‘Cull Her Out’: How Megyn Kelly went from Fox News Star to Alt-Right Target

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December 13, 2019
by
Zoe Todd Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In a new interview with FRONTLINE, Megyn Kelly revealed what it was like to go from Fox News star to alt-right target — and the pressure it put on her network’s then-CEO, Roger Ailes.

The catalyst, Kelly said, was a single question she asked candidate Donald Trump during the Republican presidential primary debate in August 2015. “It was one debate question, just one debate question, and he handled it fine,” she said. 

What might have flickered out as “just one debate question,” instead flared into a months-long feud — with right-wing Breitbart News Network fanning the flames at the direction of Steve Bannon, the site’s executive chairman at the time. Bannon said he wanted his writers to target Kelly, to “cull her out from the herd.”

Bannon had recognized an opportunity to champion Trump. In the process, Kelly became both punchline and punching bag, in a tumultuous media cycle that is even now being rehashed at the box office in the new movie Bombshell.

“It was scary at times,” Kelly said. “And Breitbart kept lighting the fire over and over.” She spoke to FRONTLINE for the upcoming two-part documentary America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, which airs Jan. 13 and 14.

In the days leading up to the debate, Kelly says she prepared carefully. She planned to dissect each candidate’s weakness and decided to ask Trump about his controversial behavior toward women. “For me, it was kind of a no-brainer that that was the question for Trump.” 

Kelly was then loosely acquainted with Trump, who was an occasional though popular guest on Fox News long before the 2016 election. “But as a journalist, I needed to keep him at arm’s length,” she said. “You can be cordial; you can be nice; you can be friendly. But it is, at its heart, an adversarial relationship, you know, that of a politician and a reporter.”

On Aug. 6, 2015, on a glaringly lit stage in Cleveland, Ohio, the reporter turned to the presidential candidate. Trump stood center stage, positioned by his standing in the polls. 

“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women,” Kelly began. “You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals.’ Your Twitter account…”

“Only Rosie O’Donnell,” Trump interrupted, in a quip so quick that Kelly remembers suspecting he had anticipated her question.

The crowd chuckled. Kelly forged on, challenging Trump and pointing to past tweets in which he disparages women. Trump countered, blaming political correctness for drawing attention away from more pressing matters.

“Honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that,” he concluded.

That night, hours after the stage in Ohio went dark, Trump began to tweet. Megyn Kelly had “really bombed,” he wrote at 3:40 a.m. “Voters matter,” not Fox News moderators, he tweeted at 4:02 a.m.

“Nobody complained except one guy,” Kelly said. “I wasn’t trying to be unkind to Trump in that moment. I was just doing my job as a reporter. But the way Trump sees media, the way he sees life, is all, ‘They like me, or they don’t like me.’” 

The next day, Trump doubled down. In a phone interview with CNN’s Don Lemon, Trump called Kelly “highly overrated” and “a lightweight.” He complained her question was unfair.

“She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions and, you know, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” he told Lemon.

“That’s when you had to choose sides.”
Steve Bannon

The press piled on, reporting on the unexpected Trump-Kelly feud. At Breitbart, Bannon launched his own offensive. He viewed Kelly’s debate question as an attempt to kneecap Trump, he told FRONTLINE. “That’s when you had to choose sides.”

Bannon ordered his writers to hammer Kelly, and they began cranking out stories about the Fox News star. Previous Breitbart articles had framed Kelly as a right-wing champion, with a reputation for her controversial comments about race and religion. Now, Bannon’s writers seized on her performance at the debate.

“They go right after Megyn Kelly … just hit her nonstop,” Bannon said. “And after about 48 hours, I get a call from Ailes.”

The Fox News magnate wanted Breitbart to ease its onslaught, Bannon said. Kelly, a mother of three, had started receiving death threats, and strangers were flooding her social media accounts with intense, personal attacks.

Though Bannon said he considered Ailes a role model, Breitbart was its own beast — and Bannon said he wanted Ailes to know it didn’t owe anything to Fox News. The articles condemning Kelly had already raked in thousands of comments from readers.

“It sounds like a personal problem,” Bannon remembers saying into the phone. “I said: ‘We’re not backing off. We’re going to put more stories up tomorrow.’”

That month, Breitbart published more articles involving Kelly than it had in the entire year leading up to the fateful debate. Bannon himself penned an op-ed picking apart her debate-night questions, stating “Kelly’s journalism wasn’t journalism at all, but attention-grabbing of the highest order.”

“They tried to destroy me.”
Megyn Kelly

“They tried to destroy me,” Kelly said. At work, she could feel the pressure mounting. Trump was rising in the polls, capturing support from a substantial number of Fox News viewers even as he slammed the network over Kelly.

“He knew some portion of his audience loved to see him challenging, you know, a powerful woman, never mind a woman at Fox,” Kelly said.

“Roger was worried about keeping that wing of the viewership onboard with Fox,” she added. “Trump would continue to grow in power, and I think Ailes would get a little bit more deferential to him.” 

Less than a week after the debate, Trump tweeted that Ailes had called to say Fox News would treat the candidate fairly.

Kelly said she believes Ailes was ultimately forced to choose between her and his viewership, specifically the portion influenced by Breitbart, “thanks to Trump’s attacks on me and Fox in the wake of that debate.”

In a 2015 interview with Adweek, Ailes said Trump “got it wrong” on Kelly. Look, I’ve always had the same relationship with Donald for 30 years. It’s a friendly relationship, surprisingly enough,” he said. “I did call him after the first go-round and I said, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? The United States is at war with every goddamn country in the Middle East and you’re at war with Megyn Kelly and you think that looks good? It doesn’t look good.'”

Ailes resigned from his position as CEO and chairman of Fox News the following year, amid sexual harassment allegations and a related lawsuit. He died in 2017.

Kelly left Fox News the same year, citing her experience covering politics in a deeply divided country. Watch her full interview with FRONTLINE below.

This story was sourced using FRONTLINE’s Transparency Project. We’ve created new ways for our audiences to search, experience and share the in-depth interviews that we use to make our films. You can explore the interviews once the film airs, in an interactive archive that includes all the quotes from the film in their original context, plus hours of insights, analysis and stories not included in the final cut.

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