When it comes to the world of broadcast journalism, it’s tough for anyone to escape controversy, especially when you’re dealing with political hot topics and trying to build a brand that’s as prominent as Megyn Kelly’s. There’s a fine line between ambition and being a little shady to get ahead. Let’s take a closer look at some moments when Kelly has struggled to walk the line.
The white Santa incident
In December 2013, Megyn Kelly landed in hot water when she reacted to a Slate article by an African-American writer about how to make Santa more relatable to children of all races. Kelly took exception to the piece and announced to children watching Fox News that Santa Claus is white and so is Jesus, in case they were wondering.
Politico reported that there are a few small problems with Kelly’s stance: “Santa Claus can be traced to a real life monk named St. Nicholas who lived in what is today Turkey, according to the History Channel. Jesus Christ was born to a Jewish family around what is now Israel, and his race has long been debated with several scholars saying he likely looked like what many modern day people of Middle Eastern descent look like.”
Kelly later claimed on The Kelly File that her remarks were only “tongue in cheek,” but it was too late. Thanks to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, Kelly and her “White Santa” become a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.
Her softball interview with the Duggars
In 2015, the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting was mired in controversy after a police report revealed that oldest son Josh had inappropriate contact with his sisters when he was a teenager. The scandal grew so intense that TLC pulled the hit show off its schedule. In an effort to clear the air and perhaps get the show back on the air, the Duggars turned to Kelly for a prime-time interview on Fox News. That sit-down did not sit well with media experts.
According to The Wrap, “It seemed to be pretty much about helping the Duggars salvage their brand rather than getting to the bottom of what happened in this family,” NPR TV Critic Eric Deggans said. “She wasn’t particularly incisive and she didn’t push the Duggars on issues that I think are at the heart of this—why they waited so long to go to law enforcement, why they took all these unofficial avenues to get their children help.”
She has struggled with racial issues
Barely a month after the Duggar interview, Kelly found herself knee-deep in controversy again while reporting on a racially charged story involving alleged police brutality.
The story involved a pool party in McKinney, Texas. Video footage captured police officer Eric Casebolt appearing to slam 14-year-old Dajerria Becton to the ground and pointing his gun at her and other teens, reported CNN. On her show, Kelly’s frequent guest and former LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman said Casebolt handled the situation poorly, but Kelly apparently felt otherwise, noting that Becton “was no saint either” and adding, “I’m sure [Casebolt] didn’t know she was 14 at the time,” apparently suggesting he may have behaved differently if he’d known she was a minor.
According to Slate, Kelly has a penchant for taking questionable positions on racial issues, and this may come as a shock, but the journalist is not exactly empathetic toward other minority groups either.
She changed her tune on equality at a convenient time
Prior to her final year at Fox News, Kelly had a reputation for frequently hosting anti-gay groups on The Kelly File and during her time on America Live, according to HuffPost. However in early 2016, she took an unusual and GIF-ready stance against anti-gay activist Brian Brown, who felt Alabama should be allowed to ignore the federal government’s decision to legalize gay marriage.
“The Supreme Court has the final say on what the law is!” Kelly said (via Us Weekly.) “How does this unfold, aren’t we going to have chaos now if states are individually allowed to decide which Supreme Court decisions they’re gonna comply with and which they’re not?”
It was an uncharacteristically forceful stance for Kelly to take on gay rights, until one considers that her contract with Fox was up in the air. Was she speaking out to make her personal brand more marketable to a broader audience?
She made odd comments about sexual harassment
While promoting her book Settle For More, Kelly made an interesting remark to NPR about how she handled former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’ unwanted advances during her early days at the network.
“I wasn’t looking to go file a federal lawsuit about it,” Kelly said. “I was looking to make it stop. And in my experience…women don’t tend to want to make this into some bra-burning moment. They just want to do their jobs. They want to be left alone.”
That’s an odd thing to say considering Kelly’s high-profile involvement in Gretchen Carlson’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Ailes helped end his career. According to The Cut, Kelly’s mixed messaged are no accident. “Some of this fence-sitting is arguably a strategic move; Kelly has both a liberal and conservative audience to appease, and would risk alienating her base and being charged with bias if she appeared to lean too far to the left. Yet a lot of Kelly’s worldview comes with the undeniable stink of privilege: an easily digestible mantra of ‘female empowerment’ that fails to acknowledge the full breadth of institutionalized sexism.”
She saved important details about Trump for her book
During the Republican primaries, Kelly and then-candidate Donald Trump butted heads repeatedly after Trump didn’t like a question Kelly asked him during a debate. While the high-profile feud made for great ratings and positioned Kelly as a more “independent” journalist, audiences later learned that she appeared to withhold crucial information about Trump until after the 2016 election, when she published her book.
