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Dec 3, 2023, 6:28pm EST
mediapolitics

The ‘un-cancellable’ Megyn Kelly returns to the debate stage

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The News

THE NEWS

After Megyn Kelly left her high-profile Fox News perch for a $69 million, three-year NBC contract — and, just two years later, was forced out of that gig — Ben Shapiro, the conservative media wunderkind, invited her to Los Angeles. It was 2019, and podcasts, he told her, were blowing up. Audio was proving lucrative for his company, The Daily Wire.

Kelly had hesitated, she recalled last month in a long telephone interview from a family vacation in the Caribbean. She had, in her view, been both “canceled by the right” — for hostility to Donald Trump, who famously said she was “bleeding out of her whatever” — and “canceled by the left,” for, among other things, defending people who dress in blackface for Halloween.

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She confided in her therapist her biggest fear: That nobody would listen.

But then came May 2020, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he suffocated, and the city and the country erupted. Kelly felt that the ensuing civil unrest and backlash to the police was out of control. She was also unhappy with the trans rights movement. So she solicited advice from other prominent independent figures she admires: journalist and Substacker Matt Taibbi, Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald, and Free Press founder Bari Weiss.

“While we don’t share exactly the same politics, I think we’re all in the same cabal, we are all on a similar mission,” Kelly, 53, told me.

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So she signed a deal with Red Seat Ventures, which develops conservative media startups, to sell ads and advise her on production, and began recording in a newly-built studio in Connecticut.

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Know More

It’s only been three years since her pivot to audio. But on Dec. 6, Kelly will be onstage at a Republican presidential debate, which she is co-hosting on NewsNation, the upstart cable news channel. Kelly told Semafor that she received several offers to co-host debates this primary cycle, but agreed to participate because of her respect for the two cohosts, NewsNation anchor Elizabeth Vargas and Washington Free Beacon editor Eliana Johnson, a friend and frequent guest on Kelly’s podcast.

“I know how to do it, and it’s frustrating for me to watch others do it and not have my own try at it,” she said. “And I also just feel that, given how volatile everything around Trump is, this actually could matter.”

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Kelly’s criticism of her old colleagues can be biting.

“They had this opportunity certainly at the last debate, and the one before that as well, but they just didn’t take it. Huge frustration of mine watching the earlier debates, especially the NBC one. This is not an interview. This is not a chance for Kristen Welker to ask a question of the candidate and hear whatever answers are interesting to her. No one cares. They can watch Meet the Press for that. We need to watch them debate each other so we can see what the differences are.”

Also: “It’s not going to be like the Univision-Fox situation where there seemed to be absolutely no collaboration. [The Fox anchors] seemed kind of shocked by what [Univision’s Ilia Calderón] was asking.”

She also said previous moderators had shied too much away from asking about Trump: “Put him in the mix more, he’s crushing all of them. Why is no one doing that?”

Whatever her feelings of Trump, her career is tied to his. That fact isn’t lost on the former president either: According to Kelly, when she saw Trump in July at the Turning Points USA conference, the former president immediately raised the 2016 debate incident. And when he agreed to a sit-down with her in September, he repeatedly raised the incident both off-camera before the interview and on-camera with Kelly.

Kelly said she mulled whether hosting the debate was worth it without Trump’s participation (though she acknowledged there was a “small chance, but not a good chance” he’d show up). But ultimately, she decided that given the unpredictable nature of the presidential race and the possibility that Gov. Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley could suddenly become the nominee, it was worth it.

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Max’s view

Kelly is a singular figure in American media. She’s a woman whose forthrightness about sexual harassment helped end the tenure of Fox News creator (and her own mentor) Roger Ailes, but one who rejects much of the #MeToo movement. She’s a successful voice of the new right media who insists to her audience that Trump lost the 2020 election. “I’m un-cancellable, you know?” she said.

The former primetime cable news anchor is in the midst of pulling off a third act. She has built a successful business as a podcast/radio host and YouTuber. Her show is averaging 35 million views a month on YouTube and 15 million monthly on Facebook, and it consistently ranks in the top 20 podcasts on Apple Podcasts. Her show has become a key stop for Republican presidential candidates, landing Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Executives at SiriusXM took notice and signed her to a distribution deal — sum undisclosed, but “less” than her massive NBC deal — which the company re-upped earlier this year.

Right now she is, most of all, an avatar of a new media business that is rapidly converging with the old television money. Kelly said she had been intent on replicating the production value of her old prime-time Fox News show, which had 12 producers, and she believes that distinguishes her from other looser, sloppier digital operations. Along with support staff from SiriusXM, she has ten people directly working for her — all remotely— who book guests, vet guests and information, and make calls on stories.

Kelly points at her decision to break with other conservative media personalities on the sexual assault allegations against comedian Russell Brand (they’re serious) and the 2020 election (Trump lost) as examples of her independence. She cannot command a news (or outrage) cycle the way that she could when she was a host at Fox, though right-leaning tabloids like the Daily Mail and the New York Post aggregate her show regularly.

From a programming standpoint, Kelly isn’t doing much differently. The guest list for her show reads like a standard Fox rundown: Donald Trump Jr., Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, conservative YouTuber David Rubin and former Fox News colleagues Eric Bolling and Glenn Beck have all been regular guests. And despite her independent streak, Kelly’s stances on trans issues, crime, immigration, the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Joe Biden’s performance as president are almost completely in line with her peers in conservative media.

But Kelly’s return to the debate stage represents a major victory for her, in a career that had been largely deemed dead after her implosion at NBC News. It also shows the shifting balance of power in media, and represents another indication that in a fractured attention landscape, a famous YouTuber can command as much attention and value for politicians as a traditional news organization.

She says her former longtime employer was a shadow of itself in its heyday, citing the damage to the network from defamation suits filed by Dominion and Smartmatic over the network’s inaccurate 2020 election reporting.

“That was a serious reputational wound that they took in connection with those [Dominion and Smartmatic false voter fraud] stories – up and down the line, in connection with all of those stories. They haven’t recovered from it,” she said of Fox News. “Their audience isn’t what it used to be — in comparison to MSNBC and CNN, it’s fine. But their reputation in the industry hasn’t recovered. And I don’t know that it will.”

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Notable

  • This week’s debate is a coup for NewsNation, the upstate cable network which has been vying for a debate for months. The network leapfrogged others, like ABC and conservative cable channel Newsmax, which was frustrated with the Republican National Committee’s high price tag to participate.
  • Nearly eight years later, Trump is still feuding with Kelly over the tenor of her questions. During a recent campaign stop in Iowa, the former president reflected on a recent interview with Kelly, saying the tone was “pretty nasty.”
  • In another era (early 2016!), Vanity Fair fawned on Kelly: “Blowhards, Beware: Megyn Kelly Will Slay You Now.”
  • New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote at the end of her NBC run, “people like Kelly are being asked to learn. And they’re puzzled, or irritated, or downright angry about it.”
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