Having mastered two careers television journalism and the law Megyn Kelly will embark on a third when she sits down at the Fox News anchor desk Tuesday evening: acting. Part of her job, at least until the polls have closed, will be to pretend she knows a lot less about what voters are up to than she really does.
One of the dirty little secrets of election night TV coverage is that when the anchors come on the air, they know more than they can say, Kelly says. Weve seen some data from exit polls, we have some clues about which way the voting might be going, but under an agreement by all the networks, we dont reveal it until the polls have closed. We all have to be very careful about disclosure.
Thats just one of the tricks of the trade Kelly and her colleague Bret Baier will have to ply as they steer the Fox News ship into uncharted waters: a presidential election night without Brit Hume at the anchor desk. Hume, one of the first big names in broadcast news to sign with Fox News, anchored every presidential election from the networks 1996 debut until his 2008 retirement. Hell be around Tuesday, working as an analyst, but hell no longer the be the face of Fox News coverage.
Kellys co-anchor role marks the apex of a dizzying ascent. It took Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric decades in television news to work their way up to anchor jobs. But less than 10 years ago, Kelly (whose 1 p.m. show America Live has more viewers than its CNN and MSNBC competition combined) wasnt even a journalist she was a corporate attorney whose closest brush with the news business had been her failure to get into Syracuse Universitys journalism school. She was making a lot of money, but spent a good deal of time thinking about blowing out her brains.
I grew up with no money, says Kelly, who turns 42 this month. We were very middle class, didnt have any dough at all. And at some point in college, I decided I would like to make some money. I had never known money. It sounded great. So I put myself through law school, took $100,000 in debt on my back, and went to work as a lawyer.
And I did very well. I paid off my debt, bought some clothes, got some furniture. But I realized, I have never been more unhappy. I loved making an argument, presenting a case to a judge or a jury. But what most people dont realize about the law is its a ton of paper-pushing. The vast majority of the job is arguing with the opposing counsel over minutiae. And you work very, very hard.
The hours in this job can get long too especially now, with the hurricane coverage and the election approaching. But on an ordinary day here, it would be extraordinary to be at the office 16 hours. I did that every day as a lawyer. I never had a holiday off. I never went anywhere without my laptop. On vacations, Id be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean trading nasty-grams with opposing counsel.
Quit the law
Choosing to believe in a high school career-aptitude test that said she should go into broadcast news over the Syracuse admissions office that said she should not, Kelly audited some college journalism classes in Chicago, then quit her law firm in 2003 for a one-day-a-week freelance gig at a Washington, D.C., TV station. It wasnt long before she was on the air every day, and barely a year later she sent an audition tape to Fox News and not, she says, because of its conservative reputation.
Ive been basically apolitical my whole life, Kelly says. It wasnt about any ideological issue for me. And eight-plus years later, I still dont feel that way. What I noticed about Fox News, and still feel, is that they tell both sides of the story. A lot of the time in journalism, the Republican side and the conservative side get short shrift. So it can be jarring to somebody raised on the mainstream media to hear the stories of those sides told in a way thats not diminishing.
Backed strongly by Hume and his wife, Kim, then head of the Fox News Washington bureau, Kelly was hired as a reporter. She quickly developed a reputation for concise live reporting on chaotic breaking stories like the Virginia Tech shootings and a willingness to swim against the tide of public opinion on controversial ones like the racially charged rape accusations against members of the Duke lacrosse team. (Kelly was one of the first reporters to note substantial holes in the prosecutors case, long before the charges were dismissed and the prosecutor disbarred.)
A little more than two years later, she got her own show, first co-anchoring a morning newscast with the veteran Bill Hemmer, then flying solo in the 1-to-3 p.m. slot. Kelly found the change of roles disconcerting and even intimidating at first.Conducting a compelling interview is not a reporters main goal, she says. As a reporter you need to extract information. Take half an hour if you need to. But as an anchor, youve got a five-minute bloc to get right to the heart of the matter. And you have to develop the skill to do it in a polite way and not turn off the audience On my show, Ive got eight to 10 guests. Thats eight to 10 different topics you need to know very well. Its a lot more cramming on a lot of subjects.
The challenge, as it turned out, played right into Kellys skill set. An occasional critic attributes her success to her blond good looks. (Shes half of the formula at Fox News, which is crusty old white men and very good-looking white women with incredibly high heels, incredibly shorts skirts, and incredibly long legs, snipes Andrew Tyndall, author of a widely read blog on television news.) But many more praise her ability to quickly sort the journalistic wheat from the chaff.
I think she does a really good job of driving the show, says Terry Anzur, who spent more than 20 years as a television anchor before opening a Los Angeles-based coaching service for TV journalists. I use her as example of great anchoring all the time in my classes. Shes extremely focused, no wasting time she sets up the facts, jumps into the interview, gets to the heart of the topic. People like Barbara Walters used to dance around the point a long time before pouncing, but were not in a one-screen world anymore. The viewer will switch to a cat video on YouTube if you dont keep things moving, and Megyn drives the bus.
Shes also got the perfect personality: casual, comfortable and connected. Anchoring is no longer Moses announcing the news from the mountaintop. Youve got to be the friend across the table at Starbucks, and she does that.
Curiously, letting her own personality emerge proved the most difficult part of becoming an anchor, Kelly says. As a lawyer, the only emotion she showed in the courtroom was ferocity. (I cant wait to kick your ass, she infamously once told an opposing attorney.) As a reporter, she took a just-the-facts-maam approach. As an anchor, her bosses told her she had to let go a little bit audiences didnt want to spend two hours with an automaton.
I was putting up a wall, Kelly acknowledges. [Fox News boss] Roger Ailes told me, Take more risks, dont be afraid of being vulnerable, show who you are. It wasnt easy for me at first. When youre putting up a front and you get rejected, you can take comfort in the fact that its just your professional self. But if its your actual self, then theyre actually rejecting you. Its scarier.
Kelly accepted the advice, sometimes to a surprising degree. She even agreed to do Howard Sterns radio show, where she answered questions ranging from the size of her breasts (my husband calls them Killer Bs) to the old slumber party favorite of name-association with the phrase fornicate-marry-kill (Bill OReilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck.)
Kelly offers no apologies for that one It was a great opportunity to get the Fox News brand in front of an audience that wasnt very familiar with it. And she demurs when its suggested that, once upon a not-so-long-ago time, a television anchor would have jumped into a volcano before appearing on Sterns show.
I think youd be surprised, she says. I know for a fact Barbara Walters did the Stern show a couple of years ago when she was pitching her book. But surely Walters didnt discuss her Killer Bs?
I dont know, Id have to check, Kelly deadpans before breaking into a giggle. It turns out you really can take the corporate attorney out of the gal.