According to The New York Times, Kelly writes in Settle for More that Trump had received her debate questions in advance. She also recalls another suspicious turn of events. Per the Times: “On the day of the debate, Ms. Kelly writes, she woke up feeling great. Then an overzealous, suspiciously enthusiastic driver picked her up to take her to the convention center. He insisted on getting her coffee, though she’d repeatedly declined his offer. Once it was in her hand, she drank it. And within 15 minutes, she was violently ill, vomiting so uncontrollably that it was unclear if she’d be able to help moderate that evening. It was so bad that she kept a trash pail beneath her desk throughout the debate, just in case.” While Kelly never claims she was poisoned, she was “spooked” by the incident.
Kelly later revealed to NPR that her feud with Trump required increased security and that her children lived in fear of strange people “casing” her house.
Maybe it’s just us, but this stuff seems like information the public should have known before the election.
She pandered to Putin in unaired footage
In June 2017, Kelly made her big NBC News debut by interviewing Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of interfering with the 2016 election in an effort to put Trump in the White House. Needless to say, Kelly’s interview was controversial, and some members of the media weren’t thrilled with her work. Her professional credibility worsened when HuffPost obtained unaired footage that reportedly showed Kelly pandering to Putin by saying everyone she spoke to in St. Petersburg respected the controversial leader for returning “dignity to Russia.” According to a former CIA analyst, this was not good.
“I can’t begin to tell you what this did for Putin’s ego,” the analyst told HuffPost, “and I wouldn’t put it past the Kremlin to use it for propaganda purposes. Putin’s obsession is, by his definition, making Russia great again. He’s obsessed with the idea that he has returned the country to what he sees as the glory days of the USSR.”
Did she cater to Alex Jones?
As if arguably empowering a foreign adversary who allegedly hacked the 2016 election wasn’t controversial enough, Kelly ruffled even more feathers when shesat down with Alex Jones, the man behind the conspiracy theory-fueled InfoWars.
Before NBC News aired the interview, Jones published recordings he’d secretly made of phone calls with Kelly in advance of their interview. In the calls, Kelly appears to flatter Jones and make some very awkward promises, like this one (via the Daily Beast): “I will personally promise to look at any clips we want to use of you, and have a producer run by you, whether we are taking it in context, what you are saying.”
The Daily Beast says it’s not uncommon for journalists to “engage in a bit of sweet talk” when reeling in a subject like Jones, but the conversation calls into question Kelly’s integrity–and at least makes us wonder what was edited out of the televised footage.
Her awkward interview with the cast of Will and Grace
The very first episode of Megyn Kelly Today on NBC made headlines for all the wrong reasons. While interviewing the cast of Will & Grace to promote the show’s revival, Kelly asked a superfan from the audience if he “became gay” because of the show, according to Entertainment Weekly. Kelly then added, “I think the Will & Grace thing and the gay thing is going to work out great!”
The on-screen reaction from the cast and audience was extremely awkward, and Kelly was heavily criticized on Twitter after the segment. The situation got so bad that Will & Grace star Debra Messing said she regretted appearing on Kelly’s show and was “dismayed by her comments.”
She asked Jane Fonda about plastic surgery
Just days after the Will and Grace debacle, Kelly found herself in the hot seat again for posing questions that critics deemed sexist on her show.
Seemingly out of the blue, Kelly asked acclaimed actress Jane Fonda about her plastic surgeries. She did not ask any questions about co-star Robert Redford’s appearance or aging process. Kelly’s query did not go over well.
“We really want to talk about that now?” Fonda asked Kelly (via Page Six.) Kelly persisted, but Fonda was having none of it. “I take care of myself. But let me tell you why I love this movie that we did, Our Souls at Night, rather than plastic surgery.”
In a subsequent interview with Entertainment Tonight Canada, Fonda said she was “shocked” by Kelly’s questions.
Kelly once again found herself being dragged on Twitter. It wasn’t the best look for the rookie Today host during her first week, and when she did attempt to champion women, it made her motives seem all the more suspicious.
She interviewed Trump's accusers a year after the election
Kelly’s coverage of sexual harassment scandals in 2017 significantly boosted her ratings. Among the stories she tackled was an interview with three women who’ve accused President Trump of inappropriate behavior. According to Deadline, that segment was one of Kelly’s most-watched.
However, remember when Kelly was criticized for allegedly withholding information about Trump until after the presidential election? She was called out again for appearing to take these accusations against Trump seriously only when the timing was beneficial. The women’s stories were reportedly available during the 2016 campaign, so Kelly arguably could have addressed them much sooner; not just when she knew they’d offer a ratings boost.
In fairness, that decision may have been out of Kelly’s hands at her prior network, and as Jezebel columnist Bobby Finger notes, it’s better late than never.
She knows what she wants
Kelly is an clearly ambitious broadcast journalist who’s clearly looking to make her mark on the media landscape. Like any human being, she’s made some questionable moves that we may never truly understand unless we walk in her shoes. While her career at NBC News got off to a rocky start, Kelly has certainly endured a crash course in dealing with controversial interviews. It’s going to be interesting to watch her career continue to evolve.