What's Megyn Kelly's endgame?
The host has a reputation among liberals and moderates as "the sane one" on Fox News on the back of two discrete incidents: pouring cold water on Karl Rove's election night 2012 mania by plain-spokenly dealing with facts rather than fantasy, and in her takedown of Erick Erickson claiming women ought to stay in the home.
But with her recent comments on the race of Santa Claus, Kelly has indicated that she's more like Bill O'Reilly than the fantasy secret liberal hero her fans imagine. Kelly, responding to a piece on Slate that said depictions of St. Nick as white reflected implicit cultural bias, was adamant that Santa (to be clear, a fictional character) was a white man. After taking a night off her show, Kelly returned on Friday to declare "Humor is part of what we try to bring to this show. But sometimes that's lost on the humorless."
Kelly's humor is an attempt to deflect a growing storm over her apparent missing the point entirely; her telling a black writer that she was wrong to suggest that we work to erase cultural biases was just a big joke! Kelly got raked over the coals for her remark far more than would have, likely, Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, both because they likely would know better than to wade into the issue and because expectations for her are different.
Kelly, unlike Hannity, has a potential future outside conservative media, having been approached about hosting "Today" in the past; she reinforces that perception by framing herself as a reporter rather than pundit. "The way we do it on the Fox News Channel is the straight news anchors give a hard time to both sides,” Kelly recently told Jay Leno. “I don’t care about pandering to the left or the right, I care about protecting my audience."
But she's "protecting them" by aiming to restart a culture war that her side has effectively lost. In her Leno interview, Kelly cited her thwarting Rove as proof positive she's not a conservative operative. And she likely believes that! But she could hardly have chosen a more apt moment to prove her neutral bona fides; Rove's moment of manic denialism made him into the sort of straw man Kelly might deflate in order to indicate she gives both sides a hard time. She is willing to critique the absolute worst of the right, as well as more or less anything emanating from the left. As Slate's Willa Paskin has noted, Kelly, in the early days of her prime-time show this year, dealt in "wedge social issues" and blaming President Obama for the effects of the government shutdown.
The Fox News anchor's differentiating herself from O'Reilly and his ilk because she does "straight news" is splitting hairs; all the more explicitly advocacy-oriented shows still gather panels and feature interview segments in order to reinforce the host's explicitly expressed point of view. And when Kelly admits to introducing "humor" into her "straight-news" show -- and then goes on a rant about the "race-baiters" who criticized her -- one has cause to ask whether Kelly's allowing herself, her views and her dramas to become the story is substantively different from O'Reilly.
Kelly gets kid-glove treatment -- she'll save Fox News from itself! She's the network's most scrupulous thinker! -- from a national media that knows that Fox News as colossus full of true believers is both dramatically unsatisfying and statistically unlikely. There has to be someone there willing to depart from orthodoxy in a meaningful way. That person, Rove and Erickson aside, is not Kelly; her attacks on those men is a lot like Bill O'Reilly's purported registration as a Democrat, a way to deflect criticism when she indulges herself. It's a good tactical play.
And that's why the outcry, too, has been so pronounced over the last few days. It's a shock that Kelly would be so insensitive, so weirdly focused on niche cultural issues, so much like O'Reilly. But perhaps Fox News observers should be more surprised when Kelly has a moment of even-handedness or focus on news of import. Those are the exceptions.