Megyn Kelly’s NBC debut with Putin failed to impress
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A popular song in the 1960s had vocalist Peggy Lee singing, “Is that all there is?” That was the reaction for the few viewers who suffered through Megyn Kelly’s long-awaited and overhyped debut on NBC Sunday evening. The former darling of Fox News Channel, lured away by a big legacy network, had relatively little time on camera considering her name is in the title of the show. Further, the big interview get with Russia’s Vladimir Putin generated no news as Kelly failed to show the feisty interviewing style that distinguished her FNC days.

It was probably naïve for NBC to think Kelly could actually stand toe to toe with the KGB-trained Putin. But Kelly was clearly overmatched by the steely Putin, who was dismissive of Kelly much of the time and seemingly bored by the conversation. Kelly kept trying to get Putin to admit “disruption” and “interference” with the 2016 American elections, but never defined what exactly she meant by those terms. Putin, predictably, brushed off the Kelly questions as a “load of nonsense,” and a “created sensation out of nothing.”

Putin is too slick to get tripped up by a journalist’s questioning. Perry Mason couldn’t get Putin to break down during an interrogation. Kelly asked Putin, “Do you have something damaging on our president?” There was zero chance Putin would step into that pothole.

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This raises the question of why NBC would even bother to send Kelly to interview a foreign strongman who is highly trained in deception and misdirection. Putin’s answers, whatever they might have been, simply have no credibility. The answer, of course, is that NBC wanted to promote Kelly, not to get any serious news out of Putin.

 

It is hard to know what conditions or time limitations NBC had to concede to get the Kelly interview with Putin, but the dead-end, solitary focus on the American elections resulted in a missed opportunity to ask Putin about other international troubles. Kelly must have forgotten to ask about Syria, ISIS, Iran, Ukraine, or North Korean nukes. The Putin interview was just over eleven minutes long, much less time than was devoted to Harry Smith’s feature about saving elephants in Africa. 

For a show with Kelly’s name on it, more time was given to the reports from NBC reporters Cynthia McFadden and Harry Smith. McFadden’s solid report featured a whistleblower from a pharmaceutical company. Smith’s report about saving elephants in Kenya seemed less interested in the elephants and more interested in pointing out the role of women in the work. The final segment featured kids talking about good manners. Cute, but irrelevant. OK for Oprah, but not for NBC’s expensive new journalistic commodity.

NBC and Kelly clearly have much work to do in order for this show to make a journalistic difference. This was only one show, but nobody will confuse the effort with the documentaries of Edward R. Murrow. Kelly’s show actually looked a lot like the rudderless and failed “Rock Center” prime time news show that Brian Williams fronted for two painful years beginning in 2011. That show featured Chelsea Clinton as a special correspondent and Williams chatting about socks with comedian Jon Stewart.

For Kelly’s new show to work, NBC will have to focus less on the glam of the photogenic Kelly and more on the aggressive interview style she exhibited on FNC. Based on this first lackluster effort, one could easily conclude that NBC is using back channels to collude with the Russians for crass ratings benefits. 

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.


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