A Donkey in Fox’s Clothing?

Megyn Kelly’s new show reminds liberals she’s not the Fox News anchor of their dreams.

Megyn Kelly giving a standup news report from the floor of the Republican National Convention in 2012.
Megyn Kelly’s new Fox nightly news program, The Kelly File, premiered last week.

Photo courtesy Matt Gagnon/Creative Commons

Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was the biggest winner of election night 2012 who was not running for public office. That evening, after Fox analysts had called Ohio and the election for President Obama, Karl Rove infamously began to express doubts about the results. In what is the only bit of television theater from that night anyone will ever remember, Kelly, who was co-anchoring Fox’s coverage, was tapped to question the decision desk directly, and she gamely stalked the halls of Fox News to authoritatively question the stat wonks who had made the call. (A Fox insider told New York’s Gabe Sherman about Kelly’s walk, “This is Fox News, so anytime there’s a chance to show off Megyn Kelly’s legs they’ll go for it.”) “We are actually quite comfortable with the call in Ohio,” one of the analysts told Kelly. This was not sufficient to convince Rove, who attempted a sort of one-man filibuster on the election results, such a blatant flouting of fact that it made Kelly’s earlier question to Rove seem prescient. “Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better,” she had asked, “or is it real?”

And thus, the dueling legends of Megyn Kelly were born: Kelly the unflappable, impeccable Fox News star, and Kelly the unflappable, impeccable Fox News star who maybe knows Fox News is crazy. While nearly everyone around her lost their senses, Kelly remained the perfectly poised adult: gracefully navigating a contentious situation, upholding the integrity of Fox News without alienating conservative powerhouses, and making captivating television all the while.

That night, Fox saw an anchor they should commit to. The Kelly File, her new nightly news program, started last week and makes her Fox’s first new host since 2003. It airs directly following The O’Reilly Factor, and after just two episodes, it’s become the most watched show in the demo on cable news.

That night last fall, liberals also saw someone to admire. Kelly’s assured handling of Rove’s temper tantrum solidified her burgeoning reputation as the Fox News anchor who, when push came to Karl Rove’s shoving, would behave like a member of the reality-based community. If she was not quite a donkey in Fox’s clothing, maybe she wasn’t a party-line ideologue in one either.

Kelly has set herself apart by doing things Fox News personalities don’t usually do: She had issued a skillful and fast correction to Fox’s missed call on the Affordable Care Act, she “destroyed” a conservative who had called her maternity leave “a racket,” and she had taken her colleagues to task for disparaging families in which women are the primary breadwinner. Writing about that last incident on The New Yorker’s website, Amy Davidson—while complimentarily calling Kelly “the brains of the Fox News operation”—noted that Kelly “does not describe herself as a feminist, which may be why it’s all the more fascinating when, every now and then, she decides to act like what others might describe as one.” Kelly, to put a spin on an old cliché, is the Fox News host liberal women would most like to have a glass of sav blanc with.

That is, until they watch an episode of The Kelly File. One week into the show’s run, it is clear that to understand Kelly as anything other than a dedicated Fox News shill is a deluded fantasy. It is, to paraphrase Kelly herself, just wishful thinking you do as a Democrat to make yourself feel better. The skills that Kelly displayed on election night are real: She really is smarter, more appealing, and more polished than any other Fox News personality—none of which obviates her totally pernicious dedication to keeping Fox viewers within the Fox bubble, facts be damned.

For instance, watching The Kelly File, you would think the Republicans were more popular than the president. Since her new show has been on air, Kelly has never willingly shared the terrible approval ratings of Republicans in Congress, though she has vociferously supplied Obama’s low approval ratings and the low approval ratings of Congress as a whole.  In its first week, The Kelly Files has been fixated on how the shutdown was briefly keeping death benefits from soldiers who have died since the government closed. In the post-Benghazi era, this means determining “when” Barack Obama “knew” that families were being denied benefits, and when he decided to “do something” about it, even though the problem was brought up and addressed in a matter of days. Kelly aired a “gotcha” clip of Fox’s Ed Henry grilling Press Secretary Jay Carney that is downright Rorschachian: It looks to me like the White House dealt with the issue as quickly as possible, but looks to Fox News like a White House cover-up.

Nearly all the stories on The Kelly File turn on wedge social issues. A segment about a teenager who was returned to a house with a sex offender in it made it to air because the girl was allegedly being forced to have an abortion. There was a piece about the war on Christmas. A sequence about the 1980s killing of a DEA agent got play because the Obama administration has not protested the release of his killer from Mexican prison strongly enough. Kelly, her head, as usual, cocked slightly to the left to indicate deep listening, calmly took in a guest explaining that the Democrats don’t want to talk with Republicans because you “never have a real conversation with your adversary, it humanizes them,” before, seconds later, quoting Lenin: “Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.”

But then there are moments when Kelly exhibits her no-nonsense charm. In a segment on Las Vegas union workers hurling insults at tourists, a panelist said that Obama and Harry Reid have called people worse names in just the last few days, suggesting that such abuse and violence was typical of the left. At this, Kelly intervened, a little sarcastically. “You have maybe overstated your case. I don’t think we want to dismiss the entire left in the country as violent,” she said. Then she added, “I will say in [the union’s] defense that one time one guy parked me in and I could not get out of my car on either side, and I put a little note on his car and all I wrote on it was ‘Loser!’ And it made me feel so much better. And maybe they are experiencing the same thing. It was very cathartic for me. I cop to it.”

This may be a silly story, but I found it charming—and also terrifyingly savvy. Kelly dropped this anecdote into one of the least contentious stories she aired last week. (Even the Democrat on the panel thought cursing at tourists wasn’t a great strategy.) It burnishes her reputation as something other than a Fox automaton, without alienating any Fox partisans (it’s a cute story). Megyn Kelly has convinced both the right and the left that she’s a bold truth-teller because of her willingness to call bullshit one out of the 100 times bullshit should actually could be called.

Kelly is, in a way, like Laura Bush, a likeable woman who once evinced a leftish streak—voting Democrat before her marriage—that allowed liberals to project upon her a more palatable politics, a flight of fancy that inspired an entire novel.  Every single day, Kelly demonstrates her devotion to Fox News ideology. But because the only tidbits that regularly reach non-Fox News watchers are viral videos of Kelly doing something rare for a Fox News anchor—pointing out that all liberals are not violent, say, or arguing maternity leave is good—liberals can harbor the fantasy that Megyn Kelly might be that mythical being: A Fox News anchor to disagree with only some of the time. It’s not true, but it’s a very comforting to believe, because Megyn Kelly is going to be with us for a very long while.