MIAMI — Having mastered two careers — television journalism and the law — Megyn Kelly will embark on a third when she sits down at the Fox News anchor desk Tuesday evening: acting. Part of her job, at least until the polls have closed, will be to pretend she knows a lot less about what voters are up to than she really does.
"One of the dirty little secrets of election night TV coverage is that when the anchors come on the air, they know more than they can say," Kelly says.
"We've seen some data from exit polls, we have some clues about which way the voting might be going, but under an agreement by all the networks, we don't reveal it until the polls have closed. We all have to be very careful about disclosure."
That's just one of the tricks of the trade Kelly and her colleague Brett Baier will have to ply as they steer the Fox News ship into uncharted waters: a presidential election night without Brit Hume at the anchor desk.
Hume, one of the first big names in broadcast news to sign with Fox News, anchored every presidential election from the network's 1996 debut until his 2008 retirement. He'll be around Tuesday, working as an analyst, but he'll no longer be the face of Fox News coverage.
Kelly's co-anchor role marks the apex of a dizzying ascent.
It took Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric decades in television news to work their way up to anchor jobs. But less than 10 years ago, Kelly (whose 11 a.m. MST show "America Live" has more viewers than its CNN and MSNBC competition combined) wasn't even a journalist — she was a corporate attorney whose closest brush with the news business had been her failure to get into Syracuse University's journalism school.
She was making a lot of money, but spent a good deal of time thinking about blowing out her brains.
"I grew up with no money," says Kelly, who turns 42 this month.
"We were very middle class, didn't have any dough at all. And at some point in college, I decided I would like to make some money. I had never known money. It sounded great. So I put myself through law school, took $100,000 in debt on my back, and went to work as a lawyer.
"And I did very well. I paid off my debt, bought some clothes, got some furniture. But I realized, I have never been more unhappy. I loved making an argument, presenting a case to a judge or a jury. But what most people don't realize about the law is it's a ton of paper-pushing. The vast majority of the job is arguing with the opposing counsel over minutiae. And you work very, very hard.
"The hours in this job can get long, too — especially now, with the hurricane coverage and the election approaching. But on an ordinary day here, it would be extraordinary to be at the office 16 hours. I did that every day as a lawyer. ... I never had a holiday off. I never went anywhere without my laptop. On vacations, I'd be sitting on a beach in the Caribbean trading nasty-grams with opposing counsel."
Choosing to believe in a high school career-aptitude test that said she should go into broadcast news over the Syracuse admissions office that said she should not, Kelly audited some college journalism classes in Chicago, then quit her law firm in 2003 for a one-day-a-week freelance gig at a Washington, D.C., TV station.
It wasn't long before she was on the air every day, and barely a year later she sent an audition tape to Fox News — and not, she says, because of its conservative reputation.
"I've been basically apolitical my whole life," Kelly says. "It wasn't about any ideological issue for me. And eight-plus years later, I still don't feel that way. What I noticed about Fox News, and still feel, is that they tell both sides of the story. A lot of the time in journalism, the Republican side and the conservative side get short shrift. So it can be jarring to somebody raised on the mainstream media to hear the stories of those sides told in a way that's not diminishing."
Backed strongly by Hume and his wife, Kim, then head of the Fox News Washington bureau, Kelly was hired as a reporter. She quickly developed a reputation for concise live reporting on chaotic breaking stories like the Virginia Tech shootings and a willingness to swim against the tide of public opinion on controversial ones like the racially charged rape accusations against members of the Duke lacrosse team. (Kelly was one of the first reporters to note substantial holes in the prosecutor's case, long before the charges were dismissed and the prosecutor disbarred.)
A little more than two years later, she got her own show, first co-anchoring a morning newscast with the veteran Bill Hemmer, then flying solo in the 11-to-1 p.m. slot. Kelly found the change of roles disconcerting and even intimidating at first.
"Conducting a compelling interview is not a reporter's main goal," she says. "As a reporter you need to extract information. Take half an hour if you need to. But as an anchor, you've got a five-minute block to get right to the heart of the matter. And you have to develop the skill to do it in a polite way and not turn off the audience ... On my show, I've got eight to 10 guests. That's eight to 10 different topics you need to know very well. It's a lot more cramming on a lot of subjects."Comment on this story
The challenge, as it turned out, played right into Kelly's skill set. An occasional critic attributes her success to her blond good looks. ("She's half of the formula at Fox News, which is crusty old white men and very good-looking white women with incredibly high heels, incredibly short skirts, and incredibly long legs," snipes Andrew Tyndall, author of a widely read blog on television news.) But many more praise her ability to quickly sort the journalistic wheat from the chaff.
"I think she does a really good job of driving the show," says Terry Anzur, who spent more than 20 years as a television anchor before opening a Los Angeles-based coaching service for TV journalists. "I use her as example of great anchoring all the time in my classes. She's extremely focused, no wasting time — she sets up the facts, jumps into the interview, gets to the heart of the topic. People like Barbara Walters used to dance around the point a long time before pouncing, but we're not in a one-screen world anymore. The viewer will switch to a cat video on YouTube if you don't keep things moving, and Megyn drives the bus.
"She's also got the perfect personality: casual, comfortable and connected. Anchoring is no longer Moses announcing the news from the mountaintop. You've got to be the friend across the table at Starbucks, and she does that."
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