No political comments, please.
The Megyn Kelly Moment
By Jim Rutenberg, The New York Times Sunday Magazine
- Jan. 25, 2015
On a gray Wednesday in November, the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly and four producers gathered around a conference table on the 17th floor of the News Corporation building in Manhattan. They were there to plan the 281st episode of “The Kelly File,” which would be shown live in a few hours, at 9 p.m. Kelly’s executive producer, Tom Lowell, a 25-year veteran of TV news, ticked through the program blocks, the between-commercial bits that are the basic unit of television programming. The A Block would contain a Fox News exclusive on the president’s plans to halt millions of deportations. The B and C Blocks would focus on the Obama health care adviser Jonathan Gruber’s declaration, caught on tape, that the Affordable Care Act passed in part because of “the stupidity of the American voter.” Slated for the D block was Jonathan Gilliam, a former Navy SEAL.
Gilliam had been Kelly’s idea. She saw him on Anderson Cooper’s CNN program a few days earlier, attacking another former SEAL, Robert O’Neill, who had been talking about his role in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in sometimes salty language. Cooper asked Gilliam for a reaction. Gilliam said the boasting was a breach of military honor and had, if anything, made O’Neill an assassination target. O’Neill, Gilliam said, should be prosecuted and given a dishonorable discharge.
As it happened, Fox News was broadcasting the second part of a two-part documentary that night that cast O’Neill in a more heroic light, so Gilliam’s attack on O’Neill could also be viewed as an attack on Fox News, where Gilliam had been a frequent guest as well. Kelly, sensing an opportunity, directed her team to book him again as soon as possible.
Now, sitting with one leg tucked up on her chair, she narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. “Is he feeling less critical?”
Maybe a little, Lowell said, adding, “but just in the last hour the head of the Navy SEALs, the senior leadership, put out a letter — “
Kelly cut him off: “That was out last week.” She explained to the other producers that the letter urged the SEALs to maintain their silence, a move that appeared to put O’Neill (and, though she didn’t say it, Fox) on the wrong side of a debate about military honor.
Kelly did not think the show needed to delve into any such details. That was SEAL business, she told me before the meeting. She was more upset about what Gilliam had said. He criticized O’Neill for using profanity, which she found ridiculous. “This is a Navy SEAL who we trained to be a killer of bad terrorists. He’s not going to walk around using the Queen’s English!” Worse, and possibly even dangerous, she said, was Gilliam’s claim that O’Neill had made himself a jihadist target.
Before moving on to discuss the E Block, Kelly turned to Lowell with her final order for Gilliam: “Let him know that I saw what he did last week,” she said, in a stern but somewhat self-mocking tone.
A few hours later, Gilliam arrived on Kelly’s cavernous set, just as she was closing out the C block. A production assistant sat him on the white leather high-back stool at the corner of Kelly’s transparent desk. Gilliam is bald and broad shouldered, with a thick neck and a bushy gray goatee. He has been trained to “kill ruthlessly,” he told me later. Kelly, in black spiky heels and a bright red dress, her blond hair now blown out, offered him a chilly hello during a commercial break, then returned to paging through her notes. The stool was small, and Gilliam appeared to droop over the sides. His Megyn moment approached.
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, a Megyn moment, as I have taken to calling it, is when you, a Fox guest — maybe a regular guest or even an official contributor — are pursuing a line of argument that seems perfectly congruent with the Fox worldview, only to have Kelly seize on some part of it and call it out as nonsense, maybe even turn it back on you. You don’t always know when, how or even if the Megyn moment will happen; Kelly’s political sensibility and choice of subjects are generally in keeping with that of the network at large. But you always have to be ready for it, no matter who you are. Neither Karl Rove nor Dick Cheney have been spared their Megyn moments, nor will the growing field of 2016 presidential aspirants, who can look forward to two years of interrogation on “The Kelly File.” The Megyn moment has upended the popular notion of how a Fox News star is supposed to behave, and led to the spectacle of a Fox anchor winning praise from the very elites whose disdain Fox has always welcomed. In the process, Kelly’s program has not just given America’s top-rated news channel its biggest new hit in 13 years; it has demonstrated an appeal to the younger and (slightly) more ideologically diverse demographic Fox needs as it seeks to claim even more territory on the American journo-political landscape.
