For all the disgusting insults Donald Trump has lobbed at Fox News Channel anchor Megyn Kelly—from retweeting someone calling her a bimbo, to implying she was on her period while moderating a debate—even the most naïve observer of politics and media in the Age of Trump must have known that Tuesday night was inevitable. And by “Tuesday night,” I don’t just mean a television special—this particular one on the Fox broadcast network, and moderated by Kelly with Trump as her star guest. Equally preordained was the fact that, at a time when Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and most of the Fox News Channel have made their peace with Trump, Kelly would eventually conduct a fawning, boring, and pointless interview with the presumptive Republican nominee.
Despite the ridiculously positive media coverage she receives from a press mostly skeptical of her FNC peers (which ignores how racist her show continues to be), Kelly is less a maverick than a team player (on a rather dirty team). It’s true that she did a good job challenging Trump and other Republicans at the debates. But that challenge of Trump took place in the context of a network that was at least partially opposed to him, and at a time when Murdoch was uncomfortable with Trump’s rise. As Gabriel Sherman reported on Tuesday, one “high-level” Fox source told him that it was Murdoch himself who encouraged Kelly to go after Trump at that first debate.
Now, with Murdoch having warmed considerably to Trump, it was predictable that Kelly would do so as well, seeking out a meeting with the businessman and conducting the cozy interview that aired on Tuesday night. Trump was probably not acting when he evinced disgust with Kelly (she is, after all, a strong woman who dared challenge him); Kelly was surely within her rights to feel both legitimately angry about Trump’s misogyny and scared by the threats she received from his deranged admirers. And yet, the whole feud had an air of phoniness to it, with each participant cleverly using it to garner attention; like a presidential campaign, ratings season in the news business never really ends. If this analysis feels too cynical, well, how else to explain Tuesday night’s show?
It was pretty clear early in the day that the interview was not going to be a tough one when Trump started tweeting at his followers to watch, even informing them that he would be live-tweeting it. Trump speculated that he thought the show would be fair, when of course it had been recorded already.
The only news coming out of the actual interview is that Kelly really could be the next Barbara Walters. She asked Trump, off the bat, when he first imagined that he could be president: This is just the sort of softball that Walters tees up, hoping to elicit inspiring tales of triumph against the odds. Kelly then turned to the death of Trump’s brother, and Trump’s divorces, asking him mawkishly whether he learned anything “about love” or “about himself” from these experiences. She followed up by asking if he had ever been “emotionally hurt,” before turning back to his penchant for insults. By the time she said that she wanted to “talk about us,” any hope of substance was lost. (The only questions that touched on Trump’s extremism had to do merely with his offensive statements, and if he regretted them, not the policy proposals behind them—and even then, they were asked in a comradely spirit.)
The one difference between the interview and a typical Barbara Walters celebrity profile was the degree to which it was about Kelly. (This is a Fox specialty: Bill O’Reilly spends countless hours talking to guests about controversies involving Bill O’Reilly.) A rambling discussion about their fight swallowed a good chunk of the interview, with each person circling the other, but without any real tension. It felt like a game, or at least a performance.
In short, it was the evening everyone wanted. Trump got a lot of free publicity without being challenged on any of his policies or his agenda. Kelly also got publicity and the chance to “right” herself with whatever segment of the Fox News audience is angry at her for being too tough on Trump. And the Murdoch-Ailes empire got what it desired, too: the last of its three major anchors, after O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, lining up behind the GOP’s standard-bearer. Kelly even found time to hawk her new book. A fine day’s work all around.
The misogynist attacks against Kelly were disgusting, but her fight with Trump was never going to end in anything but a warm embrace. Trump worships the media as much as he despises it, and Kelly is a Fox News anchor more than a journalist. Expect this “special” to be less the end of a feud than the beginning of a successful partnership.