from Fox like Tucker, versus when it’s somebody who works at CNN, it’s very telling.”
Kelly, who declared herself mostly “apolitical” in her 2016 memoir Settle for More, certainly has become more political on Twitter as of late. From calling out media bias to commenting on the Left’s lionization of Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man shot by police after reaching into his car, where a knife was stowed near the driver’s seat, Kelly’s tone has taken a more opinionated turn. But she insists that she’s always been comfortable commenting on legal cases, an area in which she’s been an obvious expert for decades but that has become more politicized by the rest of the media as of late.
And about media bias, yes, Kelly won’t be silent about her concerns. Back in 2019, Kelly scored another exclusive, self-produced interview with Ashley Bianco, the former ABC News producer accused of leaking footage of reporter Amy Robach claiming that the network buried her reporting on Jeffrey Epstein. When the hot mic tape went public, Bianco, who swears she didn’t leak it, was fired from her new job at CBS News. A powerful news organization convincing another to fire its former employee because she might have leaked a tape alleging that it silenced reporting into sex abuse so it wouldn’t upset Buckingham Palace? Seems like Page A1 news. Especially considering the fact that Kelly’s reporting all but exonerated Bianco.
Coverage showed that star media journalists, such as CNN’s Brian Stelter, didn’t agree. “Right now, it’s all about your team jersey, and his team jersey reads CNN,” Kelly said of media correspondent Stelter, who did not touch the Bianco story on-air as it trended all over social media, leaving it instead to mentions in his late-night newsletter. “That was the biggest media story in the country that week. Didn’t touch it. Didn’t touch it. It was about an anchor caught on camera.”
Back at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Kelly earned flak from fellow journalists for pointing out that it was frustrating trusting neither President Trump nor the media for information. “I had very well-known New York Times journalists DMing me on my Twitter saying, How could you send out something so irresponsible — of course you can trust the media,” Kelly said of the debacle. “Now look at the polls. The media is trusted even less than Trump. Trump is next. It was a CBS News poll, but they are the two bottom rungs of the trust meter when it comes to information on COVID.” Kelly makes the case that a gut-check is in order, citing other discrepancies in coverage as well as the way legacy media figures seem to prioritize personal feuds with other journalists at competing outlets over getting the full story to their audiences.
An explanation of why the public gives the media such low marks is not, she stresses, a defense of anyone in power who also lacks public trust. Even as Kelly claims the media “completely blew” Russiagate, she doesn’t give Trump a pass.
“Trump, I’ve said many times, does not have an adult relationship with the truth,” Kelly said. “And so, if you are just taking everything he says without questioning it, you’re going to be in trouble. You’re going to be misled. He’s not the first politician to do this. Be smart, be skeptical when you look at these guys, but the nerve of people in the media to look at somebody saying I don’t trust you, and I don’t trust him and offer feigned indignance is patently obvious, right? The nerve that that would take.”
Kelly is humble about her future prospects, happily declaring that despite her national profile, she’s still a “newbie” as she marches forward into the digital sphere. But she’s optimistic, again, for reasons that have to do with the very nature of the media itself.
“You tell me, who has more influence: Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro or Wolf Blitzer and [MSNBC’s] Ari Melber?” Kelly asked.
To an extent, Kelly’s journey to independence exposes a larger rot in the media that predates Trump but was certainly exacerbated by him. After their yearlong spat, beginning at the first Republican debate in 2016, Kelly scored praise from the #Resistance, but the moment they realized she was neither a Trump “hater” nor a “shill” for their side, she acknowledges that their favor soured. Couple in her willingness to report on Weinstein and her own employer’s role in protecting him, and it’s not hard to see how her independence became an inevitability.
Kelly has been able to spend her days with her children, a key reason why she left the grueling hours of primetime for NBC. She could have played nice with the network, done her job as lazily as is par for the course for the industry, and kept a plum spot with a stellar salary. But that kind of contented laziness is what she’s trying to wake up other journalists from. Even if she has to do it on her own.
Tiana Lowe is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner .
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