After another commercial break, D block began, and a video showed O’Neill describing how it felt as he made his way to bin Laden’s compound: “We were the F.D.N.Y.; we were the N.Y.P.D.; we were the American people.” Then, the studio camera went live, trained on Gilliam. Kelly got right to the point.
“This is a little dicey because you’ve been very critical of this man,” she said, the model of stern sincerity. “But I wanted to give you the chance to explain it. Because I think a lot of our viewers are looking at him thinking, That man is a national hero.”
Gilliam was prepared. He wasn’t attacking O’Neill. He was attacking the president. “There’s a problem that starts at the top and works its way down,” he said.
“Head of the Navy SEALs?” she asked innocently.
No, he said. “Let’s start with the president, commander in chief. He’s never even been in the military. We elect somebody who’s never been in the military before, and we don’t put them through any training so they know how the military works. Then you have a vice president who goes out — “
But Kelly, incredulous, stopped him midsentence. She then asked him a question often heard on Fox News, though seldom in nonrhetorical form: “What did the president do wrong?”
Here was the Megyn moment, and Gilliam would never recover. He tried to explain his case, arguing that the White House set the bad example for O’Neill and his fellow SEALs by divulging details about the operation in a craven bid to win credit for the president. But Kelly didn’t let it shake her focus: his mistreatment of O’Neill. “You made people view him as a pariah,” she said.
It was another win, and another winning night, for Megyn Kelly. That Wednesday, like most weeknights since her show debuted in 2013, she beat all of her cable-news competitors. Her audience of 2.8 million was four times as large as Rachel Maddow’s on MSNBC and six times larger as that of “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” the Mike Rowe program on CNN about people who devote their lives to odd passions. In fact, “The Kelly File” was the highest-rated nonsports program in her time slot in all of basic cable in 2014. For Roger Ailes, the Fox News Channel chairman and chief executive, who put her there and raised her in his television image, Kelly has become his “breakthrough artist,” the one who will define Fox’s future.
‘Attractive-looking blond anchorwomen are not rare,’ Brit Hume said. ‘Attractive-looking blond anchorwomen who speak with a fierce authority are rare.’
* * * *
Ailes has long argued that Americans alienated by the sensibilities of the “New York-Hollywood elitists” are a valuable demographic, and the past two decades have proved him right. He started Fox News in 1996, led it to first place in the cable-news ratings in 2002 and has widened his lead ever since. At the point it surpassed CNN, Fox News had an average prime-time audience of 1.2 million, while CNN’s was 900,000 and MSNBC’s was around 400,000. By the end of 2012 — a presidential-election year, with higher-than-typical news viewership — its prime-time audience of more than two million was the third-biggest in all of basic cable and larger than those of MSNBC (905,000) and CNN (677,000) combined. By last year, its share of that news pie had climbed to 61 percent, and it had moved to second place in the prime-time rankings for all of basic cable, behind ESPN.
This has given Ailes consistent bragging rights, no small matter for a man whose braggadocio is television legend. (When Paula Zahn departed Fox News for CNN in 2001, he said he could beat her ratings with “a dead raccoon.”) But it has also given him something more impressive: ever-increasing profits. During a 10-year span, Fox News’s profits grew sixfold to $1.2 billion in 2014, on total operating revenue of $2 billion, according to the financial analysis firm SNL Kagan. By contrast, those of CNN and MSNBC have leveled off over the past few years, with the occasional small dip or spike.
In all, Ailes has contributed 69 consecutive quarters of growth to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which split into two public companies in 2013. Within 21st Century Fox, which encompasses the film, broadcast-television and cable-entertainment divisions and employs 27,000 people, Fox News accounted for roughly 18 percent of the total profits last year, even though it has less than 8 percent of the employee base. Kagan projects that Fox News will deliver $1.9 billion in profit by 2018. “They’re just doing phenomenally,” said Derek Baine, the Kagan senior analyst.
And yet, for a network that wants to grow in both viewers and dollars, Ailes’s favored demographic has begun to pose something of a constraint. In an online survey, the Pew Research Center has found that 84 percent of those whom it identified as “consistently conservative” already watched Fox News. Moreover, though Fox News regularly wins in the demographic that matters most to advertisers — those viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — it has the oldest audience in cable news, a fact that its detractors are quick to point out. How many more of Ailes’s “average Americans” are there who are not already tuned into Fox News on a regular basis?
