NEW YORK — The aftermath of Megyn Kelly's interview with a former Justice Department lawyer over a New Black Panther Party case has made her a hero and a villain.
The Fox News Channel host is a hero to fans who appreciate the time she has spent on a story about a nightstick-carrying New Black Panther Party member standing outside a 2008 polling place, wondering if it reflects an Obama administration inconsistency in pursuing civil rights cases.
But she's a villain to critics who believe Kelly is promoting a dubious story given outsized attention because it could hurt a president unpopular with most of Fox's viewers.
Kelly, host of her own daytime show at Fox, had the first media interview with J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department lawyer angry about the Obama administration's handling of the case. Adams alleged his bosses have no interest in civil rights cases unless minorities are adversely affected, a charge the administration denies.
A criminal investigation into the Philadelphia episode was dropped by the Bush administration, but the Obama administration obtained a narrower civil court order against the conduct than Bush officials had sought.
Kelly followed the story so relentlessly that she perhaps goaded the Obama administration into its bungling of the Shirley Sherrod case, much like a baserunner dancing off third base who distracts a pitcher into a balk. (The administration pressured agriculture department official Sherrod into resigning over remarks that seemed racially biased, only to apologize later when it was discovered that the opposite was true.)
Most Fox News Channel shows have followed the Black Panther case, but Kelly's "America Live" midday show has spent the most time on it.
None were more electric than the July 13 confrontation between Kelly and a Fox News contributor, Kirsten Powers.
Kelly set up the segment with Powers by showing footage of a congressman in a town hall meeting dismissing concerns about racial bias in the Justice Department. "No one seems to give a darn," Kelly opened her discussion.
"You can certainly put me in the category of people who don't give a darn," replied Powers, a New York Post columnist.
Then they were off. Seemingly personally offended, Kelly repeatedly accused Powers of not knowing what she was talking about and even threatened to turn off her microphone.
"The minute I challenge you, you tell me I don't know what I'm talking about?" Powers asked.
"Because you don't," Kelly responded crisply.
Kelly, a former corporate lawyer who left law to become a local news reporter in Washington before joining Fox in 2004, rattled off details of the case from court documents and testimony with confidence.
"I cannot believe that this one case, after all of the cases that were dismissed during the Bush administration, is getting the amount of attention that it is getting," Powers said. "I find it absolutely shocking."
"Let me tell you why," Kelly shot back. "Because the voting place is sacrosanct."
Powers accused Kelly of playing the "scary black man" card, a remark the host regarded with openmouthed shock and apparent anger. Kelly was not made available for an interview for this story.
Shortly after the Powers confrontation, Kelly hosted a panel on whether Fox was inflaming racial fears and tensions with its focus on the story. One of the people she interviewed, NPR correspondent and Fox contributor Juan Williams, said that while he did not condone any acts of voter intimidation, the Panther case was being overblown and "is really small potatoes."
"I don't know why anyone who would reasonably look at this story and didn't want to exploit racial tensions would continue running this story," said Ari Rabin-Havt, a Media Matters representative. Rabin-Havt, whose employer has criticized The Associated Press for even examining Adams' accusations, said the press "shouldn't be covering this because there's nothing there."
But David McIntosh, a former Republican congressman from Indiana, said Kelly wasn't afraid to pose difficult questions about race and whether the law is being applied equally to everyone.
"She's been really fair and a bold journalist," McIntosh said. "In the end, this will be a healthy discussion. Where this leads to is a society that takes even further steps toward treating individuals for their own worth and not being racist."
Kelly also took on CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer for not asking Attorney General Eric Holder, during a "Face the Nation" interview two weeks ago, anything about the New Black Panther case and Adams' accusations.
She said that Schieffer either didn't care about the story and "decided to punt," or that he agreed to a Department of Justice restriction not to ask anything about it – a journalistic no-no. Schieffer told CNN's "Reliable Sources" that he doesn't agree to such conditions. He said he simply missed it, that he was on vacation before the interview and hadn't seen much coverage on it. If he had, he said he certainly would have asked.
Schieffer told CNN that no one from Fox called him about Kelly's accusations. He didn't want to speak further about it when asked by the AP.
Kelly's reaction to Schieffer indicates how promotion, rather than politics, drives discussion of the New Black Panther case.
Every time she returns to it Kelly has a chance to remind viewers of her "scoop." The story promotes an underdog mentality within Fox that it is not a respected part of the mainstream media, even as the network's ratings far outdistance its rivals. It promotes a political narrative about the Obama administration attractive to a majority of Fox's viewers.
It promotes, ultimately, Fox.
"This is a mistake that a lot of people make when they talk about Fox, where they think that a political agenda is the driving force," said Paul Levinson, head of the journalism department at Fordham University. "They certainly have a political agenda, they being some of the commentators, but when you go up to (network owner) Rupert Murdoch, he's a business person first."
EDITOR'S NOTE – David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org