Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Megyn Kelly and the trouble with not learning from mistakes

No matter what happens between NBC News and Megyn Kelly as they try to negotiate down the damage done to and by each of them in a very bad relationship, she’s done as a TV news superstar. She is damaged goods and will never be as big again.

And if you don’t know how big a star she was, Google Jim Rutentberg’s profile in the New York Times Magazine in January 2015 titled “The Megyn Kelly Moment.” According to that article, she was winning her time period hands down for Fox with an audience four times that of Rachel Maddow. She was in an ascent that she would use to negotiate a contract in 2017 worth as much as $20 million a year at NBC.

What a tremendous fall to where she is today, with her “Megyn Kelly Today” show cancelled in a terse NBC statement Friday afternoon saying the show “will not return,” and that her 9 a.m. hour will be hosted by other “Today” anchors starting Monday. She is still an employee of NBC News, but for how long?

Meanwhile, she is hammered by a PR nightmare of social media enmity and speculation as to what NBC News is going to do with her in the wake of an ignorant and racist comment about blackface earlier this week on her show.

There were things about Kelly that deserved to be admired — important things.

She was the first and one of the only journalists to take on Donald Trump early in his presidential campaign, calling him out for his sexism and misogyny at the first major debate. And she did it as an employee of Fox News, which had CEO Roger Ailes and the only cable news star larger than her at the time, Bill O’Reilly, supporting him.

Between the lack of real support from her bosses and colleagues at Fox, to the media onslaught Trump unleashed on her, Kelly caught holy hell for doing it. She was the first journalist to feel the wrath of an angry Trump and his followers on social media, and she mostly stood her ground.

I also respected her for her ability to not just host one of the most successful shows in cable news but to do it as a woman in a workplace run by some of the worst sexual predators in the history of the business. Ailes, who created Fox News and made billions for Rupert Murdoch, was pushed out as some of the many lawsuits and secret settlements became public and decent people looked on in horror at the sick, patriarchal, predatory culture he created and maintained at the conservative news channel. How she accomplished what she did at Fox News still amazes me.

But none of that excuses the vast pain someone in her position can inflict with a comment like the one she made about blackface.

What she said is that she doesn’t understand why it is wrong to wear blackface or whiteface in dressing up for Halloween. You can see for yourself exactly how she said it in the embedded video.

She apologized for saying it the next day. But an apology doesn’t make it OK, particularly for those who are part of a group that has been historically mocked, demeaned and defamed by the practice.

Furthermore, this is not her first inflammatory on-air comment about race.

In 2013, Slate ran a piece headlined: "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.”

She mocked the piece on her Fox show saying, "When I saw this headline I kind of laughed, and I said, 'This is so ridiculous. Yet another person claiming it's racist to have a white Santa,' "

She went on to say, “And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa, but Santa is what he is, and just so you know, we're just debating this 'cause someone wrote about it, kids."

She later tripled down: "Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change. Jesus was a white man, too. ... He was a historical figure, that's a verifiable fact, as is Santa. I just want the kids watching to know that."

Part of what made that so offensive is her addressing children, in effect, teaching racism to another generation. I don’t know how many children of color were watching her — I would guess not many — but she was telling them Santa Claus could only be white. That’s ugly and mean, and the video is out there forever and ever amen. The version embedded here has been seen 1.3 million times.

But you don’t need a cultural studies analysis of racism being taught to a new generation by a representative of the dominant culture on TV, the principal storyteller of American life. The words she said are bad enough on their face value.

And the sin is that she appeared to learn nothing from the righteous blowback she received in 2013. She is back again this week on NBC showing cultural insensitivity, ignorance and what many are calling racism. In the light of this, I won’t argue against that characterization for a second.

I don’t have sympathy for her. I believe people who are entrusted by media companies with mass-audience platforms have a moral obligation to not be ignorant — to be as informed and up to the minute as possible. We expect it of medical doctors and lawyers, why not media figures?

I went back to school in my 40s while I was TV critic for the Sun because I felt much of what I had been taught in college and grad school about media was just plain wrong. I also felt the nation was changing demographically and culturally, which is why I enrolled in a cultural studies program on media.

Kelly had a bigger platform than I do, and she had a lot more resources with which to get schooled. She asked for what she got by not listening to the feedback on her Santa remarks — and by not opening her eyes, mind and heart to what has been happening in this nation in terms of race as well as gender.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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