There is no 12-step program for disgraced network anchors attempting to make a comeback.
Brian Williams was eventually able to rehabilitate himself—getting his own show on MSNBC barely a year after being exposed as a journalistic fabricator—only because the network image-making machine, led by NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, threw its substantial institutional weight behind a meticulously orchestrated campaign to resurrect Williams as a credible purveyor of information.
Megyn Kelly will receive no such backing if she tries climb out of the smoking wreckage of her career.
To the contrary, in the three days since her ill-considered defense of Halloween blackface on her now now-defunct morning show Megyn Kelly Today, the whole of NBC News—everyone from Lack to Kelly’s on-air colleagues to anonymous staffers quoted in various news reports—has pursued what looks like a merciless public crusade to brand the former Fox News star as as a racially clueless (possibly even racist) privileged white woman, blinded by wealth, celebrity and ego.
Several media industry experts told The Daily Beast on Friday that even when Kelly’s blackface crucible is finished, she will likely have very few career opportunities—and none on a par with NBC News. Perhaps she’d be welcome at a second-tier conservative-leaning cable channel like One America News Network or a local station consortium like Sinclair.
In recent days, executives at CBS, ABC and CNN—outlets that might once have jumped at the chance of hiring her—have displayed a decided lack of interest in her services; even Fox News, where she spent a dozen years and left for NBC after a series of controversies—including accusing the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes of sexually harassing her, an allegation he denied—has slammed the door on a possible Kelly return, issuing a statement that essentially said there was zero room for her in their programming lineup.
“She could be hired by an outlet that is not interested in attracting African-American audiences,” said former CNN President Jonathan Klein, who once wished he’d hired Kelly from Fox News. In those days, a decade ago, “she was an impressive, accomplished, tough, edgy, in-your-face, kickass journalist,” Klein said. But when she came to NBC and tried to impersonate a female-friendly morning show host, “she tried so hard to spin it the other way to the point where it never felt authentic,” Klein added. “I think what she needs to do is be her authentic self and find a media home that allows her to be whatever that is.”
Only Newsmax impresario Christopher Ruddy, in an interview with The Daily Beast, sounded bullish about Kelly’s future—saying he’d definitely consider hiring her.
“Look, she’s controversial. We like controversy. It doesn’t mean we endorse everything she stands for,” Ruddy said, noting that he hasn’t spoken to Kelly about her plans. “But she is a proven cable news ratings leader. She scores big and has a history of it and a proven track record. I’m not gonna shut the door on her. I certainly would look and listen.”
Ruddy’s remarks amount to a rare burst of sunshine in what otherwise has been Kelly’s week from hell.
An article posted Friday on the Daily Mail’s website—just as NBC announced the cancellation of Kelly’s ratings-challenged program that comprised Today’s third hour—was seething with blind quotes from people identified as African-American NBC News staffers who were variously “deeply hurt” and “appalled” by Kelly’s behavior.
“She had no respect for the African-American staff on her team and her apology was both fake and dismissive,” one person was quoted as saying. Another told the Daily Mail: “If she truly had remorse and felt like she was wrong she should take no money and go into hiding. But she’s greedy and entitled. What the hell does she have to fight for? She’s been fired for being racist on national television. She’s not coming back and she needs to accept that.”
In an interview that was scheduled to air Friday night on the E! channel—like NBC, a subsidiary of Comcast—Today show personality Jenna Bush Hager described her revulsion at having participated in the infamous panel discussion in which Kelly blurted out her blackface defense.
“It was horrifying, because it wasn’t what we were there to talk about,” Hager said. “When there’s talk of something that would make somebody feel bad, it’s not something we stand for, ever. Not then, not now.”
The barrage of condemnation from soon-to-be-former NBC News colleagues—which has persisted despite Kelly’s emotional on-air apology Wednesday, during what turned out to be her final show—was occurring while Kelly’s high-powered Hollywood lawyer, Bryan Freedman, spent much of Friday trying to maximize her severance package as she departs the network halfway through a three-year contract worth a reported $69 million.
As the day ended, Freedman and NBC’s corporate lawyers had yet to reach a resolution.
“What is going on right now is akin to the mob coming in and breaking your knees so you can’t work anywhere else,” a rare person sympathetic to Kelly told The Daily Beast on Friday. “She’s a star and NBC knows that so they are not going to let her leave without significant damage to her reputation.”
In a terse statement Friday, NBC News announced that “Megyn Kelly Today is not returning. Next week, the 9 a.m. hour will be hosted by other Today co-anchors.”
Little is known about who will be anchoring the show—or, for that matter, who will be producing it.
“The plan is for talent to rotate day to day to present it. Everyone you see on screen will be part of that” an industry source with top connections within NBC told The Daily Beast. “The rumor is that Savannah [Guthrie] will open the show on Monday.”
Al Roker—who was summarily removed from Today’s third hour, along with co-anchor Tamron Hall, to make way for Kelly’s arrival last year—is also expected to play a role in the new, Megyn-less third hour.
“People underestimate Al,” said the source. “He’s really one of the most powerful people on the show. He rarely uses that power, but when he does it lands hard.”
In what struck many as pointed display of schadenfreude over Kelly’s abrupt banishment, Roker posed this week with Hall for a widely published photo of the two of them yukking it up outside the Broadway show Waitress. “No one thinks that picture of Tamron with Al was an accident” the industry source said.
This person added: “The other big question here is, what’s next for Jackie Levin, Megyn’s producer? She’s very close to [NBC News President] Noah Oppenheim. They play tennis together. But is she producing this new show? As of Friday afternoon, nobody knows.”
And the fallout could go much higher.
“Right now, everyone is asking where is the end of the road for Andy Lack? Megyn is now a 10,000-lb dead weight on Andy Lack’s foot, and that foot is already standing in deep water,” the source said, referring to the embattled NBC News chairman who lured Kelly to the network and stood by her through numerous controversies.
“Everyone I know, at every level within NBC, thinks she should never have been at NBC in the first place,” the insider said. “She had obviously said racist things before she came to NBC, and the feeling was: why are we giving her a job, and platform, here?”
At Fox News—where Kelly’s 9 p.m. show had attracted a viewership that sometimes bested her lead-in, Bill O’Reilly—she occasionally had trafficked in racial divisiveness, famously claiming that Santa Claus and Jesus Christ were white men while airing repeated outraged segments on how a couple of members of the New Black Panther Party were scaring white voters at a Philadelphia polling place.
“The talent on the Today show was nervous every time they had to stand next to her,” said the industry source. “You never knew what was going to come out of her mouth. They all felt exposed.”
The fact that none of Kelly’s NBC colleagues has offered support is revealing, the source said. “The thing at NBC is, when someone is attacked or down, people rally around them. That hasn’t happened here. For Megyn, it’s been crickets.”
Few at NBC News are mourning Kelly’s departure. A staffer told The Daily Beast: “It’s a mix of frustration and relief—frustrated that we’re in this position, but relieved that the Band-Aid has been ripped. There’s a ton of people here working really hard and producing good stuff. I think they just want that to be the story for a while.”
Additional reporting by Lachlan Cartwright, Maxwell Tani and Asawin Suebsaeng