The Pew Research Center data, though, also suggests an area where expansion is still possible: 37 percent of the Fox News audience holds views that Pew calls ideologically “mixed.” (This means their survey responses on specific political questions cut across ideological lines: For example, they support same-sex marriage but oppose new restrictions on gun ownership.) Similarly, a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that about 38 percent of all Americans identify themselves as “independent,” and 34 percent of those independents identify themselves as conservative. A little more than half of that subgroup cite Fox as their “most trusted” news source. The rest are what Robert P. Jones, the chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, identified as “a growth margin” for the network; they could be what the poll identified as “Fox News Independents,” but they don’t know it yet. Unlike the more hard-core “Fox News Republicans,” these independents are less likely to call themselves members of the Tea Party, are more open to allowing the children of illegal immigrants to stay here legally and slightly more approving of the president’s job performance (15 percent for Fox News Independents, as opposed to 5 percent for Fox News Republicans).
How does Ailes maintain the aging conservative base that has allowed him to control the present while at the same time drawing in younger and independent viewers that will allow him to grow and control the future? Fox News, in this way, is confronted by the same problem the Republican Party faces, and Ailes appears to be solving his problem the way anyone hoping to build a winning national coalition must: by emphasizing personality.
When Ted Turner started CNN, he proclaimed that “the news is the star.” Ailes, on the other hand, has always been a vocal believer in the power of personality. He was the one who, as a young producer of “The Mike Douglas Show,” advised Richard Nixon to embrace the power of television, and who, as a professional political adviser, taught George H. W. Bush how to best Dan Rather in an interview. Ailes knows as well as any television professional alive that personality is the essence of the medium — he called his 1987 self-help book “You Are the Message,” a wink at Marshall McLuhan’s insight that the medium is the message, and subtitled it “Getting What You Want by Being Who You Are.” Ailes’s advice was just what you would expect: “If you can get the audience to pull for you, you’ll always win.”
The challenge, then, was to get everyone pulling for the same guy. In this regard, Bill O’Reilly, 65, has been the prototypical Fox personality. A former correspondent for ABC News who never quite fit the broadcast mold, he grew up in Levittown, on Long Island, and could throw buckets of regular-white-guy resentment at the camera with an uncanny panache. His nightly sign off, “We’re definitely looking out for you,” could easily translate to “We’re in this together.” He has been the top-rated star in all of cable for 13 years running. (And often the best-selling nonfiction author in America as well.) O’Reilly presents himself as a right-leaning populist, with his regular references to “secular progressives” and “the radical left.” But every once in a while he’ll take an unexpected position, say, like his support for some modest gun controls. As O’Reilly told me in a phone interview in November, his show “isn’t a consistent ideological presentation because that doesn’t really work anymore.” A predictable ideological line, he said, is “a niche thing. You can still make a good living doing it, but if you want to be wide, you’ve gotta have a bunch of dimensions.”
‘Our critics are always like, “She wore red for Republicans.” They don’t cover it when you wear blue.’
The last time Pew studied it, in 2012, O’Reilly’s audience was 52 percent Republican, 30 percent independent and 15 percent Democratic. The show that followed his for many years, “Hannity,” with the conservative talk-radio host Sean Hannity, who takes a more traditional Republican line, had an audience that was 65 percent Republican, 22 percent independent and 6 percent Democratic. In speaking to me, Ailes, while complimentary of Hannity as “a unique personality,” also called his show “segmented.” It is no coincidence that, as part of Kelly’s professional development, Ailes made her a regular guest on O’Reilly, where she had to frequently debate him, stand her ground and occasionally mouth off. Finally he moved Kelly into Hannity’s 9 p.m. slot, bumping him to 10 p.m.
I can find no polls that break down the ideological views of Kelly’s audience, and Ailes himself says he does not even have an official Q-score, the industrywide benchmark for TV talent, to rate her by. He says he doesn’t need one. “I have the Q-score,” he told me, pointing at his head.
