Was The Megyn Kelly GOP Debate Interrogation Of Donald Trump All About Careerism?

Does Megyn Kelly’s GOP debate performance demonstrate that she is an upwardly mobile careerist out for approval from liberal-dominated television networks where she could land a future, higher-paying, and more influential gig?

Many disillusioned and heretofore loyal Fox News viewers believe that the tough questioning in the FNC-sponsored debate was an attempt by Kelly and perhaps her colleagues Brett Baier and Chris Wallace not to inform the public but instead to make a big splash in the broader media universe, i.e. to gain media cred.

At this writing, about 50,000 individuals have signed a Change.org petition addressed to News Corp. (Fox News’ parent company) calling for Megyn Kelly to be barred from hosting any future Republican debates.

A talented and charismatic journalist and broadcaster with a top-rated, nightly appointment-viewing show that has an independent but generally right-leaning sensibility, Megyn Kelly (and Fox News itself) won a lot of praise from unlikely precincts such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and various TV news networks for the kinds of questions leveled at the Republican presidential candidates, particularly but not exclusively businessman Donald Trump, during last Thursday evening’s GOP debate.

Speculating that Megyn Kelly could be the next Oprah, Fortune declared that “Kelly has a killer combination of a lawyer’s sharp mind, journalistic cred, aggression, drive, popularity, and savvy.”

The debate even won praise from prominent Democrats, although it is interesting that none of six Democrat presidential debates will be conducted on Fox News.

Conspiracy theorists, for what it’s worth, seem to think that Fox News hierarchy passed the word, perhaps indirectly, to Kelly and the two other moderators to help Jeb Bush get the GOP nomination by undermining Trump on national TV. It’s perhaps of note that Bush loyalist Dana Perino had an anti-Trump meltdown on a recent episode of The Five on FNC.

With Donald Trump as the main draw, the debate set an all-time viewership record for a non-sports cable event with 24 million viewers. While he is still leading the field, there is some evidence of erosion of support for Trump’s candidacy since the debate, although polling is all over the map.

On the other end of the spectrum, as alluded to above, many erstwhile Fox and Megyn Kelly fans registered strong disapproval on social media with what they considered snarky questions posed by her and the other moderators that are more often associated with the biased presentations usually found on CNN, NBC or ABC.

A former corporate attorney, Kelly has strongly insisted that the two-hour candidate forum was “good journalism” rather than gotcha journalism, however.

Law professor Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit was representative of the criticism of Megyn Kelly’s stewardship of the GOP debate.

“This wasn’t an opportunity for Fox moderators to play favorites, attack the GOP field, regurgitate Democrats’ talking points, reiterate Democrats’ stereotypes about the GOP, and try to pit one candidate specifically against another. It wasn’t an opportunity for Fox moderators to ‘shine,’ to show how smart they are, or to one-up specific candidates. I don’t care one whit which GOP candidates the moderators preferred personally. All I wanted was tough questions, sticking to the big issues of the day, and a ‘fair and balanced’ opportunity to hear from each candidate. What I got instead was snarky, unprofessional, unnecessarily ad hominem questions that seemed more designed to embarrass than inform. I could have gotten that from CNN.”

Alex Marlow and Stephen K. Bannon of Breitbart News reached a similar conclusion.

“Overall, Kelly’s debate performance was not just ‘good journalism’ by mainstream media standards — it was ‘great journalism.’ She put multiple candidates on the end of her skewer, and grilled them like kebab. In terms of asking fair questions, however — questions designed to elicit information of value to GOP primary voters without demonizing the person being asked — Kelly’s journalism wasn’t journalism at all, but attention-grabbing of the highest order.”

In the aftermath of the criticism but before Trump made his now-infamous “blood” comment which itself prompted across-the-board denunciations of the real estate mogul, Megyn Kelly appeared on Media Buzz to respond to the outcry and explain how her team formulated the debate questions.

“We were trying to drill down to [the candidates’] most vulnerable areas and give them a chance to explain them. And also give the audience a chance to see how they would handle that. The job is basically to get past the talking points and go to the place where they might be most vulnerable with the Republican primary voters, or conversely, where they might be most vulnerable in a general election. And give them a chance to knock that ball back to us. … if you can’t get past me, how are you going to handle Vladimir Putin.”

