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Less slugging, more hugging: Megyn Kelly shifts focus with NBC morning show

Talk about rebranding. Megyn Kelly, who spent most of the last two years at Ground Zero of the culture wars, says she’s ready to move on to new topics on television.

“I don’t want to do politics,” the former Fox News star said in a telephone interview.

“I’m done talking about Trump and [Mitch] McConnell and Paul Ryan and Chuck Schumer every night,” she said of the president and three congressional leaders. “Stick a fork in me. Done!”

On the eve of one of the biggest TV show launches in the past decade — “Megyn Kelly Today” debuts at 9 a.m. Monday on NBC — the 46-year-old host says she’s mainly excited about finally getting to do the kind of talk show she has long wanted to do — blowback, criticism and poor ratings for a summer prime-time newsmagazine notwithstanding. She’s also preaching patience as she tries to find “her voice” in her new TV home.

Distinct echoes of Oprah Winfrey could be heard as Kelly talked about “going for the joy” in making the move to daytime at NBC and wanting her show to be a “unifying force” at a time “when the country is terribly divided.” She hopes to do that, she said, with shows that “celebrate things that can make us feel better about our daily existence, like stories of triumph or stories of great adversity and how people handled that.”

Her show, she explained, will try to answer such questions as, “How do we raise our children better? How do we know when our marriages are not working? Or, how do we know when we really need to call that doctor?”

“I understand there will be a media storm, because so often that seems to follow me,” she said of the launch. “But it doesn’t matter what the media storm brings. I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on my viewers, because this is between me and them.”

“Storm” might be too strong a word. But she is definitely a figure of intense media focus if not fascination — for better or worse.

She was never the highest-rated host in cable news for any sustained stretch of time, but her nightly show, “The Kelly Files,” was often the second-most popular behind Bill O’Reilly’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” which was also on Fox. And she ranked much higher in the pop culture pantheon than he ever did, with the cover of Vanity Fair and long stories in publications like The New York Times Sunday Magazine last year. Kelly was the one host on Fox News whom mainstream media clearly wanted to embrace. NBC is paying $15 million a year on a multi-year contract, according to multiple reports, though neither Kelly nor NBC has confirmed that number.

Beyond her talent and work ethic, Kelly’s pop culture status was driven in large part, I believe, by her connection to a powerful current of societal change involving gender and power — particularly after she quizzed Donald Trump about past sexist remarks in a presidential debate. I’d like to call it the death of patriarchy, but an ideology that deeply ingrained in a culture doesn’t die overnight.

Instead, what we are seeing with the fall of figures like Bill Cosby, the late Roger Ailes and O’Reilly amid allegations of sexual misconduct is more like patriarchy in retreat. And Kelly was one of the foremost women in media leading the charge.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has stepped into that symbolic role on prime-time cable TV since Kelly left, assuming the mantle of leadership in the resistance against President Trump.

Trump is one of the baby boomer men trying to hold back the tide of history. That was the symbolism that lit up the nation’s political nervous system when he and Kelly went toe to toe during that debate hosted by Fox in 2015. She pressed him about misogynistic remarks he had made about Rosie O’Donnell and other women — and he warned Kelly that maybe he was going to stop being nice to her, a promise he kept with a vicious social media campaign.

I admire Kelly for that and the way she managed to survive at Fox News, which is now understood to have long been a sick and predatory workplace for women.

“I never saw myself as some Joan of Arc figure,” she said when asked if she thought of herself involved in a cultural battle. “You go down a dangerous road it you do that. … You get too big a head and become your own worst enemy.”

During an October broadcast, she told former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to work on his “anger issues” after he tried to intimidate her. On the confrontations with patriarchal figures like Gingrich and Trump, she said, “For me those are organic moments — just me being me.”

Kelly pointed to her pre-TV career as a lawyer: “I had to stand up to people. I had to stand up for my clients. I had to not wither when some nasty opposing counsel got right in my face and told the judge I was an idiot.”

Citing her “ethical compass,” Kelly said, “If somebody gets in my face, I’m not going to get all over him. But I’m not going to back down either. … Trust me, I have thought about it.”