He also has the ratings. “The Kelly File” is the only cable-news program in the 9 p.m. time slot to show year-over-year growth in overall viewership and in the 25-to-54 demographic. In November, when she was covering the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., Kelly beat O’Reilly among the 25-to-54 demographic, marking the first time any Fox star had done so without audience-boosting presidential debates or conventions running into their time slots. Kelly ended 2014 just behind O’Reilly, holding second place in all of cable news. In her own time slot, she is ahead of everyone, not just in news but on all of basic cable: “Duck Dynasty,” “Mob Wives,” everything but sports. For Roger Ailes, Megyn is clearly the message.
* * * *
Kelly, who is now 44, grew up in Ailes’s America, in a middle-class suburb of Albany called Delmar. She was the youngest of three children, worked as a fitness instructor and went to Mass most Sundays. Her father was an education professor at the State University of New York at Albany, and her mother ran the behavioral-health department at a Veterans Administration hospital. As a teenager in the late 1980s, she lived in a mall rat’s bubble of tall hair, leg warmers and Bon Jovi; one of the popular kids, she was the type who also had friends among the other groups at Bethlehem Central High School, with names like the Dirties (hackeysack-playing stoners) and the Creamies (choir geeks). Reality intruded early. Ten days before Christmas, when Kelly was 15, her father died of a heart attack. He had canceled some of his life-insurance coverage just two months earlier. Money had been tight, and Kelly’s mother had to worry about the mortgage and other expenses. In her senior yearbook, Megyn listed her future hopes in three words: “College, government, wealth.”
Kelly took a high-school aptitude test that, in a perhaps rare moment of accuracy for such tests, suggested that her ideal career was news. She applied to Syracuse in hopes of attending its well-regarded communications program; she was accepted to the school but rejected from the program, so she majored in political science instead. She won a seat in the student senate and was assigned to a panel that investigated faculty sexual-harassment cases, which in turn, she says, piqued her interest in becoming a prosecutor. But after she got her J.D. from Albany Law School in 1995 and found herself facing $100,000 in student loans, she decided to pursue a better-paying career in corporate litigation.
She applied to several firms, including Bickel & Brewer, which hired her to work in its Chicago office, which at that point had no female associates. Robert Cummins, then a partner at the firm, now 81, told me that he asked some of the other associates to take her out to see if she could handle the firm’s macho culture. She could. After about two years there she sought, and landed, a plum position at the prestigious firm of Jones Day, bouncing between its Chicago, New York and, finally, Washington offices. She had married Daniel Kendall, a doctor, but they were growing apart. On track to make partner, she was also exhausted, heading toward divorce and wondering about the direction her life had taken.
In 2003, she cut a TV news demo tape with help from a friend and began cold-calling station managers. The only one she could persuade to see her in person was Bill Lord, then the news director of WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington. Lord told me that he had never given a job to somebody off the street with no experience, but Kelly’s tape and the interview impressed him. “She was very intelligent, there’s just no getting around it,” he said. “She was enormously confident. She seemed very, very motivated. She had ideas.” He hired her on a tryout basis one day a week, which quickly led to two days, then to three, then to four. Her priorities were getting the story and beating the competition but never pushing any political ideology, at least as far as Lord could tell. In Lord’s admiring view, “it was all motivated by ambition, I think, all of it. She really wanted to succeed.” Lord was ready to give her a full-time job, and they began negotiating a two-year contract. Kelly says that’s when she realized she might be able to aim much higher.
Competing network executives I have spoken to agree that Kelly could have gone from WJLA to any of the major networks. Jonathan Klein, the CNN/US president from 2004 through 2010, told me it was one of his big regrets that he did not snag Kelly early on. “If you’d have asked me who was the one talent you’d want to have from somewhere else, from another network, I would have said — and did — Megyn Kelly,” Klein told me. “She just hits the right notes.”
But Kelly says Fox was the only other place she wanted to work. “I literally had two hats out there.” Kelly told me. “One was WJLA and one was Fox News.” (Later, it is worth noting, Kelly modified that self-assessment. Had MSNBC called 10 years earlier, before Fox, she would have gone happily. “I’d have done O.K. there, too,” she said.) In 2004, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington, she struck up a conversation with Bill Sammon, then a correspondent for The Washington Times and a regular contributor to Fox News. He urged her to send a tape to the Fox Washington bureau chief, Kim Hume, who had defected to Fox News from ABC News, followed by her husband, Brit Hume.
