Monday marked the first night of Megyn Kelly's Fox News Channel program, "The Kelly File," which aired at 9 p.m. in Sean Hannity's old slot. Kelly has become an increasingly big star over the past several years, appearing during the day as a host, and at night as a guest on "The O'Reilly Factor" and other shows. The question leading up to the premiere was whether Kelly would become more opinionated and start to ape Bill O'Reilly and Hannity, or whether she would take the typical Fox News daytime line, which can be defined as passively conservative. (There are exceptions, such as "Fox & Friends," and "The Five," where the hosts are more outwardly right-wing.) The relatively moderate daytime hosts often refrain from partisanship, but the graphics clearly frame each story in a conservative way. In her inaugural performance last night, Kelly avoided offering strong opinions. She did fall into the pattern of trying to frame some serious stories in a partisan manner, but there was significantly less substance than one sees on Shepard Smith's or Bret Baier's shows. "The Kelly File" falls between entertainment and news: The show isn't fun, and yet offers nothing nutritious.
Kelly's debut has gotten a fair amount of press. The watchdog group Media Matters, for example ran a column today saying that Kelly was in fact "more dangerous than Bill O'Reilly." The argument was as follows:
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.
This may eventually become a concern, but the first episode was more innocuous than most Fox News fare.
Kelly began by interviewing Senator Ted Cruz, and it was easy to see why viewers might have longed for Hannity. Her first question was a lighthearted one about how Cruz felt about being one of the most disliked people in the country, but her tone was less confrontational than subtly congratulatory. Generally, however, she let him filibuster, which he has shown he can do skillfully. The segment provided a strong reply to people who decry cable television's plethora of bloviating, interrupting, rude hosts. Sure, a real dialogue is preferrable to bluster, but the Fox News alternative to Bill O'Reilly is not a mature conversation about policy hosted by Brian Lamb. Instead, it is Ted Cruz essentially reading a press release. O'Reilly would have interrupted him several times, and Hannity would have at least given some insight into official GOP thinking. Kelly provides neither.
A similar problem revealed itself during a group interview with family members of Miriam Carey, the woman shot and killed after a car chase in Washington last week. Kelly seemed not unsympathetic to the idea that the police overreacted; at the same time, she clearly didn't want to say anything that could be perceived as anti-law enforcement. Mostly she just listened. The segment was dull and uninteresting.
My pulse increased slightly when the cast of Fox's daytime show "The Five' appeared. Their aim was to answer the deep question of whether Obama was gleefully causing pain as a way of scoring political points over the shutdown. "The Five," for those who do not watch it, consists of three uninteresting and loud-mouthed conservatives, former Bush secretary and frequent target of jokes Dana Perino, and the buffoonish, offensive "liberal" Bob Beckel. Kelly tried to banter and ask softballs, but she seemed out of place, possibly because she recognizes that their combined IQ is less than hers alone. (Things reached a new low when Perino made a joke about having a fling with Beckel.)
Kelly is an engaging personality who has the ability to be both forceful and appealing. (O'Reilly was once capable of being both of these things simultaneously, but his ego eventually took over.) Still, Kelly can't quite seem to make up her mind about what kind of program she wants to host. She isn't providing news, and she isn't offering much red meat for her viewers. Over time, she'll have to make more of an effort to do one or the other. I have a guess about which one it will be.