It’s already being hyped as some kind of super smackdown, a highly anticipated round of televised combat.
And that sort of buildup misses the point of Megyn Kelly’s interview with Donald Trump.
The anchor’s prime-time special, which will air May 17 on the Fox broadcast network, is obviously big news because of the candidate’s history of animosity toward her. It was news when Kelly met with him at Trump Tower, at her request, to clear the air, and it was news this week when Trump accepted the invitation.
Keep in mind that this high-profile sitdown is in both parties’ interest. Kelly lands a conversation with the likely Republican nominee and gets to close book on a difficult chapter. Trump, who has high negatives with women, gets to mend fences with Fox’s top female star and deliver his message to what is likely to be a large audience.
If people want to unload on the interview once it airs, have at it. Television is a spectator sport. The stakes are high, as Kelly knew they would be when she booked Trump for her first special.
But it is not Kelly’s job to pummel him, ambush him or derail his candidacy. Her role is to ask questions that are tough but fair.
In this hyperpartisan era, a candidate’s detractors often complain that any interview that doesn’t leave the person battered and bloodied is absurdly soft. And the candidate’s fans often complain that any interview that doesn’t qualify the candidate for Mount Rushmore is gotcha journalism. I’ve gotten deluged by both kinds of feedback for the same interview, believe me.
Journalists need to be aggressive when interviewing White House contenders and push past the talking points, but also treat them with respect.
What’s more, we’re not talking about a presidential debate here. It’s not a segment on “The Kelly File.” It’s for a broadcast network hour in the vein of the old Barbara Walters specials, taped well in advance and designed to focus in part on personality. The other guests, Fox announced yesterday, are actor Michael Douglas and former O.J. lawyer Robert Shapiro.
When the Washington Post calls for a “slowly executed dismemberment” of Trump, it sounds like the only acceptable outcome is torture.
“I was never going to love him, and I was never going to hate him,” Kelly told Vanity Fair. She was recalling how Trump once sent her press clippings about herself in what she described as an attempt to woo her.
Trump’s attacks on Kelly began after the first presidential debate last August, when she pressed him on his past derogatory comments about women. He and many of his supporters found the question unfair; her defenders said she was simply confronting him with his own words. That’s a fair argument to have; the same goes for Trump’s complaints that her show has been unfair to him.
But things reached the point that Trump pulled out of Fox’s Iowa debate, saying among other things that Kelly could not be fair to him. He later acknowledged that blowing off the debate hurt him in the caucuses.
Trump told me and other reporters that Kelly had been fair to him at the next Fox debate in Detroit. But things flared up again when Trump began ripping Kelly on Twitter as “crazy” and “sick,” prompting a blistering Fox statement accusing him of having a sick obsession with her.
What some people overlook is that this was a one-sided fight, with Kelly largely refraining from responding to the billionaire’s taunts. No journalist wants to become the story, and Megyn, along with the rest of the media world, had to keep covering his candidacy.
Now everyone will get to weigh in on what is being billed as a rematch. But it should be scored as journalism, not blood sport.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.