If you watched the GOP debate this past week that netted 24 million viewers for Fox News, or even read about it, you probably know who the real winner was: not any of the candidates on the stage but one of the moderators, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.
Even though this latest wave of publicity, due in no small part to her frank interrogation of brash presidential hopeful Donald Trump and his subsequent insensitive remarks about her, is likely to establish her firmly as a media star, Kelly's popularity and success have been rising steadily for a long time. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to call her the savviest media personality in America.
So what's the secret to Kelly's success?
It boils down to one simple thing: her independence. Unlike many of her peers at Fox, she routinely dares to challenge her guests' and the network's stances and expresses her candid views on any given topic. It's not a coincidence that she recently declared herself to be a political independent during an interview with Variety. Being independent is a powerful tool that Kelly utilizes to her advantage, regardless of the political bent of her audience.
During one segment a few years ago, Kelly stated that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white. It was a staunchly conservative view that no doubt pleased many of Fox's hardcore Republican viewers. Yet in the same segment, Kelly also acknowledged that she could understand why an African-American might feel offended or racially marginalized by an iconic figure like Santa Claus being consistently portrayed as white.
In another example, while Kelly has been critical of black protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore, as well as blamed Reverend Al Sharpton and President Barack Obama for stoking racial tensions, she also provided a sharp and sincere counterpoint to Fox News host Bill O'Reilly in a discussion about white privilege, citing compelling statistics about the many problems faced by black citizens and showing a mature understanding of the dynamics of social inequity.
Kelly also marked herself out from the pack by fearlessly arguing with her male guests on a show who attacked a study by the Pew Research Center revealing that 40 percent of working mothers are now the breadwinners in their family. When the guests leveled blame on working mothers for broken families, Kelly punched back hard, saying "What makes you dominant, and me submissive, and who died and made you scientist-in-chief?" She went on to cite studies showing that children of working mothers are just as likely to succeed in life as their counterparts with stay-at-home moms.
Kelly's feminism is refreshing, to stay the least, on a network dominated by men and some of the most anachronistic sexist ideas of the GOP. At the same time, she hasn't shied away from defining her own brand of feminism, which you might call middle-of-the-road. In a different segment, she took issue with those who are offended by the views of women like Christina Hoff Summers, a philosophy professor who runs a popular blog called The Factual Feminist that defends men and challenges popular feminism in terms of statistics and other facts. Kelly cited the need for a free discussion of feminist ideas without censorship from the left or the right.
The point is that while Kelly is certainly not likely to ever became a liberal darling, she is unafraid to challenge conservative views and to ask important questions on a network that seems to pander to its predominantly conservative viewers and rarely bothers to provide a balanced perspective. Against the bleak landscape of an ideologically driven network, that cuts a striking contrast.
That enables her to reach a wider audience, which is important since even liberals watch Fox News, according to a study conducted by the Washington Post; and in the ratings dominated world of television news, a wide audience is power. The appeal of Kelly's style has not just given Fox a hit show but also expanded its viewership to a younger and more diverse demographic, according to the New York Times.
What all this means is that by being independent and outspoken, Megyn Kelly has accomplished the impressive feat of carving out a niche as a (reasonably) balanced journalist at a network usually criticized for its right-wing bias, and in the process established a brand that can transcend politics and reach viewers everywhere.
S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking.