What's behind the meteoric rise of Megyn Kelly

Zurawik explores how Megyn Kelly got so big, so fast.

How did Megyn Kelly get so big so fast?

That's the question I've been asking since news broke Tuesday of the 46-year-old anchorwoman walking away from Fox News and a reported four-year $100 million contract to join NBC.

On the eve of the launch of "The Kelly File" in October 2013, I predicted success for her new show — then wondered if I had sounded too effusive. She was the new kid on the prime-time cable TV block, and some analysts were wondering whether she could hold the lead-in audience Bill O'Reilly delivered in the 8 o'clock hour on Fox. Not me.

But just a little over three years later, here she is in a league by herself as a TV news personality. There is no one even close. That's an incredible ascent, and I do not claim to have expected that.

Do any of the network anchors — ABC's David Muir, NBC's Lester Holt or CBS' Scott Pelley — enjoy her status? Don't make me laugh. The Incredible Shrinking Anchor story is an old one that started getting written with the death of ABC's Peter Jennings in 2005.

Matt Lauer reportedly makes more money doing mornings on NBC than Kelly will, but he has almost none of her stature.

Kelly has telegenic charisma by the boatload. In terms of energy and sparkle, her show is like opening night at a Broadway musical. You can't coach or buy that. You either make the camera light up and dance or you don't. She does it like no one else in TV news.

But the difference between the show host who arrived three years ago in prime time and the persona who now stands atop the world of TV news is the sense of authority she generates and the way she has come to symbolize a shift in gender and power taking place in the larger society. And most of that happened for her since August 2015, when she called out Donald Trump in the first Fox debate for his history of misogynistic comments.

The 2016 presidential race was as much about gender as the 2008 campaign with Barack Obama was about race. And it wasn't just a matter of Hillary Clinton being the first female major-party candidate for president. It was about the way male privilege — from the gaze to sexual assault — was simultaneously coming under attack in the larger culture.

Think of the public shaming of Bill Cosby and the firing of Roger Ailes at Fox News amid allegations of sexual harassment for a sense of the bigger picture.

In taking on Trump, who defined male privilege in its ugliest aspects, as seen on the "Access Hollywood" tape, Kelly became a lightning rod.

That's the cultural piece of her TV appeal — and it's powerful stuff in the way that it can connect with the aspirations and frustrations of female viewers in particular.

But the journalistic authority she has developed is equally impressive and an asset to any news organization at a time when audiences are desperately looking for sources of information they can trust.

This thread of her persona goes back at least to election night 2012 when Karl Rove, Fox analyst and former George W. Bush adviser, refused to accept the fact that Ohio was going to fall in favor of Obama — not GOP challenger Mitt Romney.

In an attempt to end the impasse between Rove and the election team, Kelly got up from the anchor desk, took a long walk with cameras trailing her to the room where the numbers crunchers were working and let them explain the facts on voting in Ohio versus the fantasy Rove had been trying to sell.

But it was while watching her confrontation with Trump at that first Fox debate that I came to understand the source of her journalistic authority.

When she challenges someone, the voice she shifts into is not a traditional journalistic one. It's a legalistic one — the courtroom voice of a prosecuting attorney. Kelly worked as a lawyer before turning to TV news.

You can hear it in that first exchange with Trump: "You've called women you don't like fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals."

"Only Rosie O'Donnell," Trump replied to applause and cheers in the hall.

"For the record, it was well beyond Rosie O'Donnell," she said firmly, retaking command of the room. "Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women's looks. You once told a contestant on 'Celebrity Apprentice' it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees. Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president?"

Fact. Fact. Fact. Damning question.

When she shifts to that voice, she has an authority like no one else in TV news.

Will all of that translate to success in her new role at NBC? It's not a slam-dunk. See: Katie Couric's move from NBC to CBS in 2006. NBC needs to find the right vehicles for Kelly.

A weekly daytime talk show sounds like it could be a winner. NBC has a time slot after "Today," and a show with her could be an instant moneymaker.

Interviewing is what counts here, and Kelly makes people feel relaxed enough to open up on air. That's Oprah Winfrey-rare.

Last month, I was a guest on a year-end show she anchored looking at media and Trump in 2016. I arrived in the New York studio stressed, tired and irritated.

But as we sat on the set waiting through a 10-minute delay, I found myself after a couple of questions from her pleasantly chattering away. I started the taping as relaxed as I can remember being on any TV show, and I went places in answering her questions that I might otherwise not have gone.

As for NBC's indication that she might host a prime-time newsmagazine, I have two words for Kelly: Rock Center.

"Rock Center with Brian Williams," a prime-time magazine that ran from 2011 to 2013, was a disaster in ratings and journalism. This is the NBC News program that paid Chelsea Clinton $1.8 million for three years as a correspondent.

Andy Lack, who took over as chairman of NBC News in 2015, has a strong background in TV magazines. But it's tough to launch a new one, and Kelly needs to make sure her ideas — not old ones from the old days of network news — prevail.

On the upside, there are big prime-time dollars waiting to be picked up off the table if she and NBC can claim even a little of the Sunday-night turf owned by CBS and "60 Minutes." Viewers will tune in to see a news magazine hosted by Kelly.

"Phenomenal" is not too a strong a word for her rise in the past three years.

By Thursday, when Fox News announced domino staffing changes — Tucker Carlson at 9 p.m. and Martha MacCallum taking over Carlson's 7 p.m. slot — it seemed like small potatoes compared to the kind of excitement and buzz any news about Kelly has generated the past two years.

She now moves in a galaxy far, far away from the environs of Fox News and its grubby history of sexism.

For all that she has come to represent, I hope she and Lack can make it work.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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