“Attractive-looking blond anchorwomen are not rare,” Brit Hume, now a senior political analyst, told me. “Attractive-looking blond anchorwomen who speak with a fierce authority are rare. In fact, attractive looking anybody who speaks with that kind of authority are rare.” Even better, he said, “she believed in our mission, and she thought that the news was not balanced properly the way it was being presented by the other main outlets, and that was part of the reason she was interested in coming here. That combination, to say that’s rare — it’s off-the-charts rare.”
Hume sent her tape to Roger Ailes, who did not need much convincing. “She’s obviously a beautiful girl, beautiful woman and very intelligent, law degree, a lot of credentials there,” he recalled when I spoke to him in December. “She has an excellent voice, and a lot of people overlook voice.” Best of all, he said, she reminded him of “the kids I hired here who go to SUNY and work two jobs and try to make it.”
* * * *
Every once in a while Kelly will replay clips from those early days for viewers, mostly to make fun of herself. “Watch the poise and confidence here,” she’ll joke. In her first segments for Hume’s show, “Special Report,” or on “The Fox Report” with Shepard Smith, she was stiff, serious, almost timid. The segments could just as easily have been on one of the broadcast networks: new trends in sentencing for nonviolent offenders, Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s thyroid treatment.
She began to draw attention beyond the Fox News universe in April 2006 with a series of reports on the “Duke lacrosse” case, in which a 27-year-old black woman accused three white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of sexually assaulting her at a party where she performed as a hired stripper. Most of the news coverage treated the case as a test of racial privilege and justice. Kelly took a decidedly different approach. Frequently citing “defense sources,” she was often first with an escalating series of stories that cast serious doubt on the accuser. Media critics on the left vilified her for her coverage, but the case eventually unraveled, and prosecutors dropped the charges.
Ailes was pleased with her early work but less so her presentation. “I brought her up and sat her down, and I said: ‘Megyn, you have to show vulnerability. You’re working so hard, as many people do when they come into the business, to prove they are worthy of the job. They’re terrified of mistakes and appear to be protecting themselves on the air.' ” Which was fine, so far as it went. But Ailes had a different view of television, and he encouraged Kelly to embrace it. “People expect to see a human being, a range of emotions,” he said.
Kelly developed that emotional range by pursuing a series of red-meat stories and allegations driven by the boiling anger of the Tea Party era: that Barack Obama was pursuing a “socialist-like agenda,” that the community-organizing group Acorn would rely on the likes of “child rapists” to help conduct the U.S. Census, that the Department of Justice was refusing to enforce laws against voter intimidation, at least when those doing the intimidating were black and their victims were white.
While all this was happening, Kelly got married (in 2008, to Doug Brunt, then an Internet entrepreneur) and got her own show (“America Live,” in 2010). In the spring of 2011, she and Brunt had their second child, Yardley. (They now have a third.) While Kelly was away on maternity leave, the conservative radio host Mike Gallagher lamented her absence during a radio chat with Kelly’s colleague Chris Wallace. Gallagher called her maternity leave “a racket,” as if it were some kind of work-avoidance scheme.
Robin Roberts, the ‘Good Morning America’ host, grabbed her by the arm and whispered in her ear, ‘I get you.’
He did not know it, but he was to become the target of what was arguably the inaugural Megyn moment. On Kelly’s first day back, in August, she invited Gallagher onto her show and proceeded to strafe him mercilessly. “The United States is the only advanced country that doesn’t require paid leave,” Kelly told him. “If anything, the United States is in the dark ages when it comes to maternity leave. And what is it about getting pregnant and carrying a baby nine months that you don’t think deserves a few months off so bonding and recovery can take place? Hmm?” When Gallagher asked whether men were entitled to the same time off, Kelly informed him that indeed they were. “It’s called the Family Medical Leave Act,” she said.
The moment did not go unnoticed. “Megyn Kelly Demolishes Mike Gallagher,” a Huffington Post headline cheered. Gawker called it a “feminist triumph.” Even the progressive group Media Matters for America, which closely monitors Fox, credited her performance. (Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” was not buying it and showed clips in which Kelly questioned the need for men to take long paternity leaves and criticized entitlements in general. In a later phone conversation, Kelly confronted Stewart, arguing that he had taken devil’s-advocate questions out of context to make them seem like her positions. “Typical Stewart,” she said. “He wouldn’t budge.”)