Kelly shared some of what she was thinking as she weighed leaving her prime-time show at Fox and joining NBC.

“I have a lot of women who say, ‘Oh, I used to make my daughter watch you, because I wanted her to see what you do if somebody comes after you: “You do what she does,” ’ ” Kelly quoted the mothers saying.

“So, in leaving my post, I thought, ‘I don’t want to disappoint these women. I don’t want them to feel they’re losing something.’ But the truth is, I had to make this decision for myself and my family. … The content of this show is something I wanted to do for years, and I will get to see my children grow up.”

Kelly and her husband, Douglas Brunt, a former internet security executive turned novelist, have three — ages 4, 6 and 7.

“And the more I thought about it and the more women I spoke to, I realized I can help women on a much broader scale,” Kelly said.

“I think I can speak to them in their homes while they’re having their coffee or are watching me on DVR with a glass of wine. And I can talk about how we get our daughters to stand tall. How we get ourselves at age fortysomething to stand tall. … How you can go home and cry after you’ve been publicly attacked by the media, by your detractors, by somebody who might be president one day. But you stand tall and you put your shoulders back and you go out there and you do your job without whining and you behave in a manner that makes you proud of yourself.”

Kelly had a chance to practice some of what she preaches last summer in connection with an interview she did with conspiracy theorist and “Infowars” host Alex Jones on her “Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” newsmagazine.

Jones has alleged the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 20 children dead was faked. In June, when some of the parents of children who had been killed heard of NBC’s plans to air an interview with Jones, they urged the network to reconsider.

On air the night of the broadcast, she defended the interview, saying, “Some thought we shouldn't broadcast this interview because his baseless allegations aren't just offensive. They're dangerous. But here's the thing. Alex Jones isn't going away. Over the years, his YouTube channel has racked up 1.3 billion views. He has millions of listeners and the ear of our current president.”

In our interview, she said, “I was surprised and disheartened and sad to be in the position I found myself. Obviously, the Newtown parents are among the most sympathetic groups in the country. But I was gratified that once the piece aired, the critics understood and came around. Even some of the Newtown families who complained reached out to me personally and thanked me.”

“Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly” was not a commercial success, but I think NBC is perhaps more to blame than Kelly. The network seemed to go overboard on the persona of Kelly as patriarch slayer, pitting her against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jones in a newsmagazine scheduled head to head with “60 Minutes” on CBS, the most successful show in the history of network TV.

Kelly said she has no complaint with NBC and that she has felt nothing but support from Andy Lack, chairman of the news division, and such co-workers as Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, co-hosts of “Today” — no matter what the tabloids might say.

“Even my own mom will call me up and say, ‘Oh, no. Now you’re feuding with Matt and Savannah.’ And I have to say, ‘Mom, stop buying those tabloids,’ ” Kelly said, laughing.

“For the most part, I don’t consume media criticism,” she said, picking her words more carefully. “It can steal your mojo.”

Kelly said her primary goal for “Megyn Kelly Today” is “to have an intimate relationship with the audience,” particularly with women struggling with issues in the workplace or home. During the interview she shared anecdotes of women who have responded to the messages of empowerment in her book, “Settle for More.”

“That kind of thing can happen when you deal with messages more meaningful than Mitch McConnell,” she said.

“But I’m not such a Pollyanna that I don’t realize ratings matter. So, this show also needs to be commercially successful,” she added.

“Unlike people who will be writing about the show, I have patience,” she said. “I expect fully it will take some time to get to know me. It will take our show some time to get the wheels greased up and really rolling just as it did when I did ‘The Kelly File.’ ”

Kelly pointed out that the version of “The Kelly File” that she left in January was “nothing like” the show that launched in 2013.

“And I evolved,” she said. “I got better and figured out my voice. And I’ll need some time to do that on this show. I don’t expect to be spiking the ball in the end zone the first week or month or the show. But I have faith in myself that I’ll get there.”

On TV

“Megyn Kelly Today” debuts at 9 a.m. Monday on WBAL (Channel 11).

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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