Ask Fox News' Megyn Kelly if she has an opinion and she'll tell you no, she plays it straight. "If you watch O'Reilly, you hear a lot about what Bill O'Reilly thinks," Kelly told the Associated Press regarding her new primetime Fox program, debuting tonight. "Sean Hannity, same thing. But you're not going to hear what I think." This is true to the extent that Megyn Kelly, the longtime star of Fox News' daytime block of "straight news" programming, is not a fulminating champion of "traditional" values like O'Reilly. Nor is she a myna bird for the Republican National Committee like Hannity. In that way she represents a significant departure from the network's last decade of primetime programming -- but toward a direction that actually makes Fox even more dangerous.
Kelly does not breathe fire like her primetime cohorts, but she can be every bit as partisan and misleading. The recent comments from Kelly and from the network are part of a deliberate effort to set her apart from the partisanship and moralism of Hannity and O'Reilly and cast her as a voice of factual authority. Anyone who's watched enough of Kelly's news programming knows how insidious a message that is. And, unfortunately, it appears to be working.
People who think this is unfair to Kelly will likely bring up her election night dismantling of Karl Rove as he sputtered objections to the network calling Ohio for President Obama. Or her rebukes of Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs for their antiquated views of women in the workplace. And Kelly was absolutely right to take on her colleagues in those instances. It should be noted, though, that these moments are made possible by the fact that the network won't actually punish her colleagues for unguarded crassness or factually dubious partisanship. Fox News will keep paying Rove for being embarrassingly wrong and Erickson for being a sexist oaf, which means Kelly won't lack for opportunities to make headlines by imposing some basic decency on her coworkers.
But for each of those moments, there is an example of Megyn Kelly wielding her journalistic authority to prop up transparent nonsense as "news." Remember the ridiculous New Black Panther story? One of the big reasons you know about it is because Kelly made the story her own, elevating the profile of the extremist fringe group and devoting hours of airtime to the absurd allegation that it was under the protection of Obama Justice Department because that conspiracy theory comported with conservative resentment of the administration (and because it made for entertaining television). Her facts were often wrong, and the story ended up going nowhere because there was nothing to it.
And then there's Benghazi. Shortly after the terrorist attack in Benghazi last September, Kelly put together a segment on conservative outrage over an Obama campaign poster that featured an abstract rendering of the American flag, which Kelly (using the patented "some are saying" dodge) said resembled blood smeared on the walls of the diplomatic compound.
"If you go online," Kelly observed, "a lot of folks have said that the smearing of the red stripes is eerily reminiscent of a terrible picture we've all seen over the past week and a half, which is of bloody handprints outside of our Libyan consulate." That's an absurd thing to say. It would be an absurd argument for someone like Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly to make on their opinion programs. Kelly made that argument, sourced to "folks" on the internet, on her news program. There was a point she wanted to make, but she made it more subtly than a typical partisan host would. (For another example, here's Kelly deploying the "legitimate questions" dodge while wondering aloud whether Hillary Clinton was using a concussion as an "excuse" to get out of testifying about Benghazi.)
But this isn't what people bring up when they talk about Megyn Kelly. They bring up her confrontation with Rove, or they quote network executives praising her fairness, or they quote Kelly herself saying she won't be a female Bill O'Reilly. That may be true, but not being Bill O'Reilly does not excuse some aggressively bad journalism.