Mediator: Megyn Kelly’s Pivotal Moment in a Post-Ailes Era at Fox News



Ms. Kelly’s moment on Tuesday night initially fit the classic pattern. It began with Mr. Gingrich citing signs of positive news for Donald J. Trump from early voting counts, which he said augured a surprise victory for Mr. Trump.

Ms. Kelly, clearly mindful of four years ago, when so many Fox News hosts doubted polls showing an Obama re-election, challenged him. “He’s been behind in virtually every one of the last 40 polls that we’ve seen over the past month, that’s the reality,” she said of Mr. Trump.

But what really set Mr. Gingrich off was when Ms. Kelly said the sexual assault accusations against Mr. Trump were clearly taking a toll, raising questions about whether the candidate was “a sexual predator.” Mr. Gingrich asked why Bill Clinton’s accusers weren’t getting covered, and Ms. Kelly replied by saying that on her show they were.

The exchange became edgier, and more personal. Mr. Gingrich told her she was “fascinated with sex,” and she told him she was “fascinated by the protection of women.”

She signed off by telling him, “You can take your anger issues and spend some time working on them,” and he more or less said back atcha.

(Mr. Trump provided his assessment of the exchange on Wednesday, saying “Congratulations, Newt, on last night. That was an amazing interview.”)

Although the pattern was typical, the rancor was not, especially given that Mr. Gingrich is a longtime “Friend of Fox News” and onetime paid contributor.

And it represented a bigger split at Fox News. By all accounts, in the absence of Mr. Ailes, Ms. Kelly has been freer to pursue her show on her own terms, which are certainly not in line with those of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump and therefore not in line with many in the Fox News core audience (let alone those of her old boss Mr. Ailes, who informally advised Mr. Trump before the debates).

The same has held true for the Fox contributors who have not embraced Mr. Trump’s candidacy — like Dana Perino, the Republican co-host of “The Five,” and the Weekly Standard writer Stephen F. Hayes. They have been free to call it as they see it in ways that were not as obviously apparent earlier this year.

In that vein, the Fox News host Chris Wallace emerged as an exceptional debate moderator in the third presidential debate, holding firm with both candidates and asking tough questions of each.

But there’s a flip side. In this “Free(er) to Be You And Me” environment at Fox, pro-Trump network personalities have become even pro-Trumpier, none more than Sean Hannity, the host whose show follows Ms. Kelly’s. An informal adviser to Mr. Trump, his rhetoric has grown as incendiary as that of his candidate.

On the same day as Ms. Kelly’s confrontation with Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Hannity announced on his radio show that if Trump won, he would personally pay to fly President Obama to Canada or, for that matter, Kenya or Indonesia. It was a nod to the fake, old “birther” conspiracy that even Mr. Trump has eschewed after promoting it for years.

So there, on Tuesday, were the two distinct futures of Fox.

Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, has so far mostly kept it in its Ailesian mode, which, after all, has made Fox News a major profit driver for its corporate parent and kept it atop the cable news ratings. And Mr. Murdoch’s son Lachlan recently said it would be “foolish of us” to depart from “a winning strategy.”

But CNN is nipping at Fox News’s heels, managing to beat it in the news demographic that advertisers care most about — people between the ages of 25 and 54 — over the last four weeks, the first such sustained victory in 15 years.

Still, nothing forces decisions in television news like the hard deadlines of talent contracts. Ms. Kelly’s comes up later next year, followed by that of Mr. O’Reilly. Every rival network has expressed interest in picking her up, and Tuesday night’s Megyn moment can only help her in that regard.

The Murdochs have made it clear they would like Ms. Kelly to stay, which they showed with the $6 million advance their book imprint HarperCollins paid for her coming memoir, “Settle for More.”

As Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair noted at the magazine’s New Establishment Summit in San Francisco last week, they would like to get the contract nailed down before she goes on her book tour next month.

But if they persuade her to stay, will there be room for her, Mr. Hannity and Mr. O’Reilly?

Both Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hannity have openly feuded with Ms. Kelly, though Mr. Hannity’s fights have been more bitter and more recent. If Ms. Kelly stays, will they?

Who knows if Mr. Trump will pursue some sort of television news-style venture (he says he has no interest). But if he does, he could conceivably hire Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Hannity, who has a contract provision that would allow him to follow Mr. Ailes out the door (though the window is tight and it would presumably have to happen in relatively short order).

A Trump venture raises the prospect of a more moderate — if still plenty conservative-friendly — Fox News combating not just CNN and MSNBC but also a challenger from the right. Television news would never be the same.

Correction: October 26, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated on which of his shows Sean Hannity announced that he would pay to fly President Obama out of the country if Donald Trump won the presidential election. It was on his radio show, not his television show.

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