Is Megyn Kelly’s lease on the third hour of NBC’s Today show finally about to expire? After stating during a panel discussion on Megyn Kelly Today that she didn’t understand why wearing blackface on Halloween is racist, Kelly’s morning show has reportedly been canceled. It’s unclear whether she will remain part of the NBC News team, and her lawyers will meet with NBC executives to discuss her future at the network as soon as Friday. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kelly had previously expressed an interest in covering news and politics in another capacity, but her blackface controversy may now make that an impossibility.
If the former Fox News anchor does wind up departing NBC, whether it’s voluntary or not, some may characterize her dismissal as punishment for her defense of blackface. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at Today, but my sense is that this is just the straw that broke NBC News chairman Andrew Lack’s back. “There is no other way to put this, but I condemn those remarks, there is no place on our air or in this workplace for them. Very unfortunate,” Lack said at an NBC town hall on Wednesday. If he’s probably known for a while that he needed to divorce Kelly from Today, the fact that she announced it’s okay for white people to go full minstrel show provides the excuse he needs to finally cut the cord.
I say that Lack has probably known that he needed to end Megyn Kelly Today because it seems impossible that he didn’t. Kelly’s NBC colleagues likely knew, too. Observers of its poor ratings knew, as did anyone who has ever watched Megyn Kelly Today for more than 45 seconds. As I wrote last year after the disastrous first week of this misguided experiment in morning television, Kelly’s personality doesn’t fit the Today show brand. Over the past 12 months, that fundamental truth has not changed.
The Today show is not just what’s on the background when you drink your morning coffee. It is the TV equivalent of morning coffee. It provides a bit of a jolt — the Today team does cover the news of the day, and the days we’re currently living are a nonstop hellscape of stories about alleged sexual assaulters and pipe bombs being sent to Barack Obama — but it’s also meant to be a warm, comforting part of Americans’ daily routines. That’s not who Megyn Kelly is or what she represents, at least as a television personality. If you asked me to free-associate adjectives that describe her, we’d be both here until Election Day before I ever got to “warm” or “comforting.”
Megyn Kelly was groomed as a broadcaster on Fox News, where being a white person who says whatever white thoughts enter one’s white head is an asset rather than a liability. Like so much of the on-air talent there, she was rewarded for saying the things that everyone — “everyone” being mostly white, conservative people — is supposedly thinking but doesn’t say. That quality, by the way, is one of the same things that Trump supporters often mention when asked to explain why they like him so much. Donald Trump fits in beautifully with the Fox News modus operandi, and so did Megyn Kelly, at least until she started questioning Trump’s suitability for office and speaking out against sexual harassment.
Watching Kelly press forward while the future president of the United States publicly suggested she had “blood coming out of her wherever” was impressive, and it made some women who weren’t necessarily Fox News viewers start to admire her. Surely that’s part of the reason why NBC thought she’d be a transformative figure for Today, someone who could maintain the show’s yoga-mom audience and perhaps lure in a new, more conservative demo on top of it.
That didn’t happen. Since Kelly came onboard, ratings for Today’s 9 a.m. hour have gone down, not up. So far in this deal, NBC has lost its dominance over the time slot, the $69 million Kelly was paid, whatever else NBC spent on her expensive-looking set, and former Today host Tamron Hall. (There is something both fitting and depressing about a blackface controversy potentially being the nail in Megyn Kelly Today’s coffin, considering that hiring her to replace Hall and Al Roker, who used to co-host the 9 a.m. block, was called out as an act of whitewashing.) Now, in concert with other serious problems that have surfaced related to Today — ahem, Matt Lauer — the news division is also losing another part of its once-stellar reputation.
NBC and Today execs wound up in this position because they were seduced by the persona Kelly very shrewdly crafted for herself. As Jennifer Senior noted in her New York Times review of Kelly’s book, Settle for More, “She is trying simultaneously to appeal to both her new ‘Lean-In’ fan base and the regular Fox news watchers who abhor identity politics.” It was working for a little while, too. But as Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Kelly showed us who she was five years ago on Fox News when she said that Santa Claus is most definitely white and so was Jesus Christ. That’s why on Tuesday, it wasn’t at all surprising when she so confidently stated, “You do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was okay just as long as you were dressing as a character.” It was only surprising that it took this long for her to say something on Today that was so glaringly racist and stupid.
But this is hardly the first time Kelly has shown poor judgment on the air. In the middle of NBC’s coverage of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, she noted that the phrase “believe women” is “an absurd statement,” a jarring point to make when the audience was still processing Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony. In both of these instances, Kelly has shown that she is not suited to be a journalist for NBC News — a job that, given the chatty nature of the Today show, sometimes requires the sharing of opinion, but is a much more down-the-middle, noninflammatory exercise than working at Fox News.
This week she also demonstrated what, as a white woman myself, I can say is the worst quality in a lot of white women: a steadfast refusal to do the humbling work of trying to understand the perspectives of those different from you. It is hard to believe that, in the 24 hours between Kelly’s initial comments and her publicly issued apology, she could have suddenly, fully understood why what she said about blackface was so egregious. If she made this mistake years after White Santa, that says something about her worldview that a single day of backlash-induced shame can’t fix.
What Kelly said in her apology also speaks to her lack of sincere atonement. “I have never been a P.C. kind of person, but I do understand the value in being sensitive to our history, particularly on race and ethnicity,” she said. Although she went on to say how people need to be more understanding in this polarized moment, and then spoke to her desire to set a better example in that regard, she lost me by starting that sentiment with “I have never been P.C.” Not being “P.C.” is a matter of pride for many conservative media personalities — not to mention ordinary Trump supporters themselves — because they use the term to describe the very sensitivity to which Kelly claims to aspire. Being too sensitive is a moral failing in their eyes, the sort of flaw that only snowflakes possess. Megyn Kelly is still very proud to not be “P.C.,” too, but it’s quite difficult to feel that way and be more sensitive to others at the same time. It’s like claiming to be hard-core punk rock while listening to Ed Sheeran. You can’t credibly do both simultaneously.
If you watch Megyn Kelly Today’s full Halloween costume segment, which still hasn’t been dissected in its entirety to the extent it deserves to be, her pride in her lack of P.C.-ness comes blaring through loud and clear.
“Truly political correctness has gone amok,” she says at the top of the piece, adding that “the costume police are cracking down like never before.” Kelly then frames the segment around rules laid out by a U.K. university that bans students from wearing certain costumes this year. One of those banned costumes is a cowboy, which, yeah, I’ll agree seems excessive. But Kelly goes on to express outrage that students are also barred from dressing like Harvey Weinstein, Mexicans, or Native Americans. “That’s apparently been a rule for some time,” she says dismissively about the no-Native Americans policy. She also expresses frustration with broader edicts from the power-mad costume police, like the fact that you can’t dress as Anne Frank or a handmaid from The Handmaid’s Tale. Panelist Jenna Bush Hager corrects her on that last one, noting that it’s going as a “sexy” handmaid that’s problematic. “Get over it,” Kelly responds. “Wear what you want!”
A steaming cup of “get over it” is not what most people crave from their morning-coffee television. They know they’re going to get that all day long from Twitter, their co-workers, cable news, and the Facebook rants that their aunt insists on posting multiple times a day. At a moment when everything seems partisan, even the institutions that used to at least pretend not to be, viewers don’t need the Today show joining that trend.