As far as the blowback or potential blowback in the debate venue itself and on social media, Kelly added that her job was to expose the weaknesses of the candidates and, in so doing, help the voter decide which candidate can win in the general election.

She also asserted that there is nothing in her history as a journalist that reveals bias for or against either political party and that she has found her “sweet spot” when both the right and the left are ticked off at her.

“People feel very passionately about their candidates, and I completely understand that. But my job is not to feel passionately about these candidates; my job is to go out there and ask probing questions that are hopefully smart and help the people learn something about this person and in this context, his weaknesses. And I think I did that … I understand why people get upset. The stakes are very high here; we’re talking about the Oval Office. And they really like the candidate they like, and they don’t want to see the candidate take any hits… [journalists] are not allowed to feel like that … “

After being accused of misogyny by Kelly during the debate, Trump notoriously blasted her subsequent to the televised Q&A session (included that one particular remark that created a firestorm), but he and Fox News CEO Roger Ailes have subsequently patched things up, which included a statement about the chat in which Ailes described Megyn Kelly as a “brilliant journalist” that has his 100 percent support. The Donald won’t be boycotting the network going forward it seems, as he will appear on Sean Hannity’s program tonight apparently for the full hour.

Although the dustup du jour is in the process of dying down, to inevitably make way for the next one, and whether you love or hate Donald Trump, his default personal attack mode against any detractor seems to be wearing thin, but that’s a separate issue.

Megyn Kelly, 44, an ambitious rising star who is now a bona fide superstar, renewed her deal with Fox News on or about May 2013, amid reports that her agent put out feelers to other news networks. The following October, she moved from the Fox News dayside to take over the coveted 9 p.m. Monday through Friday prime time slot from Sean Hannity, and since then, The Kelly File has become a ratings powerhouse. Presumably, the move to prime time was an element of the contract negotiations. It’s reasonable to assume that if Bill O’Reilly ever hangs it up, The Kelly File will slide over to 8 p.m.

A June 2014 Variety article had this to say about Megyn Kelly’s future career aspirations.

“A source familiar with Kelly’s situation says her contract is set to expire in 2017. Fox may have to fight to keep her. Two years ago, she turned down an offer from Jeff Zucker to join CNN for her own primetime gig, and she will certainly be wooed by the likes of NBC and ABC, which have also tried to hire her before. Kelly doesn’t rule out doing a talk show down the line.”

As part of her current Fox contract, Kelly will host a series of one-hour, prime time specials featuring celebrity interviews beginning in 2016, Roger Ailes told Variety.

Reportedly paying about $6 million per year, Kelly’s contract is up in 2017, and things could get interesting, with her apparent leverage in the media space. “Given her recent performances, expect her to negotiate sharply upward, as she’s at least as important to Fox as its top star, Bill O’Reilly,” Fortune noted.

“Because of her commanding presence at the debate, Megyn’s the hottest property in TV News for now and into the future,” an unnamed rival news network executive told the Daily Mail following the GOP debate. “We would pay her twice what Fox is paying her to get her on board. She is a star and can easily be the next Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer of TV news, but with a sharper edge, more hard-hitting, and supremely gorgeous.”

According to another exec, “It’s clear Ms. Kelly was the star of the evening, and my news division would kill in a New York minute to have her anchoring the evening news and doing special reports. She’s worth many millions a year.”

Another option might be for Megyn Kelly to stay with Fox News full time but still contribute reports to another network in the way that Anderson Cooper works for CNN but also appears on CBS News’ 60 Minutes as a correspondent.

In the near term, dissatisfied GOP debate viewers will probably drift back to The Kelly File as negative feelings about the questioning of the candidates subside.

Self-interest is generally a constant among the egocentric media elite, but it is unclear in this particular scenario as to whether Megyn Kelly was serving the public’s interest or Megyn Kelly’s interest in the way she interrogated the candidates at the Fox News GOP presidential debate.

In other words, is it plausible that Megyn Kelly was angling for a better job or other forms of career advancement with the GOP debate as a platform?

[Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News]

Added: According to Joe Concha of Mediaite, Megyn Kelly won’t make the jump to network TV for three reasons: loyalty to Fox News CEO Ailes, lack of editorial freedom that she currently enjoys, and the lesson of Katie Couric’s failed move to the CBS News anchor desk.