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Megyn Kelly apologizes for blackface comments amid talks for a new role at NBC

Megyn Kelly apologizes for blackface comments amid talks for a new role at NBC
Megyn Kelly on the set of her show, "Megyn Kelly Today." She created controversy with racially insensitive remarks at the same time she's been in talks with NBC executives about leaving the morning show. (Charles Sykes / Invision/AP)

Megyn Kelly, who touched off a firestorm this week over racially insensitive remarks, has been in discussions with NBC News executives about exiting her morning show and taking a new role within the division, according to people familiar with the talks.

The negotiations began before Kelly committed a major blunder on her program Tuesday, said the sources who were not authorized to comment on the discussions.

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During a round table chat on her show “Megyn Kelly Today,” she questioned why the use of blackface on Halloween was inappropriate, igniting a major backlash on social media.

An NBC News representative declined to comment regarding any change in Kelly’s status at the network.

Kelly issued an email apology to colleagues later on Tuesday, saying she was wrong about the blackface issue, adding that it was “a time for more understanding and love.” She delivered another lengthy apology to viewers at the top of her Wednesday program.

It was the latest flap in what has been a rocky 18 months in the tenure of the high-priced star, and another embarrassment for NBC News. Insiders at “Today” have expressed frustration that management at NBC News has made no major changes at Kelly’s program, which is failing to draw a large audience and frequently generates negative press coverage.

The question now is whether the reaction to Kelly’s blackface remarks will affect the discussion about her new role. Kelly has indicated to NBC News executives that she wants to be more involved in hard-news coverage. Kelly is scheduled to be part of NBC’s coverage of the midterm elections on Nov. 6.

NBC aggressively covered the blackface flap on “NBC Nightly News” on Tuesday and again Wednesday on “Today” in a segment that was followed up with some harsh condemnation from two of the program’s African American co-hosts. Both of the taped segments contained clips of past racially insensitive remarks Kelly made when she was at Fox News, such as her insistence that Jesus Christ and Santa Claus are white.

But her comments on blackface, in which she said she failed to see what was racist about using it for a Halloween costume, has drawn the fiercest criticism yet. (“Back when I was a kid, that was OK as long as you were dressing up as like a character,” she said).

“The fact is, while she apologized to the staff she owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” longtime “Today” personality Al Roker said on the program. “This is a history, going back to the 1830s, minstrel shows to demean and denigrate a race, wasn’t right. I’m old enough to have lived through ‘Amos ’n’ Andy,’ where you had white people in blackface playing two black characters and it would just [be] magnifying the worst stereotypes about black people, and that’s what the big problem is.”

“Today” news anchor Craig Melvin described Kelly as “a friend who said something stupid, who said something indefensible.” He was also skeptical that discussion about her remarks was a teachable moment, a notion that Kelly tried to convey in her email apology.

“I guess it was an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about blackface but I think a lot of people knew about blackface before yesterday,” Melvin said.

NBC News Chairman Andy Lack praised the comments by Melvin and Roker on Wednesday during a previously scheduled “town hall” session with the division, according to a person who attended the meeting. The attendee said Lack did not discuss Kelly’s future, but criticized her remarks.

“There is no other way to put this but I condemn those remarks,” Lack said, according to the attendee. “There is no place on our air or in this workplace for them. Very unfortunate.”

Kelly read much of the text of her email apology at the top of her program on Wednesday, adding that she understood that the history of blackface made what she said unacceptable. She received a standing ovation from her studio audience and did a follow-up discussion with black commentators Roland Martin and Amy Holmes.

Kelly was a rising star when she was considered the more moderate of the conservative prime-time personalities in the Fox News lineup. She also showed she was unafraid to spar with President Trump, who attacked her after her tough questioning at the first debate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015.

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But Kelly’s popularity at Fox News — where personalities can thrive with polarizing viewpoints — has not translated to NBC News or the generally feel-good atmosphere of a morning program such as “Today.”

Jonathan Klein, president of the tech company Vilnyx and a former chief of CNN, said this week’s controversy demonstrates how Kelly’s sharp-edged style is not suited for “Today.”

“Megyn never flubbed on Fox, where she was sharp, cool and always in control,” Klein said. “It may be that morning TV is forcing her to be something that she’s not.”

Kelly was hired away with great fanfare and a pay package reportedly worth more than $20 million a year. Since she arrived as morning host in September 2017, she has lost about a quarter of the audience of 25-to 54-year-olds who had been watching the 9 a.m. hour of “Today,” the group that advertisers most want to reach with news programming.

The program had an average audience of 2.4 million viewers in the 2017-18 TV season, a 14% drop from the previous year, when Roker and Tamron Hall co-hosted the hour. It had 700,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, a 26% decline, according to Nielsen.

Kelly’s program has won kudos for providing a platform for many sexual harassment victims who came forward during the #MeToo movement, including those who have made allegations against her former colleague, the fired “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer. She called for an outside investigation of the company after NBC News issued an internal review that largely exonerated the network’s executives’ handling of their fallen star’s transgressions.

Kelly’s prime-time magazine show for NBC, “Sunday Night With Megyn Kelly,” was a ratings failure and was quietly canceled by the network after eight episodes that aired in the summer of 2017.

4:10 p.m.: This article was updated to include viewership details on Kelly’s morning TV show.

This article was originally published at 8:45 a.m.

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