NEW YORK — Four years ago, Megyn Kelly roved the Democratic and Republican convention floors as a reporter for Fox News Channel. Starting Monday in Tampa, Fla., she'll be in Fox's booth as co-anchor with Bret Baier for the 2012 meetings.
The elevation shows how Kelly, host of the daytime "America Live" program, is rising at Fox. Her ratings are increasing even in a rough year for cable news. Recently she single-handedly minimized the damage after a Fox flub covering the Supreme Court health care decision and even had a surprise talk with an old nemesis, Jon Stewart.
Her convention assignment is likely to be her most visible yet. Fox outrated all of its television rivals, including ABC, CBS and NBC, during the GOP convention in 2008 and 2004. She's hoping her outside-the-Beltway status provides a good contrast to Baier, who hosts a newscast from Washington each weeknight. She also appreciates the confidence placed in her by Fox News boss Roger Ailes.
"For many executives in television, there's still a quiet understanding that the person with the most authority is the male anchor, and I don't think my boss suffers from that delusion," she said.
Kelly was once a Washington insider herself. She handled bankruptcy, anti-trust and contract cases as a lawyer there for nine years. Being a lawyer proved ultimately unsatisfying, however. "I realized I had blown all of my 20s at the office and I didn't want to blow all of my 30s at the office," she said.
She moved quickly upon turning to TV, getting a job at ABC's Washington affiliate. Noticed by Fox, she joined the cable news outlet in 2004 as a Washington correspondent. After moving to New York, Kelly co-hosted two hours in the morning with Bill Hemmer and was given her own show in 2010 after returning from the first of two maternity leaves.
"She just has those key ingredients that work for television," said Michael Clemente, Fox's executive vice president for news. "She knows exactly how to ask the right question. She can get to the point as fast as anyone and she's pleasant in the process and comfortable on the air."
Jane Hall, an American University professor and former Fox contributor who was occasionally paired with Kelly for segments on Bill O'Reilly's show, could tell immediately that Kelly was good on TV, smart and interesting to watch. The 41-year-old blonde is also attractive, no small consideration for people on TV and particularly for women at Fox, Hall said. (Kelly did a photo shoot for GQ in 2010 wearing a black bra, slip and pair of red heels.)
Kelly's legal training has translated to television. She once synthesized complex information into something jurors could quickly understand, and now does it for viewers. She learned not to be intimidated by the rich and powerful, which didn't come naturally to Kelly, who grew up outside Albany, N.Y. Her combativeness is also evident on the air, leading her astray at times. One conversation with contributor Kirsten Powers over a voters' rights case turned into a verbal altercation that led Kelly to later apologize privately.
Kelly has shown more of her personality in recent months. Sometimes she drops the anchorwoman persona to speak directly to viewers, like when she wrapped up a contentious segment with Democratic and Republican political aides talking past each other about Medicare.
"Was that enlightening?" she said. "Was that helpful? I don't think so."
She said she feels more relaxed on the air.
"I finally reached homeostasis, where my on-air persona and delivery is the same as my off-air persona," Kelly said. "I want to be able to show who I am to viewers and I'm not afraid to do that anymore."
Kelly was anchoring with Hemmer on the morning the Supreme Court's decision upholding President Barack Obama's health care plan was released. Fox, like rival CNN, initially reported that the law had been struck down. Kelly sensed the error and called the report from Washington into question within two minutes, ordering producers to remove a misleading graphic. Painfully to viewers, CNN took a much longer time to correct the high-profile mistake.
Afterward, the New Yorker magazine dubbed Kelly "the brains of the Fox News operation."
Kelly said she considers "America Live" a news show, not an opinion one, and there's a clear contrast between her show and ones on Fox or MSNBC's prime time. The lineup of stories, however, usually won't upset a Fox audience dominated by Republicans.
Last Monday, for example, the show led with a story about an e-book that alleged dysfunction in President Obama's presidential campaign, and returned to it a handful of times later. The story about Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's statement that women's bodies can break down pregnancies in cases of "legitimate rape," which broke the previous weekend, wasn't reported until the last five minutes of the two-hour show (except for when Obama was asked about it during an impromptu news conference Fox covered). Another new story, about a Republican congressman skinny-dipping in Sea of Galilee, wasn't covered.
"I don't think that we consider the political makeup of our audience," she said. "At the same time, I understand that my mission here is not to pick up The New York Times and put their headlines on TV. That's not what we do at Fox News. That's never been our formula and it wouldn't be a winning formula for us."
Her show offers two sides to a story "and I think people are not used to hearing the Republican side on some issues without mocking or diminishing, especially on issues like abortion, home schooling, guns or even small government. People are used to hearing these issues discussed where you're made to feel like you're in the minority if you don't agree with the slant of the news presenter."
Kelly has occasionally run afoul of Stewart on "The Daily Show." One time Stewart showed a segment where Kelly confronted a conservative commentator who had mocked her maternity leave, and the comic contrasted it with clips where Kelly had questioned people about entitlement programs. Kelly, he suggested, is "suffering from post-partum compassion."
He called Kelly recently after hearing her call him mean on his Comedy Central show.
It was cordial. Kelly said Stewart explained he was a satirist and his comedy didn't come from a mean place. She didn't back down, telling him that "I feel like you're the school bully and I'm one of your victims and you're looking for absolution and I'm not giving it."
She thinks Stewart is funny, "except for when he makes fun of me."