Then, a year later, came the Megyn moment that made her career, with Rove on election night 2012. She was the co-anchor with Bret Baier, the anchorman of “Special Report.” By 10 p.m. or so, as Republican hopes for the presidency were starting to dim, Rove was on the Fox News set insisting that Romney still had a chance. “Is this just the math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is it real?” Kelly snapped.
Rove would not back down. At 11:13 p.m., Fox declared Ohio, and thus the election, for Obama. Rove disputed the call, running through his own numbers from bellwether precincts. Kelly began laughing and deadpanned, “That’s awkward.”
Ailes was prepared, of course. Intentionally or not, Rove was speaking for a portion of the Fox News audience that found the result inconceivable, in part because many Fox News hosts and guests had questioned polls that predicted it. Fox producers had rehearsed a live walk to the “decision desk,” the conference room where Fox’s election analysts did their work, three days earlier. Around 11:30 p.m., with Rove still hanging on to hope, Ailes called the control room from home and told producers to send Kelly in.
Kelly’s command of the moment was total. She waved at producers, on-air colleagues and stagehands, goading her cameramen to “keep coming” and smiling broadly. And when she finally reached the decision desk, she had the numbers crunchers tick through all the reasons Rove, who once called himself the keeper of “the Math,” was wrong — totally, inexorably, hopelessly wrong.
The moment has been endlessly cited, in part because it was so freighted: Here was perhaps the most hated man in liberal America being humiliated on what should have been his home turf. And here was his beautiful and merciless tormentor, Megyn Kelly, confounding expectations about her network. After showing a replay of Kelly’s performance the following day, Stewart told his audience: “Did you see it? Did you record it? Did you TiVo it? Because you can play it backwards and forwards backwards and forwards all day long like I did today.” The Times media columnist David Carr wrote that Kelly had appeared to be “speaking for many of us,” and that, at least in this one confrontation, Fox News had “landed firmly on the side of journalism, the facts and a narrative based on reality as opposed to partisan fantasy.”
* * * *
A few days before the midterm election last November, Kelly was in her office thinking about wardrobe. Elections, even midterm elections, are major events for television news organizations. Eight different outfits were hanging on a rolling clothes rack beside her desk. “I don’t really like wearing royal blue or red because it’s so anchor-y,” she said as she picked through the rack. Kelly is aware that her clothing choices are sometimes parsed for ideological content. “Our critics are always like, ‘She wore red for Republicans.’ They don’t cover it when you wear blue.” She fell into a mock whisper, as if to indicate what they might say if they did: “ 'Oh, she’s a secret Democrat.' ” She raised both hands to her mouth, looked at me and mimed an expression of total horror.
As Kelly’s star has risen, so has the scrutiny. O’Reilly had warned her: “They’re going to come after you.” This has made the balancing act of her on-screen persona — between her maverick moments on the one hand, and her still-reliable taste for red-meat topics on the other — an increasingly delicate one. In December 2013, she became a figure of ridicule on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” for asserting that Santa Claus, contrary to the claim of a tongue-in-cheek essay in Slate, was incontrovertibly Caucasian. (She said she was joking, too, and lamented the tendency of others to “race bait.”) And in October 2014, the NBC affiliate in Denver debunked her report that a new Colorado law would allow voters to print their own ballots and give them to “collectors,” raising the specter of voter fraud, a frequent subject of Fox News alarm. That turned out not to be the case. “We normally reserve our truth tests for political ads, but that claim is misleading,” the 9News co-anchor Kyle Clark told his viewers. (Kelly called the fallout on liberal blogs “a nothing burger,” though she later corrected the report.) Yet she drew far more attention in June for telling Dick Cheney, the former vice president, “Time and time again history has proved that you got it wrong in Iraq, sir.” Jon Stewart showed the clip on “The Daily Show” and even did a little happy dance at his desk.
Before the 10-hour election special began, Ailes gathered his entire news team in a large conference room. The exit-poll data was showing a big Republican night. Ailes gave his usual pep talk. “Be sure to maintain a conversational tone, a pleasant attitude and a good energy level on the air,” he said. “Audiences like real people. We built this network on that.”
