Megyn Kelly's move to primetime will mark a shift in the very essence of Fox News, away from the hate of right-wing radio and towards something more effective at shilling conservative misinformation.
Recent rumors indicate that Megyn Kelly may take over Sean Hannity's 9 p.m. time slot on Fox News. But the factors in play are much bigger than one hour a night. The imminent Fox News primetime shakeup is more about Fox News' own brand of misinformation being set to surpass the blunter approach of Rush Limbaugh and right-wing radio hosts.
For a brief bit of historical context before we get to the rumor itself, Fox News' approach in many ways grew out of Rush Limbaugh's short-lived television show. Roger Ailes famously produced the show and would take lessons from there to Fox News where he is still the CEO. (As well as taking lessons from his time as a Republican operative, which are well-documented.) And the further back you look at Fox, the more it resembles the worst aspects of Limbaugh's show. But as Fox has grown, it's adapted, allowing it to more effectively advance a political agenda.
This adaptation was on full display in Roger Ailes' 2011 admission to Howard Kurtz, who has since moved to Fox, that Fox News needed to make a "course correction." The big picture result of this is Fox still pushing demonstrable misinformation, but doing so in a way other news networks will be more likely to pick up rather than mock. Their audience might not have had a problem with the old Fox News (at least, Roger Ailes gave no indication that they did), but the network's reputation was in tatters. (As an aside, CNN's recent pushing of right-wing Benghazi myths only emphasize the risk of Fox's revised approach.)
Sean Hannity is in many ways a product of an iteration of Fox News that is slowly fading away. His willingness to push any argument any Republican ever once had has eroded Hannity's credibility over time. The Republican congressman who coined the term "terror baby" recently guest-hosted Hannity's radio show. Cumulus reportedly isn't even bothering to renew his radio syndication contract. Hannity declared himself as birther-curious, went all-in during the 2012 election on the story that President Obama once hugged a guy that right-wingers didn't like, and even dabbles in secession.
But the new face of Fox News primetime, Megyn Kelly, is a much more pernicious purveyor of political propaganda. Kelly has the unique ability to pluck misinformation and imbue it with a veneer of legitimacy that Sean Hannity has long since lost, if he ever had it at all. She can have a great moment chiding Fox colleagues Erick Erickson and Lou Dobbs for sexism, only to turn around and push the New Black Panthers scandal as something serious. Megyn Kelly can cover gay rights in a way that is occasionally not abominable, and then push Benghazi falsehoods that have long been debunked. Megyn Kelly will rebuke Dick Morris and Karl Rove, but then hosts a climate change denier during the president's climate address. Kelly smacked down Mike Gallagher on family leave, but she also defended Newt Gingrich's bizarre suggestion that schools should use children as janitors. The examples go on and on -- but the key for Fox is that her positive moments always get more press than her more dishonest moments. It's no surprise that Howard Kurtz declared her future bright.
Now, to be clear, Megyn Kelly taking Sean Hannity's 9 p.m. timeslot at Fox News is only a rumor floated by the Drudge Report. But while Roger Ailes' ultimate plans remain a mystery, neither Hannity nor Ailes bothered to declare the rumor untrue. And establishing Megyn Kelly at 9 p.m. would give her Bill O'Reilly's audience as a lead in, surely the audience Ailes and Kelly would prefer to target. (Kelly is also a long-time guest of O'Reilly's show; in fact, that's where she infamously declared that pepper spray was "a food product, essentially.")
This veneer of credibility that Kelly has acquired is what makes her more dangerous: in an age where the false balance of he said-she said reporting too often has replaced fact-checking, media will be more likely to take Kelly's scandal-mongering seriously. But Kelly's strength in achieving relevancy also speaks to Roger Ailes' motive: elevating Megyn Kelly is more about a political strategy than about a business strategy.
Wherever Kelly ultimately settles in, this is a trend bigger than one show. Ailes is also floating a change in regards to Shep Smith's 7 p.m. show. Sarah Palin has also gone from being a star on the network to something of an afterthought during her second tenure as a contributor. When Palin turns up nowadays, she's appearing on programs like Eric Bolling's anarcho-capitalist weekend talk show to push lies that aren't even new.
It's no coincidence that this shift within Fox is happening as Rush Limbaugh's business model is collapsing as his time passes. Limbaugh spoke down on appearing Fox News for years before now suddenly calling and appearing regularly, using the network as a way to cushion his fall. Radio CEOs are talking about the decline of political talk and using less inflammatory or nonpolitical hosts as a replacement. There's still a market for right-wing chicanery: it just shifted away from Limbaugh's brand of bigotry. Fox News will still broadcast the red meat, but they don't appear especially proud of it.
You can sense this conflict listening to Rush Limbaugh's show. He still loves his former producer Roger Ailes, but when the subject turns to Fox News in a broader sense, he's willing to throw them under the bus; recently, he complained that the parent company of Fox News, 21st Century Fox, was too biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. Limbaugh even suggested Fox News might be too biased in favor of Hillary Clinton to host any Republican 2016 primary debates.
But ultimately this is about the future of Fox News and Roger Ailes' political mission. So if Megyn Kelly does indeed take the 9 p.m. time slot, look out for conflict. Kelly is uniquely positioned to be the Fox News arbiter of right-wing chicanery. It'll be good television, and she'll probably call out enough people like Erick Erickson to get attention in the zeitgeist. But while she's doing that, she'll also probably be pushing more subtle misinformation that will inevitably find its way into other media outlets. That's her track record, and after all, she still works for Roger Ailes. It's a "course correction," but the destination remains the same.