What stands tallest in news, the message or the messenger? These days it’s a toss-up.
Meet the latest addition to media’s Mount Rushmore. Actually, you already have. So ubiquitous is she, how could you not? In case you’ve spent the year hermetically sealed in the Middle-earth, though, try this:
Anchors a week-night newscast. Check. Smart, articulate, quick witted. Check. Blonde charisma galore. Check. Laser blues with lots of lash. Check. Face of Fox News, talk shows and magazine covers. Check. Soon-to-be author of a memoir sold to HarperCollins for a reported $10 million. Check.
And Tuesday night she’ll head her own prime-time special, boasting a marquee sit-down with of all people, the famously flawed and offensive Trumpet. You remember him, the insult geyser who ballooned her already thriving career into something much, much HUGER!!!!!
Our sympathies; cosmic fame is a heavy burden. Yet she appears to be adapting nicely. The title of her Fox special is Megyn Kelly Presents. A more accurate title:
Megyn Kelly Presents Megyn Kelly.
These are amazing times for journalists in an election season conferring celebrity on many of the used-to-be anonymous. For that we can thank ever-orbiting social media and cable news channels that fill their gaping news holes with panels of pundits titled “contributors.” The result is not just endless repetitive chatter—the same people jawing about the same people—but also fame for the conga line of participants, most of them once-obscure ink-stained wretches now queueing for their close-ups.
Kelly beams high wattage in this expanding galaxy of star media, a phenomenon that is worrisome. Anchors and other celebrity journalists flourish largely because of their stature as personalities, the problem coming when their renown overshadows the news they cover. And it often does.
Here was the headline on a Yahoo News account of a recent Kelly interview whose subject, Dan Patrick, didn’t make the cut: “Megan Kelly Hits Hard Against Texas Lt. Governor Over Trans Bathroom Laws.”
As Aaron Altman, the newsroom conscience of James Brooks’ film, “Broadcast News,” says sarcastically, “Let’s never forget, we’re the real story, not them.”
“Broadcast News” is a needle in the eye, its mocking of the ego and ethical values of TV news as relevant now as when the movie was released in 1987. In one pivotal sequence, the network’s Washington anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt) wraps a live report following a swiftly resolved military flare-up between the U.S. and Libya, assuring viewers, “I think we’re okay.”
Whereupon his bureau chief mutters: “Who the hell cares what you think.”
In other words, messengers should stay the hell out of their stories, a commandment that benefits everyone. In fact, just the presence of a celebrity journalist can intrude, especially in interviews when the high profile of the questioner threatens to overshadow the interviewee.
That’s certainly so with CNN star Anderson Cooper, whom a recent poll found to be the nation’s most recognizable newscaster. And no wonder; the guy is everywhere. He’s had his own syndicated daytime talk show. He’s on “60 minutes” in addition to anchoring a weeknight prime-time newscast and hosting most of CNN’s special events, including its giggly annual New Year’s Eve bash with comic Kathy Griffin. Prior to this election season, he would cap each newscast with The Ridiculist, an infantile comedy monologue that stomped on a new hapless schnook each night. And he’s published two memoirs.
There’s a reason why news anchors from San Diego to Slippery Rock are paid more than everyone else on the staff, and it’s not because they are smarter or better journalists. Don’t be shocked if the opposite is true. I know Los Angeles anchors who have had a pretty fair day when they get their shoes tied in the morning.
Newscasts, both national and local, have always been built largely on personalities, with focus groups and other high-priced audience research put in as bricks and mortar.
Back in the day, that Cro-Magnon Walter Cronkite was paid top dollar by CBS News not because he parachuted over Normandy with U.S. troops during World War II. He became the nation’s Uncle Walter—a must watch—because he was magnificently avuncular, something indefinable in his face, voice and manner earning America’s trust.
He, too, was the personification of celebrity. As was ABC News icon Barbara Walters, whose tell-all celebrity chats in prime time generated giant ratings along with tears. I once proposed a new show titled “Me,” in which a different celebrity would interview her each week. Tonight, Julia Roberts shares secrets about Barbara’s life, loves, secrets and regrets.
All of that is quaint measured against the ego journalism epitomized by media-blitzing Kelly. In the grand tradition of celebrities, she is completing a week-long press tour promoting her prime-time special that The Los Angeles Times splashed across the front page of Sunday Calendar, selling the “Kelly-Trump show” as a clash of titans ala David Frost quizzing Richard Nixon in 1977.
“TAKES TWO TO TANGLE.”
What’s next for Kelly? No one has said, but don’t rule out “Dancing with the Stars.”