I wrote a column for National Review last year in which I described Megyn Kelly as America’s most unfairly maligned journalist. After last week’s firestorm at NBC, that resulted in Kelly losing her daytime show and presumably her continued employment at the network, I contend that she still holds that title.
That’s not a defense of Kelly’s on-air questioning of the unacceptability of white people dressing as black people (and vice versa) on Halloween. As she later stated in multiple apologies (which I do believe were genuine), what she had said was racially insensitive given our country’s historical (and abhorrent) practice of blackface. Even with what was clearly non-malicious intent, she made a mistake.
People make mistakes. And my guess is that more than a few people feel compassion in regard to the one that she made, even if they don’t feel comfortable admitting it out loud in today’s often hypersensitive culture. In her explanation, Kelly essentially cited ignorance to the historical significance and lasting wounds of blackface in America, and I believe her. I think a lot of people (especially white people born after the 1960s) grew up somewhat confused about this topic; I know I did.
What I think is clear, however, is that Kelly’s gaffe isn’t the reason NBC pulled her off the air, nor was it the reason that others (perhaps most notably former colleague Kirsten Powers) were so quick to declare her not only a racist, but a long-time racist:
Dear white people who are upset that you can’t dress up as another race or culture for Halloween: your feelings don’t matter. The only feelings that matter are of those who feel disrespected/mocked by you appropriating their culture for entertainment.
Show some common decency.
— Kirsten Powers (@KirstenPowers) October 23, 2018
“Her meteoric rise could not have happened without the complicity of a system that is far too comfortable with racism, especially when it comes in a pretty white package.” @KirstenPowers brings the thunder—and boy is she right. https://t.co/xv5FzLqHkx
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) October 25, 2018
The right likes Megyn Kelly again … all it took was defending blackface. https://t.co/RCBToesC9L
— Kirsten Powers (@KirstenPowers) October 25, 2018
There was a time when Kirsten Powers was a rather thoughtful commentator and proponent of free speech who lectured her fellow liberals on their intolerance toward opposing views, and their tendency to assume evil motives. She even wrote a book on the topic titled “The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech.”
Seeing her now frame an argument on individuals dressing up as a person (whom they admire) of a different race on Halloween as “defending blackface” is highly disappointing. The personal animus Powers holds for Kelly was quite clear in her over-the-top USA Today piece.
Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro described the difference well on his radio show:
“Blackface has a long, terrible history in the United States. People actually dressing up as black folks in order to mock them was something that happened on a frequent basis all the way up until the 1950s and 1960s… Dressing up as a culture to mock that culture is disgusting, unacceptable, actually racist. Now, is that what Megyn Kelly was suggesting?”
The answer, of course, is no.
But again, I suspect the backlash against Kelly has had little to do with what she said last week, and a lot to do with the amount of money NBC was paying her ($69 million over three years), disappointing ratings for her morning show, the Fox News stigma, and her unwillingness to run interference for her network’s #MeToo violations.
It’s hard to imagine, after all, that a public apology wouldn’t have been sufficient if Kelly were an outspoken liberal (especially one who didn’t openly criticize Matt Lauer). There have been plenty of racially insensitive gaffes (of similar or worse degree) by people at the major television networks over the years (including at NBC) that have received much less attention and less severe penalties. Notably, no other media outlet hyped the controversy more than NBC itself, as the website Mediaite did a fine job of documenting (and pointing out inconsistencies with how other incidents were handled):
- NBC Nightly News Covers Megyn Kelly Blackface Comments: Not First Time She’s ‘Come Under Fire for Comments About Race’
- Why Is NBC News Actively Hyping Megyn Kelly’s Blackface Controversy?
- NBC’s Craig Melvin, Al Roker: Megyn Kelly Owes Bigger Apology for ‘Stupid,’ ‘Indefensible’ Blackface Comments
- NBC’s Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager Talk Megyn Kelly ‘Blackface’ Controversy: ‘It Was Horrifying’
Truth be told, NBC had the knives out for Kelly for a long time, and it appears that her gaffe created the perfect opportunity for the network to take action. And take action they have, stripping her of her show, and impugning her character at every turn.
Kelly should come out of this situation quite well financially (I would be surprised if NBC doesn’t have to pay all of what is left in her contract), and because of that, a lot of folks online haven’t been terribly sympathetic to her plight. But as Jay Nordlinger recently wrote on this topic:
“Okay, money’s great. But there are other things in life: such as reputation, dignity, fairness.
All of those things are important and they’re under fierce attack for Megyn Kelly right now. And a lot of it simply isn’t justified.