Megyn Kelly: Trump ushered in 'dangerous phase' for the media

Conservative commentator Megyn Kelly isn't backing down from her critique of President-elect Donald Trump's assault on the media.

Victoria Will/Invision/AP/File
Megyn Kelly poses for a portrait in New York. The conservative Fox News host has been critical of President-elect Donald Trump's candidacy for president, and has raised issues with his attempts to de-legitimize news stories and reporters.

President-elect Donald Trump’s election baffled mainstream and left-leaning media outlets, leaving many concerned about how to proceed with coverage in the real estate mogul’s administration.

Some liberals have expressed concern that Mr. Trump’s administration could ignore – or ban from the White House – news outlets that he finds disagreeable. But Trump critics may find common ground with an unexpected ally: conservative commentator Megyn Kelly.

Fox News has long made a reputation for itself as a conservative cable network – an alternative to mainstream media coverage – operating under the slogan “Fair and Balanced” while showing clear favor for the Republican Party. While the candidate openly preferred by many of the Fox network’s commentators is now making his way to The White House, Ms. Kelly is stepping up to criticize Trump's treatment of the press.

"I think it's dangerous," said Kelly, who hosts “The Kelly File” on Fox, speaking of Trump's attacks on journalists, such as herself, and the media in general.

"People ... need good, strong, skeptical journalists to be covering whoever it is – whether it's Barack Obama or President Donald Trump – and we're in a dangerous phase right now, where too many millions of Americans aren't listening at all to what the press tells them," she in an interview Wednesday on National Public Radio's “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.

Covering the unconventional Trump campaign and subsequent transition period has posed unprecedented challenges for traditional news outlets. From debates on how to cover his Twitter tirades and false statements to frustration with a lack of access, news organizations have struggled to find ways to hold the billionaire accountable.

The result of coverage thus far has been marked by criticism – from both Trump himself and his supporters – levied against major news organizations deemed left of center. But the concerns raised by Kelly suggest that even conservative media outlets may have trouble reporting on a Trump administration.

Trump "is the new 'new media'," says Bryan Gervais, who teaches political science at The University of Texas, San Antonio. "He and his allies, Breitbart and [Steve] Bannon," he adds.

"With everything that has occurred throughout this year – alternative news sites, fake news sites – our perspective of Fox News is probably going to change, even if the commentary doesn’t change that much," he tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Trump and this era of new communication online is forcing us to look at these decade-old cable news networks as archaic."

Kelly has had her own public clashes with Trump, most prominently at the first televised Republican primary debate when she confronted the candidate with his history of demeaning descriptions of women. He took to Twitter later that night, making personal and vulgar attacks against her – a move that many predicted would end his political career.

But Trump’s uncensored rhetoric apparently had the opposite effect. His bold online and verbal attacks, hurled at anyone who opposed him, were seen by supporters as "authentic" – not the language of a packaged politician – and helped to propel him to the nation's highest public office. The unprecedented nature of Trump’s popularity baffled many mainstream media organizations and left them grappling with how to persuade readers and viewers of the credibility of their own reporting, including their refutations of Trump’s sometimes false claims.

In a memoir published last month titled “Settle for More,” Kelly detailed the odd and sometimes threatening incidents that followed her own pull-no-punches coverage of Trump. She describes denying multiple gifts he tried to send her way, including free hotel stays. She says she later received threats regarding her coverage, with a suspicious man appearing in the lobby of her apartment building. 

Meanwhile, Trump continued to chip away publicly at her abilities as a journalist and her character. 

“Every time he started in,” she wrote in the memoir, “I’d get a call from Roger [Ailes, then chairman and CEO of Fox] (who was getting calls from Trump). Was I being fair to Trump? Was I being too hard on him? He felt the bar for skeptical Trump coverage should be higher.”

That’s a notion that Kelly and many of her journalist peers don’t want to indulge.

One of the most immediate pressing facing reporters is Trump’s use of Twitter. In the past, false or half-truth statements made by a president would have warranted extensive coverage by the media, in their vital role as an outside check on those in power. 

"One of the key variables here is traditional media, in terms of ... whether media will sort of step up and more directly challenge some of these tweets," Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, professor and chair of political science at the University of North Texas, previously told the Monitor. "We're beginning to see early evidence that maybe there will be heightened scrutiny of some of his tweets. That may present a different environment for Donald Trump, and he may have to adjust. That’s the unknown."

But Trump has proven a master at shifting the public conversation, and some observers, including Kelly, express concern that he is using social media as a tool for distraction. That may force news organizations to pause before leaping on coverage of the latest presidential tweet.

“We saw him do this many times throughout the primary campaign, so my approach on ‘The Kelly File’ is to try to use my judgment as to whether that's what this is. Is this a head fake to distract from something that's in the news, or is this worthy of us running and chewing on it, like a dog with a bone?” she said in the NPR interview.

Dr. Gervais says he doubts that conservative news outlets will join more left-leaning news organizations as critics of Trump, but that Fox News could shift its coverage to attract a more mainstream Republican audience – moving further from Breitbart's coverage.

“The changes we’ve seen occurring in Fox News underscore this,” he says. “Since [Roger] Ailes left, there’s been questions as to what direction the network’s going to go in. I think that all suggests there’s a possibility that Fox News might become something more of a center or center-right network than it’s been in the past.”

How various news outlets will adjust their approach to covering the Trump presidency remains unclear. But Kelly says she doesn’t intend to let Trump’s criticism of the media slide.

“Donald Trump and the First Amendment, it's not a beautiful match; it's not a match made in heaven,” she told Ms. Gross on Wednesday. “Between the free speech rights that he has not defended and the freedom of the press which he has not defended, it's problematic.”

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