Megyn Kelly Out At NBC's 'Today' Show

Oct 25, 2018
Originally published on October 26, 2018 2:18 pm

Updated at 1:50 p.m. ET Friday

Megyn Kelly was once talked about as the future face of NBC News — possibly as its next chief news anchor. Now, she has lost her perch as host of NBC's Today show at 9 a.m.

"Megyn Kelly Today is not returning. Next week, the 9 a.m. hour will be hosted by other TODAY co-anchors," an NBC News spokesperson said in a statement Friday afternoon.

On Thursday, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told NPR that negotiations between NBC and Kelly were ongoing. "It's clear she will not be returning to the network," the person said.

Earlier this week, Kelly had unsuccessfully sought to contain the damage from several statements she made on her hour on Today defending the desire of white people to dress up in blackface costume for Halloween.

Colleagues and people on social media reacted in outrage to her remarks, often pointing to her own past as a host on Fox News who periodically made racially charged remarks.

"What is racist?" Kelly asked Tuesday in a conversation with other panelists on her show. "Truly, you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween, or a black person who put on whiteface for Halloween. When I was a kid, it was OK as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character."

Kelly, who is 47, grew up outside Albany, N.Y. The television news star returned to the matter more than once during the discussion, defending a white reality show star who was castigated for dressing as Diana Ross, replete with oversize Afro wig. Her remarks tapped into a painful vein of American racial history that Kelly said, in an apology, that she was only now fully realizing.

The incident recalled past controversies at Fox News. In 2013, Kelly had infamously made racial claims for both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus: "For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said during a discussion on Fox News in 2013. "Jesus was a white man, too."

Initially, she said she had been joking. Last year, once at NBC, she told Business Insider that she regretted those remarks.

In some ways, NBC spoke most directly through its broadcasts, on which Kelly's colleagues uniformly condemned her remarks. NBC Nightly News' Lester Holt, the sole African-American evening anchor among the nation's three big broadcast networks, devoted an extended segment to the controversy, which included critical quotes from the head of the NAACP, among others.

NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack, her strongest advocate within the news division, had hired her away from Fox News in early 2017 amid a ton of fanfare and an annual paycheck in excess of $16 million. Lack notably declined to defend her at a meeting this week with staffers.

On the Today show, of which her program was a part, two African-American colleagues offered sharp rebukes Wednesday.

Al Roker said her emailed apology to colleagues was insufficient. "She owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country, because this is a history going back to the 1830s. Minstrel shows," Roker said. "To demean and denigrate a race wasn't right."

"There was some criticism yesterday online that this was political correctness," said Craig Melvin, a new co-host at Today. "That's silly. And it's disingenuous. And it's just as ignorant and racist as the statement itself."

At the opening of her show Wednesday, just 90 minutes after Melvin and Roker spoke, Kelly apologized to viewers as well. She hasn't been seen on the air since that episode ended.

In retrospect, Kelly's implosion seems almost foreordained. She had been hired as part of Lack's effort to demonstrate that NBC News would not list to the left, despite the liberal outlook of MSNBC. She was coming from the nation's most influential outlet among Republicans and cultural conservatives: Fox News.

Kelly could also claim a sense of independence: Despite Fox News' affinity for President Trump, she had clashed with him during the campaign. And she had embraced the #MeToo movement. Indeed, her accusation in July 2016 that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes had sexually harassed her in addition to former Fox host Gretchen Carlson ensured Ailes' dismissal.

Yet her history at Fox News tailed her. In the summer of 2010, Kelly made a meal of a menacing but very small hate group called the New Black Panthers, saying a campaign of voter intimidation had occurred. Several of them faced criminal charges for an incident in 2008, but the charges against the group were dropped after U.S. Justice Department officials said there was no compelling evidence the group itself was involved. One member was legally sanctioned. But no voters appeared discouraged from voting.

Kelly devoted hours to the New Black Panthers over a three-week period, attacking other media for failing to cover the story — and shouting down a colleague who disagreed. She apologized for that, too.

Yet she was serving red meat to the core Fox News viewer, and those programs were part of a record that helped propel her in short order from reporter to daytime host to prime-time host. And she was never able to turn the corner to offer the softer fare required of morning hosts.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Megyn Kelly and her NBC morning talk show may soon be off the air. Kelly was hired away from Fox News in 2017 with much fanfare and a big paycheck. Yet her time at the network has seen some controversy, including comments she made about blackface just this week. Yesterday, an emotional Kelly apologized.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

MEGYN KELLY: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the show. I'm Megyn Kelly. And I want to begin with two words - I'm sorry.

CORNISH: Now NPR's David Folkenflik is reporting her employment by NBC appears to be over. David joins us from our studios in New York City. Hey there, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So describe exactly what Kelly said that caused this latest controversy.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Kelly obviously - as host of the 9 a.m. hour of the "Today" show, she's had - was having a chat a couple days ago with several panelists about Halloween and costumes and talks about how she's not PC, and then started to talk about what it was to dress up as somebody of a different race. Here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

KELLY: What is racist? Because truly you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.

KELLY: ...Blackface on Halloween or a black person who puts on whiteface...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

KELLY: ...For Halloween. Like, OK, back when I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.

FOLKENFLIK: And that of course tapping into a rich vein of pain in terms of the course of American history, depiction of African-Americans by whites.

CORNISH: How did her fellow NBC colleagues react to all this?

FOLKENFLIK: Pretty sharply. It was notable in two ways, one of which was the significant coverage that was given to the story both by - on the "NBC Nightly News" - obviously it's anchored by Lester Holt, the only African-American anchor among the big three broadcast American networks - and also on "Today" show in the hours preceding her own show two of her African-American colleagues really weighed in. First let's hear from Al Roker. He noted that she had apologized to colleagues but said she needed to do more.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

AL ROKER: She owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country because this is a history going back to the 1830s minstrel shows. To demean and denigrate a race wasn't right.

FOLKENFLIK: And then also Craig Melvin, perhaps the newest co-host at "Today" show - he weighed in as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

CRAIG MELVIN: There was some criticism yesterday online that this was political correctness run amok. That's silly. And it's disingenuous. And it's just as ignorant and racist as the statement itself.

FOLKENFLIK: NBC News Chairman Andy Lack at a meeting with staffers this week on the subject refused to defend her as well.

CORNISH: This isn't the first time Megyn Kelly has faced criticism while at NBC. Why do people think this was the last straw?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think there are a couple of things going on. First off, it tapped in as well to her own history in terms of remarks on race from her days as a Fox News host, a much sharper-edged Fox News host. She had insisted that both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ were white back in 2013. She said she regretted that last year once she was at NBC. But also, her show has been ailing. It's had rather tepid ratings. And she had - her relationship had cooled with executives as she had really embraced at times the #MeToo movement, including accusations of sexual harassment against some of the NBC's biggest stars - not only Matt Lauer, who was fired, but the former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, a much-beloved figure who retains his ties to the network.

CORNISH: What have you learned about what's next for her?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I want to be very clear about this. A source with direct knowledge of the matter says it's clear she won't be returning. It seems impossible to imagine, but these things aren't quite concrete yet. You know, Andrew Lack has been her biggest champion despite the fact that she had a fairly cool and conflicted reaction and welcome from employees at NBC. She displaced a couple of popular figures in Tamron Hall and Al Roker at that 9 a.m. hour, and her ratings didn't do a heck of a lot for it. In addition, she was paid an extraordinary amount of money for the thing. And she really took on a lot of fire as a figure who brought on ideological baggage, who brought Fox News baggage and, it turned out, didn't bring a whole lot of success at the box office.

CORNISH: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.