Two of Fox News’s biggest stars are publicly feuding about Donald Trump — and the spat says a whole lot about where the network is now and how it’s grappling with the GOP nominee’s rise.
In a tweet Wednesday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity lashed out at his colleague Megyn Kelly, accusing her of "clearly" being a Hillary Clinton supporter — a dangerous allegation for a star at the conservative network:
Hannity was reacting to a Mediaite post about a dig Kelly took at Hannity earlier that night. After complaining that Clinton wouldn’t do any tough interviews lately, Kelly said the same held true for her opponent. "Donald Trump, with all due respect to my friend at 10:00, will go on Hannity and pretty much only Hannity and will not venture out to the ‘unsafe spaces’ these days, which doesn’t exactly expand the tent," Kelly said.
And this wasn’t Kelly’s first notable on-air dig at her colleague. When Trump arrived at the spin room after the first presidential debate last week and sought out Hannity, Kelly remarked, "We’ve got Trump speaking to our own Sean Hannity. We’ll see whether he speaks to the journalists in this room after that" (about 30 seconds into this video):
Now, Kelly’s implication that Hannity isn’t a journalist can’t be viewed as all that much of a dig, since Hannity himself said earlier this year, "I’m not a journalist, I’m a talk show host."
Overall, though, it’s pretty clear that Kelly thinks Hannity is a sycophantic hack. And it’s pretty clear that Hannity thinks Kelly, like much of the mainstream media, is biased against Trump and wants to swing the election against him.
But this feud isn’t just about two big personalities that don’t like each other. Underneath all this are broader divisions about how conservative media has reacted to Trump’s rise and how Fox News is grappling with the departure of its founder Roger Ailes.
Hannity and Kelly illustrate a culture clash within Fox News over how to approach Trump
Fox News — like MSNBC on the left — has always had a mix of opinion hosts and those who style themselves more serious journalists. As Ezra Klein wrote last year, the network has a series of sometimes conflicting missions: "It is a conservative advocacy organization [then] run by a longtime Republican operative. It is a profit-hungry cable network run by a talented media executive. And it is a news operation that employs some talented journalists who want to be taken seriously by their peers."
As the election draws closer, those various tensions are more important than ever. Should Fox News use its precious airtime to help Donald Trump and the Republican Party win? Should it turn a critical eye toward both candidates? And, perhaps most consequentially, what combination of those approaches would be best for the network’s ratings and its stars’ careers?
Hannity has clearly concluded that his job is to help put Donald Trump in the White House. He’s long been viewed as one of the most hackish Fox hosts, well-known for giving GOP politicians softball questions and remaining "on message." Currently, he uses his 10 pm primetime time slot to praise Trump and promote his message. "I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States," Hannity told the New York Times’s Jim Rutenberg.
But Kelly has styled herself more as someone who speaks truth to power and holds both candidates’ feet to the fire on her 9 pm show (a time slot Hannity used to have until 2013). Now, she has often played to the conservative base — particularly on racial issues, as Isaac Chotiner points out. But when it comes to Trump, Kelly has often offered skeptical coverage and sometimes outright criticism.
Indeed, during the first Republican primary debate last year, Kelly famously confronted Trump about his past sexist comments toward women. In the ensuing days, Trump flew off the handle and suggested there was "blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her ... wherever." Their relations have run hot and cold ever since.
Meanwhile, Hannity has been privately giving campaign advice to Trump and publicly exhorting conservative critics of the nominee to fall in line. "You own Hillary Clinton, National Review. You own it. Glenn Beck, you own it. Ted Cruz, you own it," he complained on his radio show in August. "She wins, I'm blaming all of you." He added that, should Clinton win, these conservatives would "own all of her policies" and that he was "going to name names."
Last month, Hannity even earned himself a rebuke from the network when he was filmed for an official Trump campaign video talking about why he was supporting Trump. This was a bridge too far even for Fox, which released a statement saying the network was "not aware" that Hannity was doing this and that "he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season."