As the coverage went live, there was an unmistakable air of giddiness in the studio. During an on-air visit to the anchor desk, the Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto told Kelly and Baier that they looked as if they should be on a wedding cake. Kelly joked about the name of the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, by pretending to mistake him for the author Tom Wolfe. “He wrote all those great books, oh, wait!” she said, a joke perhaps more appropriate for egghead Manhattanites than for Fox News Independents. In the end, Kelly decided to wear a black skirt suit, a white blouse and gold-and-white stilettos. “Black is classic and you always want to be a little classic on election night, you know?”
For all the apparent predictability of the night, Fox News even managed to find some excitement. Ed Gillespie, the former Bush adviser and a close friend of Rove’s, was doing better than expected in his Virginia race against Mark Warner, the Democratic senator. “There’s a lot of drama yet to be had,” Kelly said. It was hard not to wonder whether the broadcast networks had made a bad decision that night in deciding to devote only an hour, starting at 10 p.m., to the national elections in which Senate control would flip. While the Virginia drama was playing out, NBC was showing the sitcom “About a Boy” and CBS was showing its crime drama “NCIS.” ABC was running a special about the 75th anniversary of Marvel Comics, which is owned by Disney, ABC’s own parent company, a dubious move that went largely unnoticed by media critics on election night.
Fox’s audience wound up being more than double those of CNN and MSNBC combined. And it beat all of the broadcast networks, including, for the first time, in the 25-to-54 demographic category. This may be because the networks have finally thrown in the towel. The Tyndall Report, which analyzes broadcast news coverage, reported that their 6:30 p.m. newscasts devoted less time to the midterm elections and domestic policy in 2014 than in any year since it started keeping track in 1990; the top story was “winter weather.” (Tyndall did credit CBS for significant coverage of Syria and Iraq.)
The drama around Gillespie’s possible upset went only so far; he did eventually lose. But the Republicans were otherwise rolling along. It even seemed as if Scott Brown, the former Massachusetts senator, a friend of Fox (as an occasional paid analyst), might pull off a squeaker in his bid to unseat Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. But it was not to be, the Fox decision desk ruled.
Brown’s campaign tried to argue that 25,000 outstanding votes could make the difference. Once again, it fell to Kelly to shut an intransigent Republican down. She got up from her desk and removed her earpiece. “You know the walk by now,” she said, looking into the camera. As she headed to the conference room for another explanation from the data crunchers, she told Rove over her shoulder: “Just be glad it’s not you this time.”
Sheepish, Rove, who was standing off set awaiting his next hit, started walking after her. “For once,” he said, “We’re following you.”
* * * *
A couple of days after the election, I met Kelly and her husband for breakfast at a French restaurant a few blocks from their apartment on the Upper West Side, which is not exactly Fox Nation. No one recognized her. On television she is all heavy black mascara, high-gloss lipstick and blown out blond hair. In person she goes with very little makeup, keeps her hair pinned back above her ears and dresses modestly: on this morning she wore an overlarge black T-shirt, black jeans, high Prada boots and a chunky crystal around her neck, the spiritual significance of which she swore not to know.
As on television, though, Kelly speaks in a jazz-improv progression of italics, all-caps and boldface. Her husband, Doug Brunt — eight months younger than Kelly at 43 — is youthful and soft-spoken, and he seems content to let Kelly keep the spotlight. He once ran an Internet security firm that helped corporations fend off hackers and system saboteurs, but he sold it, and now he’s pursuing his fantasy job of writing novels.
I wanted to know how Kelly and Brunt were getting used to her fame and, yes, mainstream acceptance. Brunt said the most stirring moment came in October, when Kelly was hosting her show from the oceanside in Dana Point, Calif., where she was attending Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women Summit. Unexpectedly, an enormous crowd began to gather. “It was one of those moments when you see how big it has become,” Brunt said.
What happened inside the conference, which was a gathering of the most powerful women in business, was no less extraordinary. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who wrote “Lean In,” was to interview Kelly on the main stage. Sandberg introduced Kellywith a clip from a celebrated Megyn moment from 2013, in which she challenged the conservative commentator Erick Erickson for saying that the national increase in female breadwinners ran counter to the biologically determined order. “Who died and made you scientist in chief?” Kelly asked him.
