A Different Path to Journalism

Unlike most journalists who graduate from Syracuse University Megyn Kelly did not major in public communications.

But, like the many communications majors who also study at Maxwell, Kelly gained what any future journalist discovers in a public affairs education: political know-how, the tools of critical thinking, and appreciation of the press's role in an open democracy.

By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

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In 2006, Megyn Kelly was early in her career as a reporter at Fox News, and was assigned to cover the now- infamous Duke University lacrosse team rape case.

“There were reporters all around me who were trying to prove to the world that they weren’t racists, they weren’t elitists, they weren’t classists, because they believed the young African-American woman who was accusing the white privileged men of gang rape,” Kelly says.

With a background in political science from the Maxwell School, and a previous career as a lawyer, Kelly says she approached the story with a different perspective and agenda. “I went down there with my degree from Syracuse University,” she explains, “and my Maxwell poli-sci background and my law degree and my nine years of legal practice under my belt and tried to just report the facts.”

Megyn KellyMegyn Kelly host of Megyn Kelly Today on NBC

As we now know, all of the accused were eventually exonerated by the North Carolina Attorney General. Kelly says she was among the few reporters who “did not embarrass themselves covering that story.”

Kelly is well-known today as a high-profile reporter, news anchor, and political commentator. After spending 13 years at Fox News, she recently moved to NBC, where she hosts Megyn Kelly Today.

She is emblematic of the many well-placed journalists who graduated from Syracuse University with a major in the Maxwell School. Not surprisingly, many of them also hold a journalism degree from Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, often ranked the best journalism school in the country. (Kelly is an exception. Her degree is in political science only.)

Maxwell-educated journalists supplement their professional training with two things the School, with its focus on citizenship and public affairs, is well-prepared to provide: a grounding in the fundamental purpose of the free press in democracy, and in the type of critical thinking required to serve that role effectively. It is from that foundation that Kelly — like other Maxwell-educated journalists (see page 16) — comments on the challenges facing journalism and democracy today.

For Kelly, the journalistic M.O. of sticking to the facts and steering clear of preconceptions or personal viewpoints is more important than ever in this era of intense partisanship. She sees President Trump’s ongoing campaign against the “fake news” media as a symptom of a larger issue.

"I think the delegitimization of the press is a major problem... President Trump deserves some of the blame of credit, and the media deserve the rest."

“I think the delegitimization of the press is a major problem,” she says. “There’s no question that President Trump has taken this to an extreme in a way that is potentially dangerous. But I don’t put it all on President Trump. He deserves some of the blame or credit, depending on your point of view, and the media deserve the rest of the blame or credit.”

As Kelly sees it, the media can be easily denounced as fake because many major news organizations do have persistent and pronounced biases in political coverage. Kelly says she looks at this issue as someone who is “truly nonpartisan.” She grew up in a Democrat household yet thrived at Fox News for 13 years; she’s a registered independent and has voted for Democrats and Republicans at all levels of government.

The liberal leaning of the mainstream press, she argues, is not just a thorn in the side of President Trump; it is one of the reasons why Trump was elected in the first place.

“When you have people controlling the newspapers and the airwaves, not to mention Hollywood and other circles of power, who are judgmental of and dismissive of the points of view of those in fly-over country, it leads fly-over country to want to revolt,” she says. “And they get to the point where they don’t really care about ideology. They just care that they have somebody who’s going to crush these institutions that they know do not respect them.”

In Kelly’s view, political reporters in the Trump era too often “behave more like an opposition party than as a fair arbiter of facts,” spotlighting negative reports while downplaying or ignoring the administration’s accomplishments. Conversely, she feels the press was far too soft on the Obama administration, citing, as an example, some of the dubious promises made about the Affordable Care Act.

Megyn Kelly interviewing Vladimir PutinMegyn Kelly interviewing Vladimir Putin

One of the keys to rebuilding public trust in the media, Kelly says, is for journalists to report more evenhandedly on leaders of any political stripe, and to hold them all accountable. And that definitely includes Trump. “We have absolutely an important responsibility of holding him to account and making sure that the truth continues to matter,” she says. “My only point is when reporters let their own bias seep out in their reporting, and when they come to the table not having done that as faithfully in earlier administrations, they hurt themselves in the process.”

