THE BIG PICTURE
Megyn Kelly and the Overwhelming Whiteness of TV News
We need more voices on our television screens that reflect where this country really is and where it’s going, writes Stereo Williams.
Megyn Kelly is out at NBC. Things aren’t official as of yet, but numerous reports indicate the host won’t be returning to her 9 a.m. show Megyn Kelly Today. NBC News bet big on Megyn Kelly when the network lured her from Fox News with a three-year, $69 million deal, seeking a hike in Today ratings that were already strong. They also expected an anchor for a 60 Minutes-style Sunday evening news magazine. But that Sunday show crashed and burned, as did ratings for the 9 a.m. hour of Today during Kelly’s tenure—according to Nielsen, the show fell about 14 percent to 2.4 million viewers.
The New York Times reported that NBC News president Noah Oppenheim and Megyn Kelly Today executive producer Jackie Levin told staffers on Thursday to prep for a little hiatus: “Mr. Oppenheim and Ms. Levin also informed them that they would be moved into new jobs at the network if the program was canceled, according to two people familiar with the meeting.”
The writing was on the wall after Kelly’s comments regarding blackface during last week’s panel segment on Halloween costumes. Kelly bemoaned the fact that white people are being criticized for darkening their skin.
“What is racist?” Kelly asked the all-white panel—which included Jenna Bush Hager, Jacob Soboroff and Melissa Rivers. “You get in trouble if you’re a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. When I was a kid that was OK as long as you were dressing up as a character.”
Kelly then defended Real Housewives of New York star Luanne de Lesseps, who’d faced criticism earlier this year after darkening her skin to dress up as Diana Ross. “People said that that was racist,” Kelly said. “I felt like, who doesn’t love Diana Ross? She wants to look like Diana Ross for one day. I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween.”
“I can’t keep up with the number of people we’re offending just by being normal people,” Kelly resolved.
A day later, Kelly apologized via email. “One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get the chance to express and hear a lot of opinions,” read Kelly’s message to “friends & teammates.” “Today is one of those days where listening carefully to other points of view, including from friends and colleagues, is leading me to rethink my own views.”
“I realize now that such behavior is indeed wrong,” she said of wearing blackface, “I am sorry.”
“The history of blackface in our culture is abhorrent; the wounds too deep,” she added, while noting that she’s never been a “pc” person.
“The fact is while she apologized to the staff, she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” Al Roker said on Today.
Kelly would subsequently apologize on air. “I want to begin with two words: I’m sorry,” she stated. “You may have heard yesterday that we had a discussion here about political correctness and Halloween costumes. And that conversation turned to whether it is ever OK for a person of one race to dress up as another.”
Jenna Bush Hager criticized Kelly in an interview with E! News.
“Well, it was, you know, horrifying, because it wasn’t what we were there to talk about,” she said. “And obviously, in this day and age, but in any day and age, when there’s talk of something that would make somebody feel bad, it’s not something we stand for ever. Not then, not now. And it made me sad.”
Megyn Kelly’s been fanning such flames since her years at Fox News. She became one of the network’s most high-profile stars with her baiting discussions regarding race and the Obama administration, once famously projecting Bill Ayers across Fox News screens to present Obama as a dangerous affiliate to domestic terrorists. She antagonized Black Lives Matter and engaged in a terse back-and-forth with comic D.L. Hughley after the Philando Castile shooting. “‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ was a lie, and Michael Brown was the aggressor,” she raged. The Castile comments were in line with ones made during a 2014 segment on the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of police officers, wherein Kelly demanded, “What is the evidence that what happened to Eric Garner and what happened to Michael Brown has anything to do with race?... I’d like to know the proof.”
If that weren’t enough, as The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng wrote, Kelly became one of the “biggest cheerleaders” for “a widely disseminated right-wing, race-baiting meme that the New Black Panthers were destroying American democracy through voter intimidation during the 2008 election,” and furiously insisted, time and time again, that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were white.
But she was supposed to be the new star of morning TV for America’s favorite network. Why was she there in the first place? Because NBC believed an audience would either follow her or respond to her. They did not, and she kept on being Megyn Kelly—until it didn’t make sense for anyone to continue the charade.
Tamron Hall was co-host of the 9 a.m. hour of NBC’s Today show, along with Roker. Once Kelly was promised a slot in NBC’s daytime lineup, the network bumped Hall and Roker, two prominent black journalists. Hall walked away. “I decided to take a leap of faith,” Hall told People earlier this month, as she preps for a syndicated talk show set to debut in 2019. “I knew I would have to trust my gut and that I could be a part of something that would reflect who I am as a person, as a journalist, as a woman.”
Now, many see Hall as the perfect fit to assume the open slot on Today. After her own acrimonious departure from MSNBC in 2016, Melissa Harris-Perry made it clear that she felt Hall was the best choice to replace Megyn Kelly. When it was suggested that she herself be tapped to fill the vacated spot, Harris-Perry tweeted:
No one can blame Harris-Perry for the stance she’s taken—both in supporting Hall and in blasting NBC. Megyn Kelly’s stint at NBC ended largely for the same reason that she was there in the first place: her giving voice to an ill-informed perspective that platforms believe represents the “real” America. A voice that identifies as white, is often culturally sequestered, philosophically entitled and fundamentally bigoted—that’s who Megyn Kelly and a host of other pundits speak to and for, and that’s why her dismissal feels as empty as it was inevitable. She was never going to be a good fit on morning television, but the draw was that she spoke to a segment of America that the media inexplicably courts whenever the “plight” of the white and bigoted is centered.
In her immanently racist take on blackface, Megyn Kelly was standing firm in the belief that mainstream white America has historically had the latitude to mock brown folks for the purposes of propaganda or profit with no real pushback. She wasn’t wrong—an NFL team with a hateful mascot and moniker is as much evidence of the mainstreaming of hate as that same NFL’s reaction to players kneeling in protest at police brutality and legislative malice. Kelly believing she had the right to speak up for those who are just as willfully ignorant about the malice in so much of our culture is what got her here.
The events of the past week have only further amplified how far some are willing to go in the furthering of their hateful agendas. The most visible platforms in American media have consistently pandered to a base that we are still led to believe represents the core of America. If that is so, there is no denying that the core is aggressively racist and violently xenophobic; if it’s not the core of who we are as a society, then there has to be recognition of the responsibility to call it what it is in an effort to root it out. In further normalizing the America that fears and hates its brown citizens, we fuel a fire that is already raging around this country. Megyn Kelly is off the air because she never lived up to a corporate-funded network’s commercial expectations; but she leaves with tens of millions of dollars and a newly minted media martyrship in the minds of those who think like her.
There is an America that is desperately afraid of where this country is and where it’s going. But it’s not the America that’s bombing and shooting black, gay, non-Christian Americans for the sake of preserving some misbegotten sense of who this land supposedly belongs to; it’s an America of broad backgrounds and ideals. It’s an America that’s being ripped apart in detention centers and an America that’s being poisoned in Flint. It’s an America that is criminalized for planting a community garden and an America that’s beaten for not speaking English. This is the American mainstream, and it’s time to recognize that is who this country should speak loudest for. Regardless of whether Tamron Hall returns to NBC, there should be more voices that reflect that America on our screens. And we all could use far less Megyn Kellys in the morning.