Megyn Kelly's self-titled hour of "Today" on chopping block after ex-Fox News star defends blackface

NBC News bet a sky-high $69 million on its ability to rebrand Kelly as another friendly "Today Show" cast member

Published October 25, 2018 12:10PM (EDT)

Megyn Kelly (AP/Charles Sykes)
Megyn Kelly (AP/Charles Sykes)

Two days after suggesting that the use of blackface during Halloween was not racist, the end of Megyn Kelly's self-titled 9 a.m. hour of the "Today Show" appears imminent.

Kelly's show will be airing re-runs in the wake of the host's controversial comments, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Negotiations about the end date and other details remain ongoing, CNN reports. What is currently unclear is whether Kelly will remain at NBC News in another capacity. She is slated to participate in the network's Election Day coverage in two weeks.

In addition, Kelly parted ways with her talent agency, CAA. Hours after it a switch to UTA was announced, spokesman Seth Oster told NBC News, “After initial discussions, UTA made a decision not to move forward in representing her.” According to the outlet, clients had raised their concern to management about Kelly's controversial comments.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kelly has hired Hollywood attorney Bryan Freedman, signaling she may be gearing up for a legal battle over her contract, which is reportedly valued at an astronomical $23 million a year. She is in the middle of the second year of a three year contract.

NBC News staffers were reportedly calling for Kelly's departure well before the latest controversy. In addition, Kelly has been "openly challenging the news division's management, including NBC News chair Andy Lack, for months," CNN reports.

The NBC News anchor kicked off her show on Wednesday by apologizing for the comments she made the previous day. Her audience then erupted into applause and gave Kelly a standing ovation amid chants of "We love you!" Nonetheless, disappointment inside NBC runs deep.

Her public apology followed an internal one to her NBC colleagues, some of whom told Salon they were furious over her remarks. "I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong, and I am sorry," Kelly wrote in an email. "The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep. I've never been a 'pc' kind of person — but I understand that we do need to be more sensitive in this day and age."

"The newsroom was stunned," one source from NBC told Salon in the wake of Tuesday's broadcast, "and many seasoned journalists felt her comments are an insult to the profession. She is now officially a racist. First 'White Santa,' now this. What appalled many NBC staffers is the fact Kelly would go racist, even dabble in it, on the family-friendly 'Today Show.' Bad message on such a prominent and historic program."

Kelly's comments also came under scrutiny on air by her colleagues Craig Melvin and Al Roker, who co-host the first two hours of the venerable NBC News morning show known for its family-friendly tone. Roker detailed the painful history of white people using blackface to subject people of color to offensive and degrading ridicule. "She owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country," he concluded.

Melvin called her comments as "ignorant and racist." He also poked holes in Kelly's internal apology, which sought to conflate political correctness with something that was so clearly ahistorical and racist. "That's silly, and it's disingenuous. And it's just as ignorant and racist as the statement itself," Melvin added. "In addition to her being a colleague, she's a friend. She said something stupid and something indefensible."

During a town hall meeting with staffers on Wednesday, which was scheduled before the controversy, NBC News Chairman Andy Lack also refuted Kelly's racially insensitive remarks, according to multiple outlets. “There is no other way to put this: I condemn those remarks; there is no place on our air or in this workplace for them,” Lack is quoted as saying in Deadline.

The network also covered the controversy Tuesday night on the Lester Holt-anchored broadcast "NBC Nightly News," noting that her defense of blackface was not "the first time Kelly has come under fire for comments about race." Kelly, similar to many of her former peers at Fox News, was skilled at inciting racial tensions among viewers who have seen their relative social status dwindle as civil rights advance.

She once infamously proclaimed that Santa Claus, who is actually (spoiler alert!) a fictional character, was white. She later claimed that her remarks were never meant to be racially insensitive and had been taken out of context. "Humor is a part of what we try to bring to this show, but sometimes that is lost on the humorless," she said. "And Fox News and yours truly are big targets for many people."

Santa was not the only powerful man who Kelly wanted children to know shared her same skin color. "Jesus was a white man, too," Kelly once said. (That is a statement that many historians and biblical scholars would view as unproven or problematic.)

"He was a historical figure – that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa," she said. "I just want the kids watching to know that. But my point is: How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy of the story and change Santa from white to black?"

After a national conversation about racism and police brutality was sparked when a 14-year-old in Texas named Dajerria Becton was body-slammed head first into the ground by a white police officer while attending a pool party, Kelly suggested the teenager had deserved it. "The girl was no saint, either," Kelly said of Becton. "He had told her to leave, and she continued to linger. When the cop tells you to leave, get out."

Kelly, again, claimed that her comments had been ripped out of context – a tactic she used more than once during her time at Fox News in an attempt to rewrite the narrative about racially-charged remarks by framing herself as the victim. She specifically criticized a former news writer from this publication, calling out, "Scott Eric Kaufman, a writer at Salon, which is a far-left website that descends into ugly partisan hackery," and adding that, in reality, she "took no position on the matter, other than to acknowledge the brutality of the cop's actions and the decision-making of the young woman that brought her into his focus."

Still, NBC bet an astronomical $69 million on its ability to rebrand Kelly as another friendly "Today Show" cast member, and attempted to transition Kelly from the highly-rated Fox News primetime line-up to mornings at NBC News, where her tenure has been fraught with controversies, gaffes and low ratings.

Kelly kicked off her morning show in the fall of 2017 with a not-so-subtle attempt to wash away her past and rebrand herself as a hard-hitting news journalist who was above the fray of partisan politics. "The truth is, I'm kind of done with politics for now," Kelly told the audience on the premiere episode of her morning broadcast, adding that she had hoped instead to help viewers "get yourself through the day, to have a laugh with us, smile, sometimes a tear — and maybe a little hope to start your day. Some fun! That's what we want to be doing."

Despite her lackluster debut at NBC News to an even less enthusiastic reception, the news cycle tossed Kelly a life preserver of sorts in the form of #MeToo. As Salon's TV critic Melanie McFarland previously wrote, "#MeToo has allowed Kelly to find a point of connection with her female-skewed audience, one she’s struggled to find thus far. Her overly polished image and upper-class comportment stands in contradiction to that of the average daytime viewer."

For Kelly, softening her primetime news edge to win over the daytime crowd has been a challenge — and McFarland predicted Kelly's achilles heel at the network would be in step with her ability to sow divisions. She wrote, "NBC may adjust the package, and Kelly may still be in her moment. But once the fire of #MeToo dies back to embers, she and her new network will be contending with the same problems, only in a different year."

By Shira Tarlo

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Andy Lack Fox News Kelly Megyn Kelly Megyn Kelly Today #metoo Nbc Nbc News Police Brutality Racism Today Show