Kelly’s call for fairness toward the current administration is particularly striking in light of Trump’s attacks on her following the initial Republican primary debate of 2015. Looking back on that experience, Kelly says, “What Trump did to me was nine months of awfulness that disrupted my life in some profound ways. But at the time I continued to report on him fairly, and I have continued to report on him fairly ever since.”

As a high school student outside Albany, New York, Kelly worked on the school newspaper and did an internship with the Albany Times Union. She admits, however, that in high school she had been “a bit listless” following her father’s sudden death from a heart attack when she was a sophomore. Her grades were solid, but she wasn’t particularly focused on academics.

Originally from the Syracuse area, she set her sights on Syracuse University and the Newhouse School, but ended up instead enrolled in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, where she began to explore options. She soon discovered political science at Maxwell.

“At first I thought, okay, political science, what’s that about? Let me look into it,” Kelly recalled in a recent interview. “The more I studied, the more interested I became. And so I started at the Maxwell School and soon thereafter got involved in the student senate, which I loved. I wound up enjoying my poli-sci classes more than any others during my time at Syracuse.”

Robert McClure "made a big difference in my life, never mind my career... [His class] was the first time I felt intellectually ignited."

She enrolled in American National Government and Politics with Robert McClure, Maxwell’s legendary professor of political science and public affairs and advocate for citizenship education (and a former newspaper reporter himself). The “listlessness” she had known in high school changed with McClure’s intro course on the principles and practices of American government.

“He made a big difference in my life, never mind my career,” Kelly says. “He was the first one who really got me thinking like an intellectual; taking on subjects and not accepting them at surface level; trying to go two deep, three deep, five deep, 10 deep in terms of layers on any given subject; and then being able to defend your position. He used to talk about small d democrat, small r republican, and what they meant, and asked us basically to get into it with him, arguing about the republic and the principles. It was the first time I felt intellectually ignited.”

Along with challenging Kelly to hold her own in an argument — a skill set that continued to sharpen during her years practicing law and then as an interviewer — McClure opened Kelly’s eyes to sociopolitical issues such as the scarcity of women in Congress. At the time Kelly was at SU, McClure pointed out, there were only four female U.S. senators. Kelly says she was “astonished at the numbers and how absurd they were when you looked at women in government. It sparked a flame for me on the absence of female leaders — what a problem that was in our country and how it needs to change, which is something that’s still important to me.”

From a broader perspective, Kelly came to appreciate the crucial role that the press plays in the functioning of democracy. After earning her political science degree at Maxwell (in 1992) she earned a law degree from Albany Law School and practiced law for nearly a decade, but she burned out. Ready for a change, in 2003 she took a job as a reporter at an ABC television affiliate in Washington, D.C., and was hired at Fox about a year later.

Megyn Kelly at Fox NewsMegyn Kelly at Fox News

A pivotal moment behind this career change came on 9/11, when she was living in Chicago and watching TV journalists such as Ashleigh Banfield reporting from the midst of the chaos in lower Manhattan.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is a public service, what they are doing: reporting without being overly emotional, but being appropriate to the circumstances that we’re seeing; bringing us minute-by-minute updates at great risk to themselves in some cases,’” Kelly says. “‘This is extraordinary.’ I felt envy — of course, not for the circumstances of the day, but for the nobility of some of the press and how they carried themselves and what they did. That was absolutely an inspiration to me.”

Kelly still believes in the nobility and importance of the press, but stresses that journalists need to do a better job of looking beyond their own perspectives and opinions — not just in order to be fair but to fulfill their role of informing the public about the workings of their elected government. Whether or not the press can achieve that kind of evenhandedness is another question.

“Journalists need to understand it isn’t about them,” she says. “It’s about facts. Has that ship sailed so far out to sea that it cannot be returned to shore? I don’t know.

“Maybe I’m Pollyanna-ish to think that the media could find a way to do more fair reporting no matter who’s in the office. But it’s up to the people to decide who the leaders are, and it’s not up to the press to try to stop any particular president. It’s just not our job.”

Ultimately, Kelly says, the issues of bias and fake news loom larger than current tensions between the White House and the press corps. “Partisan media is stronger than ever because people want to get their world views affirmed, and I think that is damaging,” she says.

“It’s not just a problem for us as journalists. It’s a problem for the country.”

This article appeared in the spring 2018 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.