As she prepared to go live on the final night of the Republican Convention in Cleveland, Megyn Kelly found herself at the center of two converging stories. That afternoon, Rupert Murdoch had announced to Fox News staff around the world that Roger Ailes, the network’s cofounder and CEO, was resigning over a sexual harassment scandal. Later in the evening, Donald Trump, who had spent much of the previous year insulting Kelly, would accept the Republican nomination for president. Ailes’s swift downfall, after two decades running Fox News, was in significant measure the result of Kelly’s own actions. Trump’s nomination was taking place in spite of them.
Murdoch had initially supported Ailes against the lawsuit that Gretchen Carlson had filed two weeks earlier. Carlson, a former Miss America, alleged that Ailes dropped her as a cohost of the breakfast program Fox & Friends because she spurned his sexual advances. It was Kelly’s demand for an independent inquiry, and what she told investigators at the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison—appointed by Murdoch’s sons Lachlan and James to make that inquiry—that ended Ailes’s reign. Kelly was under considerable pressure to defend her boss, or at least to keep the silence she had maintained for many years. Instead, she told the Paul, Weiss lawyers that Ailes had sexually harassed her too during her early years at the network. On the basis of that testimony, Murdoch withdrew his support from Ailes, and sent him packing with $40 million in severance. The network settled Carlson’s suit for a reported $20 million.
But if Ailes’s demise represented a victory for Kelly, Trump’s nomination, which he accepted that night with a blood-and-thunder speech, was a clear defeat. Fox News was the sponsor of the first Republican primary debate in August 2015. Kelly set the tone with a brutal but entirely warranted question about Trump’s long history of misogyny, citing his own remarks—such as his telling a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice that she would make a pretty picture on her knees—to back up her challenge. In demonstration of her point, Trump denigrated Kelly for months afterward, calling the poised corporate lawyer turned television journalist a “bimbo,” “crazy,” “over-rated,” and a “lightweight.” Most notoriously, he said on CNN that she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”
Unsuccessful in vetoing Kelly’s participation in the next Fox News–sponsored debate, Trump boycotted it in protest. His campaign of vilification provoked threats of violence against Kelly, which intensified when Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s top lieutenants, retweeted a message saying, “we can gut her.” Breitbart News mounted a vicious campaign demanding that Fox fire her. In her book, Kelly tells us she needed armed guards around the clock, even on a family vacation to Disney World.
The Ailes story and the Trump story were, of course, intertwined. It was Ailes who made Fox News into the kind of vehicle for populist demagoguery that Trump could ride to the White House. The network incubated Trump’s nascent political career in 2011, when Ailes arranged for him to call in to a regular “Mondays with Trump” segment on Fox & Friends. Trump’s signature issues were fantasies elaborated by Fox’s commentators: Barack Obama’s allegedly fake birth certificate, his softness on terrorism, the crime wave caused by illegal immigrants, and the menace of political correctness.
Trump’s abuse of Kelly was an assertion of dominance not just over her, but over Ailes and Fox as well. A few months into his candidacy, the symbiotic Trump-Fox relationship turned contentious. Trump drove unprecedented ratings for the network while diminishing Ailes’s control over it. Ailes’s loyalties were divided between the candidate his viewers supported and his star anchor, whose ratings dropped as Trump lit into her. Before the election, The O’Reilly Factor was the top-rated show on Fox, followed by The Kelly File. By the time of the election, Trump’s mouthpiece Sean Hannity was the network’s top host, and he was using his platform to accuse Kelly—by then in fifth place in the Fox News rankings—of supporting Hillary Clinton.
That night in Cleveland, the preternaturally self-possessed Kelly held it together on the air. But as security guards were hustling her through the Quicken Loans Arena, she stopped for a picture with a teenage girl whose mother said she was a fan. “I put my arm around the young teen for a picture, only to realize she was crying, overwhelmed.” Kelly writes. “I turned and held her for a long time—tears spilling from her eyes and, then, welling up in my own. I don’t think I realized how much I needed that reminder that, while there may be an obvious cost to doing what you think is right, there are also real—though perhaps less visible—benefits.”
That is the stance Kelly adopts in the final chapters of her memoir, Settle for More. She was a professional doing her job, and like most journalists she didn’t want to become part of the story she was covering. In fact, there was much more to the Ailes-Trump-Murdoch-Kelly quadrangle than she lets on, and probably more than she is permitted to talk about given Fox’s penchant for enforcing its nondisclosure agreements. Much of what we do know comes from two indefatigable media reporters, Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair and Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine, whose 2014 biography of Ailes has just appeared in paperback with a new afterword.
