In the year since battling with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who attacked her over the questions she asked during a Republican debate hosted by Fox News, Megyn Kelly’s work life has become far sunnier.
She threw the first pitch at a Durham Bulls game, sang John Denver during a family camping trip and danced with Derek Hough of “Dancing With the Stars” fame, all for lighthearted pieces on NBC’s “Today,” where her new 9 a.m. hosting gig starts Sept. 25. It wasn’t the Kelly viewers know from Fox News, but she says politics was never her obsession.
“My separation from it, I think, worked professionally,” she says. “It’s also the thing that made it unsustainable for me, because you have to have deep passion.”
Kelly’s first outing with NBC this year, the news magazine “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” suffered some rough patches. The most public was when parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School asked the network to spike a segment featuring Alex Jones, a conspiracy peddler who has called the massacre a fake. Kelly argued that Jones’ influence with Trump was reason enough to cover him, and earned good reviews for the piece once it aired. Ratings for the show’s eight episodes averaged below the repeats of “60 Minutes” and “America’s Funniest Home Videos” airing opposite, but NBC says it’s not trying to topple “60 Minutes” out of the gate. “It’s not going to be perfect on Day One, and we’re not going to be in first place on Day Two,” NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack said in comments reported by Variety before the show began, and recently confirmed to Ad Age. The show returns in the spring.
Meanwhile, after two months of traveling nationwide to promote her new morning show, Kelly landed back in New York at the end of August. She discussed her plan to inject some positivity into the news, her “year of Trump” and how “Megyn Kelly Today” will handle the president. Our conversation has been edited.
What’s your mind frame in the weeks leading up to the show?
It’s exactly the kind of storytelling I want to be doing—taking viewers on an emotional journey I know they’re going to love. The stories that I have in the bank right now are just so uplifting and empowering and amazing.
What do you think you’re bringing to morning TV that’s missing?
It’s not so much that there’s a void that needs filling. I’m trying to create a place that rejects the constant outrage and hostility. Our mission is not far from my life motto, which is to settle for more joy, more love, more human connection. There’s an increased desire to feel connected to your fellow human beings in what is increasingly a disconnected country and world. You won’t get punched in the face, metaphorically.
So is this a departure from politics and hard news?
Well, a departure from politics. There will be hard news, but I don’t want to be covering politics every morning. If it’s big enough that it crosses over into my world, I’ll do it. But our mission is in no way political.
Will you be talking about President Trump?
Let me see how I want to phrase that. The bar will have to be high for any news from inside the Beltway. Now having said that, there’s a different way of getting at some of these stories without going political.
If the show had been on during the incident in Charlottesville, where white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters, how would you have handled it?
Would we have been debating what President Trump said? No, we would not. That’s cable. Would I put on a bunch of skinheads? No. We’re not trying to go to the darkness. There are smart, uplifting ways of getting at these stories that will help people learn how other people feel in a way that can be cathartic and not offensive. I’m not interested in doing, with all due respect because Geraldo Rivera is a friend of mine, the show with a bunch of skinheads where chairs get thrown. I’m trying to help people think through issues, improve their lives, get their arms around things that may have been daunting to them or even scary to them, and grow. I want to grow.
So this is an opportunity to counter-balance the negativity prevalent since the election.
Yes, this is that opportunity. It’s been crafted by design. That’s not the stew in which I want to immerse myself. There are people who love it.
You don’t get excited by any part of it?
Well, I like politics. Don’t get me wrong, I do. You have to love it to do it 24/7, and to stand in the midst of all that nastiness, day after day after day after day, and continue to love it. When I got into cable news, it was not all politics. I covered the Supreme Court my first three years at Fox. That was fun. I had been a lawyer. I did “America’s Newsroom,” which was a 9 a.m. show with Bill Hemmer. That wasn’t all politics. It wasn’t until I got to cable-news primetime that it became mostly politics, but not even in the beginning.
When did it change?
In the era of Trump. It’s sort of how you boil the frog: You put him in the water when it’s cold and then you turn it up. That’s kind of what happened to me. Then I looked around and said, “Oh, wait. I’m not enjoying this anymore. This is not exactly what I thought I was signing up for. I wanted to cover the news. I wanted to be in storytelling. I never wanted to be a political animal.” One of the ironies is, one of the things that made “The Kelly File” so successful was that I was not on either side. I would call B.S. on anyone. Because I really didn’t have a horse in the race.
Do you feel like, at some point, you would have needed to pick a side?
No, I never have. I think there was pressure from certain people out in the ether.
From your viewers?
No, but I think in 2017 America there’s almost an expectation that a journalist is going to do that. I never had an affinity for either side, ever, Republicans or Democrats. I can see both sides of every issue. I’ve voted for both sides. I’m a registered independent. I think it’s not right to expect that of a journalist.
What did you learn during the election, especially the encounters with President Trump?