The conference hall erupted in cheers, and Sandberg herself, who worked in the Clinton administration before her hiring at Facebook, audibly whooped. “I saw that on TV,” she told the crowd, “and I just cold-called her and said ‘I love you, you are awesome.' ”
By then, Time magazine had already named Kelly as one of the 100 “most influential people in the world” for 2014. The only other television journalist to win the distinction was Charlie Rose, who invited her to lunch. (In an email to me, he complimented Kelly as “a savvy young woman who knows what she wants” and is “obviously doing something right.”) She got to sit next to Seth Meyers at the black-tie gala, and a few months later appeared on his show. She was also invited to host the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame awards at the Waldorf-Astoria with Bob Costas. Backstage, Robin Roberts, the “Good Morning America” host, grabbed her by the arm and whispered in her ear, “I get you.” NBC expressed interest in hiring her, as did CNN, which gave Ailes added incentive to award her a prime-time slot.
Of course, Brunt and Kelly know that acceptance only goes so far. When Kelly got her 9 p.m. show, Media Matters sounded an alarm, calling her “a much more pernicious purveyor of political propaganda” than other Fox News stars, with a unique ability to “pluck misinformation and imbue it with a veneer of legitimacy.” (She ignores Media Matters, she says: “They exist to destroy Fox News.”) Then there are those occasional New York dinner parties. “You’re talking about your life, and then they’ll be like, ‘How can you stand working at Fox News?' ” Kelly said while picking at a frittata. “And that’s not polite dinner conversation.”
Brunt confessed that, more recently, it got to him more than it got to her. “These days it doesn’t ruffle you,” he said to her. Either way, it’s all fodder for his novels. His latest, “The Means,” revolves around a young litigator, Samantha Davis, who decides she needs to change her life. She seeks a job at the hot cable-news network, UBS, and after a by-the-gut news executive is struck by her beauty and brains, gets her big chance. Under his gentle guidance — she does not require much — success follows. “America wants more,” her best friend says.
Readers looking for clues about Kelly’s true political leanings might find them in the book’s dramatic climax, in which Samantha uncovers a scandal that causes a Democratic president to lose his re-election bid. Evidence of right-wing bias? Not so fast: At the very end of the novel, it turns out that Samantha had been manipulated by a source, and that the story she broke was untrue. The Democrat was taken down unfairly. Samantha determines to clear his name. Now you wouldn’t know what to think.
Alone on the wall behind Roger Ailes’s desk in the Fox News headquarters is a rather grim oil painting, framed in gold, of a Revolutionary War-era warship tossed by an angry sea. Ailes bought it at an antique shop 30 years ago and has no idea who painted it. He saw it as “a ship headed into the wind alone, and I thought, That’s my life.” He seems to consider it part of his job to view things that way.
When I visited him in late December, he could hardly even pretend to be alone. Though the overall news audience was down for all of the cable networks, Fox was ending the year as the second-most-watched basic-cable network in prime time, up from third in 2013, and was the only cable-news network to see any audience growth during prime time. “This channel’s still growing,” Ailes told me. “You’re going to see over the next 10 years, this thing is going to grow even bigger.”
As for Kelly, Ailes said, she had a long way to go to become one of the truly great television news talents, a distinction he reserves for Walter Cronkite, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters and, of course, Bill O’Reilly. But, he said, “we’ve been on the air for 18 years. She shows up, and in one year goes to No. 2 and close to No. 1. That is an astounding accomplishment. Before this is over, she may be bigger than anybody.”
Ailes said he hoped one day to outperform the broadcast-news divisions, a dream that might seem absurd, given that the networks still draw a normal, nonelection night audience of eight million viewers or more on a regular basis. But his plan to reach a broader audience seems to be working. In April, Joe Klein, the liberal-leaning columnist for Time,complained to an audience at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan about how television news is turning away from covering politics and government. “I miss being able to turn on a straight newscast,” he said. “And it turns out the only place you can go to get one at 6 o’clock at night is Fox.” Other Americans are reaching the same conclusion. Kelly beat the networks on election night, and now Bret Baier’s hourlong newscast at 6 p.m., “Special Report,” frequently beats the ABC or CBS newscasts in select markets, including Atlanta, St. Louis and even Baltimore, a Democratic stronghold.
“They used to laugh at us in the mainstream media,” Ailes said, “but we’re becoming the place most people go to get the truth.”