One aspect of the story Kelly skirts is that she and the network were engaged in talks about renewing her contract throughout most of 2015 and 2016. That negotiation finally concluded in January 2017, with Kelly leaving for a less political role at NBC. She is expected to return to the air this fall as host of the 9 AM hour of the Today show, a chatty panel discussion that has typically been focused on lighter news and celebrities. When Ailes failed to stand up to Trump on Kelly’s behalf, and she decided that her patron’s alleged sexual harassment was something she could no longer ignore, she was effectively removing a negotiating partner. It was her call to Lachlan Murdoch insisting on a genuine investigation that sealed Ailes’s fate.
Nor does Kelly discuss the part her memoir itself had in the unfolding drama. She began writing it with the evident purpose of positioning herself as a nonpartisan, mainstream journalist with options beyond Fox News. In the early chapters, she takes pains to establish that she was raised in a Democratic, if apolitical, household. “As I wrote in my journal in 1988: ‘Am I a Republican or a Democrat? I seriously don’t know,’” she notes, even including a photo of the page as evidence. She adds that she told Ailes the same thing when interviewing for a job at Fox News in 2004. When it comes to her position on abortion, Kelly treads as lightly as a Supreme Court nominee. She even declines to say whether she supports mandatory maternity leave, apparently a red flag to Fox News viewers.
In January 2016 Kelly sold her book to HarperCollins, which is owned by News Corp, the sister company to 21st Century Fox, which controls Fox News. According to Sherman, the $6 million advance she received was personally approved by Lachlan. As her renewal with the network loomed, he might have hoped that the deal for her memoir would entrench her more deeply in the Murdoch media empire.
But assumptions on both sides continued to shift over the following year as she wrote and published the book. Trump’s derogation sapped Kelly’s conservative fan base and brought her new admirers outside of it. She submitted her manuscript to the publisher shortly before the election with the expectation that Trump would be defeated and that she would have an option of remaining at Fox News. She began publicizing it in mid-November after Trump’s victory, no longer comfortable inside a news organization that was closing ranks around the new president. Hannity and O’Reilly were both attacking her for airing Fox News’s dirty laundry in public.
Given all of the evolving drama and motive surrounding the book project, it’s hardly surprising that Settle for More feels more calibrated than forthright. In various places, it is directly at odds with other reported accounts. For example, Kelly’s version is that executives at Fox News weren’t aware of accusations that Ailes was a serial sexual harasser until Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit. But in his 2014 biography, Sherman reported a history of sexual harassment allegations dating back to Ailes’s first producing job on The Mike Douglas Show in the 1960s.1 Sherman’s more plausible version is that Ailes’s predations were widely known at Fox, but that in the face of $1.6 billion a year in profit, executives turned a blind eye. In his new afterword, Sherman reports that in 2012, Kelly herself “attempted an intervention” to protect Ailes by warning his head of PR that he should control his predatory behavior, lest the accusations make it into Sherman’s book.
Similarly, Kelly casts the sit-down interview she had with Trump in his office in May 2016 as a demonstration of her journalistic toughness—bearding the lion in his den at Trump Tower. In reality, she was suing for peace at a moment when Trump’s nomination had become a virtual certainty and Ailes, Murdoch, and Fox News were all falling in line behind him. Her Barbara Walters–style interview played as a capitulation. Kelly asked Trump what he learned “about love” and “about himself” from his divorces and the death of his alcoholic brother. “Well done Megyn,” Trump tweeted afterward, “and they all lived happily ever after!” As it turned out, they did not.
Kelly grew up in a middle-class, Catholic family in suburban Syracuse and then Albany, New York. Her father, a professor of education whom she describes as a meat-and-potatoes Irishman, died suddenly when she was in high school. Her mother, a nurse with an earthy sense of humor, put no pressure on her daughter to excel, but kept her from getting a swelled head. Megyn’s ambition kicked in when she got to Albany Law School, where she became a ferocious mock trial competitor. As an aggressive but easygoing guy’s girl who is “never one to call BS on salty language or off-color jokes” or “word-police my colleagues,” she thrived as a corporate lawyer in New York and Chicago.