I had many takeaways. I do believe it reminded me that adversity is an opportunity. It’s not fun to go through. I emerged from that whole nonsense stronger and knowing myself better, and closer to my most intimate people, from my husband and my children to my friends. I also learned that the negative buzz out there, the negative people, whether it’s direct attacks from certain websites to more indirect criticism you might get from media critics or what have you, not to listen to it. Because if those types of attacks could kill me, I would have been dead long ago. All that matters, in terms of your professional success, is your relationship directly with your viewers.
I was well aware that a lot of my audience was Republican, and a lot of my audience loved Donald Trump. I was well aware that it would not serve me well to go out there and bash Trump every night, and I didn’t. But when Trump did something controversial and deserved calling out, like ripping on Judge Curiel in very xenophobic terms, or ripping on a Gold Star family, I called him out on it.
Do you think you should have been harder on President Trump?
Me? No. I think I nailed it. One of the things I’m most proud of is how my team at “The Kelly File” held steady at the helm and under immense pressure.
You talk about your audience staying loyal. Who do you think your audience is for the morning show? Do you have a natural constituency following you?
I certainly hope that some of the Fox viewers will come over and sample. I hope that the “Today” show viewers who are watching from 7 to 9 will give us a try and check it out. One of the things I’ve noticed in the media, in the build-up to my daytime show, is it seems like some of these critics expect Moses to come down with the tablets.
Do you feel pressure? There’s been a lot of hype.
I realize some people want to make it into something with much higher stakes than really exist. I don’t feel that. The only time I start to feel stress is when the vitriol in my life crosses over into my family. The threats to my family’s security.
I would imagine that’s incredibly scary.
That is by far the darkest thing I’ve dealt with since I became a journalist. I was grateful that during the whole Trump nonsense, they were too young to really get it. Some of the things seeped down, but my husband and I never discuss politics or President Trump in front of our kids. No good can come of that. They’ll even come home and say, “I heard President Trump is bad, President Trump is terrible.” Even with them, I’m saying, “Try to keep an open mind. Like anybody, he’s not all bad. He’s not all good. It’s more complicated than that.” They’re 7 and 6. My 4-year-old is not yet there. They have enough to deal with. They don’t need the stress of worrying about our president.
What do you make of criticisms about your Sunday news magazine?
I generally feel that the critics, if they say something negative about me or my show, I’m sure I probably deserved it. I believe in karma so, even if I don’t deserve that particular criticism that day, I’m sure I’ve done something that warrants their ire. I try to just accept that and work on being better and doing better, and putting better karma out in the world. It’s not pleasant for me. It’s not that I want to sit down and have cocktails with people who write unkind things about me, but I generally am forgiving about where that comes from. I find it more helpful to just work harder and try to do better.
You’ve had a daytime show on cable, so moving into morning is not completely new for you. But do you think there’s an element of reinvention that you have to go through to start “Megyn Kelly Today”?
For me, it’s not a reinvention because this is who I am. It’s not that I wasn’t my authentic self in “The Kelly File.” That was authentically me, there’s no question. My friends all say, “Oh, so this is going to be you. Like the you we know?” Because when I was with my friends, or I was with my family, I wasn’t acting like you’d see me on “The Kelly File,” except for the humor. People who didn’t watch “The Kelly File” think I’ve never shown my humorous side. People who watch every day are like, “Yeah, of course. We know, she’s like a 9-year-old boy.”
Is this what you saw yourself doing when you quit law?
One-hundred percent yes. I saw myself covering the news and telling people stories, telling the stories of our time. Never once did I think about being a political animal, or telling political stories at all. It’s just that’s what cable news has become. I would submit to you, when I joined it back in 2004, it was not that way.
It wasn’t always so serious.
At all! At all. We did fun legal debates about guys who would go to strip clubs and get a stiletto in the eye, and then sue.
Is it harder for women in the news now?
There’s no question. There’s so much misogyny, online in particular. I don’t think it does us a lot of good to complain about it. I haven’t figured out how to solve it without discussing it.
Will your show be a forum for topics like that?
I don’t want to lecture to anybody, because I find there’s no better way to shut down their listening skills than to start lecturing them. I’m that way personally. But it’s absolutely going to be a place where women will feel empowered and they will feel supported.
If we’re dealing with rampant misogyny, in any given instance, then we ought to identify that instead of pretending it’s better than we think it is. Then, talk honestly about how we can get past it. I don’t think it’s helpful to whine.
What do you watch when you’re not making the news?
“Game of Thrones.” “This Is Us.”
How much do you use social media? Any favorite platforms?
I don’t. If I want to post something on Facebook or Twitter, I email it to my staff. They post it. I’ve removed those from my phone. I’m a much happier person for it. They’re just negative places. There’s too much anonymity. It brings out people’s worst demons instead of their best angels. My own experiment has proven that just living one’s life in the actual world instead of the virtual one leads to far greater happiness and wellness.
Do you think that there’s a need now to hear these kinds of things in TV and in the news?
The country is going through something right now, something… significant. I hear it from both sides. There’s no good, and there’s no respect for someone’s desire to go through one’s day with joy. It’s not that people want to live as Pollyanna, but I think they want to consume the news without being smacked in the face with constant awfulness.