Trump really has been avoiding tough interviews lately
Though Kelly and Trump eventually patched things up enough for Trump to agree to do a sit-down interview for Kelly’s first primetime special, which aired in May, she’s been tweaking him lately on one topic in particular: his recent unwillingness to do tough interviews.
Trump was famously omnipresent on TV during the GOP primaries, through either in-person appearances or call-in interviews, on multiple networks. This strategy was crucial for boosting his visibility then, but it also resulted in a whole lot of ugly off-the-cuff statements that Hillary Clinton’s campaign is now using against him to great effect.
But around the beginning of the summer, the Trump team decided to change its approach. Trump stopped doing press conferences — he hasn’t held a press conference since July 27, which is pretty rich considering how often he mocked Clinton’s lack of press conferences earlier this year. And since July, the vast majority of his TV appearances have been on Fox News, and many of those have been with particularly friendly hosts known for "softballs," like Hannity or the Fox & Friends morning hosts.
Naturally, Megyn Kelly would like to land a high-stakes, sure-to-be-highly-rated interview with her longtime nemesis Donald Trump in the closing weeks of the campaign season — but so far, she’s been left in the cold.
So she’s been tweaking Trump for being too on-message. For instance, this Tuesday, she poked fun at reports that Trump was going to live-tweet the VP debate with a group of advisers, suggesting he wouldn’t be able to say anything without his top aide Kellyanne Conway’s approval. (Trump himself was apparently so annoyed upon seeing this that he couldn’t resist firing back, even though Mike Pence and Tim Kaine were already on stage, tweeting, ".@megynkelly - I am in Nevada. Sorry to inform you Kellyanne is in the audience. Better luck next time.")
And it’s clearly been galling Kelly to see Hannity repeatedly interview Trump and ask him nothing even remotely challenging. That was the context for her on-air digs at him, and Hannity’s irritated response.
Hannity and Kelly are both believed to be auditioning for non-Fox jobs right now
Yet one subplot that may be important for understanding this drama is that there’s rampant speculation that both Hannity and Kelly could leave Fox News after the election.
Kelly’s contract at the network is set to expire in 2017, and she seems to be positioning herself either to take a job at another TV network — which would necessarily be a less conservative outlet — or to demand a huge raise in exchange for sticking around.
So when Kelly considers what’s best for her own career, she’s likely thinking about the prospect of taking a job in the "mainstream media" — a media that’s far more critical of Trump and wouldn’t look positively on a Trump apologist.
As for Hannity, he’s considered too much of a joke to move to the mainstream media, and anyway, he seems to have no desire to, since conservative media has made him very rich.
But "conservative media" might not necessarily just mean Fox after this election concludes. Because if Trump does lose, it’s widely rumored that he will start his own media company, which some have taken to calling "Trump TV."
Former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who’s been advising Trump in the past few months, could be involved. And Hannity could well head over to join them, since he has a "key man" clause in his contract allowing him to leave Fox if Ailes no longer worked there.
Hannity publicly defended Ailes when Gretchen Carlson sued him for sexual harassment in July, calling the allegations "all BS" — shortly before Kelly reportedly told company investigators she herself had been harassed by Ailes years before. (The allegations do not appear to have been BS, as Carlson recorded Ailes making sexual comments to her, according to reporting by Gabe Sherman, and the company settled her lawsuit for $20 million.)
"As of November 9, there will be a bloodbath at Fox," an anonymous host speculated to Sherman in his excellent recent feature on Ailes’s downfall. "After the election, the prime-time lineup could be eviscerated. O’Reilly’s been talking about retirement. Megyn could go to another network. And Hannity will go to Trump TV."
So in their very different behavior toward Trump, Kelly and Hannity are both trying to aid their future career prospects in their own way. Kelly is acting pretty much how we’d expect someone hoping to move to the mainstream media to act — while Hannity intends to remain in the conservative bubble for quite some time to come.
Update: Hannity and Kelly are saying they've made nice on Twitter, in something that smells a bit like it was managed by the Fox News PR department.