By her early thirties, Kelly felt overworked, understimulated, and trapped in a dreary legal routine. One night, eating a microwave dinner and watching Oprah, she heard Dr. Phil say, “The only difference between you and someone you envy is, you settled for less.” That advice prompted her to exit a humdrum marriage and leave her high-powered career at Jones Day, the largest law firm in the United States, where she was on the verge of making partner. Anticipating a huge cut in salary but excited about broadcast news, she filmed her own screen test and began applying for jobs.
Given Kelly’s legal experience, her telegenic looks, and her intense drive, she quickly made up for the missed decade. At WJLA–TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., local news included covering the Supreme Court, and Kelly’s background stood her in good stead. Just over a year into her new career, Ailes hired her at Fox, where she filled in as an anchor and became a weekly guest on The O’Reilly Factor. An adept interviewer, Kelly relied on meticulous preparation and a well-honed style of cross-examination. On The Kelly File, a 9 PM show launched in 2013, her questioning was relentless, precise, and often quite devastating to guests who didn’t do as much homework as she did.
Kelly credits her therapist with helping her recognize how being too self-protective kept her from achieving her potential in career, love, and friendship. She attributes her tough shell to the experience of being socially ostracized in seventh grade. “To this day, I can handle people who are dumb, lazy, or generally annoying,” she writes. “The one thing I cannot and will not tolerate is a bully.” Exposing her vulnerabilities opened the door to a fulfilling career and a blissful second marriage and family life with three children named as if to constitute a white-shoe law firm (Thatcher, Yardley, and Yates).
But while refusing to accept less than her due, Kelly expects readers to let her off the hook easily. She can be quite persistent about not drawing certain kinds of connections. While making the obvious link between the cruel treatment she suffered in middle school and Trump’s bullying, she fails to relate it to the type of journalism she herself has practiced for the past dozen years. She writes as if Fox News were just another network, and not one built around industrial-scale bullying of women, minorities, and political opponents.
Kelly was far from the worst on Fox, but for years she enthusiastically performed its racial tropes, warning viewers that Barack Obama was intent on bringing diversity to wealthy white communities and that his wife Michelle encouraged a “culture of victimization” by talking about discrimination. Her particular obsession was a fringe hate group called the New Black Panther Party. In 2010, Kelly devoted dozens of segments and hours of airtime to a pseudo-scandal about the Obama Justice Department not pursuing the NBPP for voter intimidation. In a more absurd vein, Kelly convened a panel to back up her assertion that “Santa Claus just is white.”
Kelly’s attitude toward political bias at Fox News is that, as with Ailes’s allegedly extensive sexual harassment, she somehow just never saw it. This is theoretically possible in the way you become inured to a pervasive smell in your own home. More realistically, she is reacting as Captain Renault did to gambling at Rick’s. Even her book sprouts with the kind of catnip Fox viewers love. She refers to the “death tax” and says that female genital mutilation is mandated by the “Islamic faith.” She asserts that she’s not a feminist, dredging up the dreary cliché that feminism is anti-male and “assumes that to empower women, we must castrate men.”
Nonfeminism helps Kelly resist coming to grips with the culture of male privilege and impunity at Fox, where women hosts are chosen on the basis of their legs, and expected to show a good deal of them. And while she offers a few gross details about the harassment she suffered from Ailes, she breezes through without commenting on the enormous pile-up of complaints, lawsuits, and secret settlements involving other Fox broadcasters and executives. Following Gretchen Carlson’s suit in July, Sherman published accounts from many other alleged victims in New York magazine, and The New York Times reported that it had spoken with a dozen women who said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment or intimidation at Fox.2 Most of them cited supervisors other than Ailes.
At a less profitable network, the cost of these cases would amount to a meaningful drain on the treasury. The network settled a suit by O’Reilly’s producer Andrea Mackris in 2004 for a sum reportedly in the millions of dollars. Rudi Bakhtiar, who was fired in 2007, put a large settlement at risk by speaking out publicly despite signing a confidentiality agreement. So too did Laurie Luhn, a makeup artist who told Sherman she was harassed by Ailes for twenty years and received a settlement of $3.15 million in 2011. In September, Fox settled yet another claim from Juliet Huddy, who said that her career was derailed after she rejected advances from O’Reilly and Jack Abernethy, now co-president of Fox News.
