Megyn Kelly had a good 2016. Between her news-making stint as a Fox News debate moderator, a flattering profile in Vanity Fair, and a lucrative book deal, she cemented her reputation as a talented and no-nonsense journalist—one of the most highly paid in the industry. And now she’s making the jump to NBC News, where she will anchor a Sunday evening news show, host a daytime show, and cover major political events. “Megyn is an exceptional journalist and news anchor, who has had an extraordinary career,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack in a statement. “She’s demonstrated tremendous skill and poise, and we’re lucky to have her.”
Another thing Kelly has demonstrated is racist demagoguery, which defined much of her tenure at Fox News.
In 2010, for example, Kelly devoted hours of coverage to the New Black Panther Party, a small group on the fringe of American politics, because two members of the NBPP were charged with voter intimidation after standing outside of a heavily black polling place in Philadelphia in the 2008 election. Those charges were later dropped, but the incident became the basis for a wide-ranging conspiracy disseminated by conservative writers, websites, and—most prominently—Megyn Kelly. Along with Republican activist J. Christian Adams, then a frequent guest of Kelly’s, the Fox News host spun a disturbing tale of voter intimidation and anti-white racism sanctioned by an Eric Holder–helmed Justice Department that she claimed wouldn’t investigate black Americans accused of criminal activity. “Well, think about that. Think about that. … Now you’re going to have instances like this where Black Panthers and others can go to the polling stations and do this if they so choose. And they just basically are gonna get a pass because while it’s not an official thing, it’s been made very clear to all the rank-and-file voting rights attorneys in the DOJ those cases are not to be pursued,” Kelly said during one broadcast before suggesting that Holder was, in fact, involved in a plan to protect the NBPP.
Over the course of two weeks and 45 separate segments, Kelly and her colleagues at Fox News aired video from the Philadelphia incident—where the NBPP members in question shouted insults at white Americans—connecting it to the Obama administration in an effort to paint the president as hostile toward white Americans, part of a broad conspiracy to intimidate white voters. Writing for the Atlantic at the time, Dave Weigel called it a “minstrel show” meant to inflame and exploit racial tensions.
The NBPP “controversy” represents a particular fixation of Kelly’s, but it was not her only racist display. In 2013, in reaction to my colleague Aisha Harris’ Slate piece, “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore,” the Fox anchor infamously claimed that both Santa Claus and Jesus of Nazareth were white men. “Jesus was a white man, too ... he’s a historical figure and that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa.” (The truth is that “white” as a political or racial category didn’t exist in either 1st century Palestine or 3rd and 4th century Turkey—and that Santa’s not real.) In 2015, Kelly insisted that the racist emails exchanged by officials in Ferguson, Missouri—which included a joke about a man seeking “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are”—were normal. Kelly has repeatedly invited former Los Angeles Police Department officer Mark Fuhrman on her show to discuss cases of police abuse—where both dismiss the role of racism in police shootings of black Americans. She has bemoaned an “anti-cop, thug mentality” in black communities and blasted the Obama administration for encouraging integrated neighborhoods “whether the communities want it or not.”
This demagoguery does not form the totality of Kelly’s output, but it’s a critical part we can’t ignore. It is misleading to discuss Kelly’s work and future without grappling with her willingness, and occasional eagerness, to spread racist conspiracies and racial fictions. It is a necessary sour note to coverage that otherwise ignores her racism, like most of the commentary on her move from Fox. Indeed, that this isn’t in the discussion about Kelly’s jump to NBC seems like an omen of where American politics, and culture, is heading.
For most of the last 50 years, explicit racism has been a taboo in the public sphere, an act that banishes the offender from polite society. And in the last 10 years, that taboo has only gotten stronger. Or that’s what we thought, until a reality television star ran a campaign of explicit racism and demagoguery that captured the Republican presidential nomination and then the presidency itself.
Perhaps explicit prejudice isn’t the taboo we thought it was. Perhaps, in the eyes of many Americans, it’s just another kind of flaw: a blemish to ignore as long as the politician or the journalist brings something desirable to the table, like tremendous skill and poise. Perhaps we’re returning to a time when we didn’t even pretend that racism was an obstacle to public advancement.