Other suits are still making their way through the courts. Following Ailes’s departure, Fox reporter Lidia Curanaj filed a multimillion-dollar case alleging that Ailes harassed her when she applied for a job in 2011. Former host Andrea Tantaros filed a $49 million lawsuit alleging that Ailes and O’Reilly both sexually harassed her. That suit, which is also pending, describes a “pervasive atmosphere of sexual harassment of female employees that was tolerated and condoned.” It further accuses Ailes’s deputy and successor, Fox News co-president Bill Shine, of trying to intimidate Tantaros into dropping her complaint when she went to him with it. Did Kelly really not know what was happening?
In her better moments, Kelly did express a degree of independence at Fox News, or at least a modicum of common sense. Many people saw her for the first time on election night in 2012, when she deflated commentator Karl Rove by rebutting his challenge to the network’s decision to call the race for Obama on the basis of results from Ohio. Kelly marched out of the studio and down the hallway to the Fox News “decision room” where pollsters exposed the preposterousness of Rove’s wishful thinking. She highlights other reality-check moments as well. Kelly is especially proud of calling out Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs and conservative commentator Erick Erickson on their claims that working mothers are damaging to children.
By this year’s election cycle, Kelly had emerged as the face of the network’s willingness to intermittently engage in something resembling journalism. It’s worth noting that she did this with Ailes’s permission. Though Fox News embodies a right-wing perspective, not all of its personalities are meant to express it all of the time. Indeed, part of the formula is a twin track for journalists and ideologues. The journalists include Shepherd Smith, Brett Baier, and Chris Wallace—and until January, Kelly. The ideologues include various out-of-office Republican politicians, as well as Hannity and O’Reilly. Having broadcasters who play it straight without challenging Fox’s political underpinnings lends credibility to the enterprise as a whole. It lets Fox personalities deploy the slogan “fair and balanced” without obvious irony.
There have long been indications that Lachlan and James, Rupert Murdoch’s sons from his second marriage, would prefer a more neutral, global, and journalistic direction for the network. Ailes’s promotion of issues like Obama birtherism and climate-change denial embarrassed them in front of their sophisticated friends. Sherman writes that the brothers waited a long time for an opportunity to push him into retirement. Ailes clearly recognized the threat. When Lachlan and James took over operational control of 21st Century Fox from their father in 2015, Ailes announced that he would continue to report directly to Rupert Murdoch, before he was publicly overruled.
But after firing Ailes, Rupert Murdoch returned as interim CEO and has yet to cede control back to his sons. Had Trump lost the election, the brothers might have begun edging Fox News toward the mainstream. As it is, their eighty-five-year-old father seems intent on even closer alignment with the new administration. According to Sherman, the elder Murdoch personally made the decision to replace Kelly with Tucker Carlson. Carlson, the founder of the conservative website The Daily Caller, has swiftly transformed Kelly’s old 9 PM program into a Trump propaganda vehicle. His show now explores such questions as whether it was really Russian spies who hacked the Democratic National Committee. As a result of this lineup change, Trump advocates now host all three hours of prime time on Fox News—O’Reilly at eight, Carlson at nine, and Hannity at ten.
Murdoch has multiple motives for his tilt toward Trump, which has also affected The Wall Street Journal. He has a stake in how Trump’s FCC responds to AT&T’s proposed takeover of Time Warner, which could entail a spinoff of CNN. He has always enjoyed being personally connected to political leaders and their families. The Financial Times recently reported that Ivanka Trump resigned in late December as a trustee for the two young daughters from Murdoch’s third marriage.3 That meant that Trump’s daughter indirectly, and secretly, controlled a large block of 21st Century Fox and News Corp stock. But more than anything else, Murdoch’s capitulation to Trump represents his recognition of the potential threat that a media equivalent of the Tea Party could present to Fox News. The network’s number-one personality is no longer O’Reilly or Hannity. It’s Trump himself. If the network frustrates him, he may try to send his fans to Breitbart, or help to build up a new Fox News rival.
Given this dynamic, Kelly’s departure was inevitable. Had she renewed her contract at Fox News, she would now be in an untenable position. In jumping to NBC, she escaped the Murdoch-Trump axis in the nick of time, with her reputation intact. Kelly deserves credit, perhaps, for using Fox News more than it used her. One only wishes she had settled for more forthrightness about what really goes on there.
See my review of the original edition, The New York Times Book Review, January 12, 2014. ↩
Jim Rutenberg, Emily Steel, and John Koblin, “At Fox News, Kisses, Innuendo, Propositions and Fears of Reprisal,” The New York Times, July 23, 2016. ↩
“Ivanka Trump Oversaw Murdoch Daughters’ Trust,” Financial Times, February 8, 2017. ↩