Megyn Kelly and the White hegemonic discourse in America
On October 24, 2018, NBC talk show host Megyn Kelly apologized for defending the idea that it was acceptable for white people to wear dark-pigmented makeup for their Halloween costumes. The controversial statement was made in a round table where four all-white participants discussed the extent to which multiculturalism was harming the celebration of this national holiday.
“But what is racist?” Kelly said on her talk show “Megyn Kelly Today.” “Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid, that was O.K., as long as you were dressing up as a character.”
Given the controversy surrounding Kelly’s comments, she had no choice but to apologize to her colleagues in a memo and deliver a similar message to her viewers on-air. Even though she offered an apology, her remarks had serious consequences that resulted in the termination of her contract. However, Kelly was able to leave NBC with a $30 million payout and was freed from any non-compete clauses. Why did she leave the television network with a generous payout and the opportunity to sign a contract with a different network? Shouldn’t her remarks have been punished both socially and financially? Not necessarily. Kelly’s case had all sorts of legal, ethical and social implications that should be addressed in more detail.
Even though Kelly’s guests did not seem offended by her comments during the show, the incident sparked a negative response among social media, talent agencies and NBC executives. Andrew Lack, chairman of the news division said: “There is no other way to put this, but I condemn those remarks.” Al Roker, one of NBC’s personalities, said Kelly “owes a bigger apology to folks of color around the country,” while anchor Craig Mervin said her comments were “racist and ignorant.” (Koblin & Grynbaum, 2018). In addition to these reactions, Kelly’s talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, and her new agency, United Talent Agency, claimed they were no longer representing her. And people on social media criticized her lack of sensitivity and racial awareness: “@megynkelly is really out here discussing what the “big deal” about blackface is......OPEN A HISTORY BOOK! Why aren’t there black people on this discussion?” (@gohomechris, 2018).
Social media users, executives and agencies showed their rejection because we live in a time where diversity and inclusion play a pivotal role in our social ecosystem. These two practices are not only important social standards but are also an essential part of our society’s ethical norms. Making fun of people from other races, genders and ethnicities means we are reassuring the hegemonic discourses that have silenced and coerced minority groups for years. In America, these discourses often come from all-white authorities, and Kelly’s remarks are just another example of how oblivious privileged people can be when it comes to discussing race and ethnicity.
However, legal systems are not always aligned with society’s standards and ethical norms. In a country like the U.S., free speech is allowed and protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, which means that Kelly’s controversial opinion could not be banned by the U.S. government. The fate of her contract and her show were entirely up to NBC, a private company that had the right to fire her and terminate her contract. Given the gravity of the situation, NBC decided to suspend Kelly’s show and terminate its $69 million contract with the talk show host.
The termination of Kelly’s contract, however, was not an easy task for NBC. Even though private companies have the right to fire someone for something they say, depending on what the fired employee said, companies might also be in violation of the Civil Rights Act or in violation of contract law. This is why, after weeks of negotiations, Kelly agreed to walk away with a $30 million payout and she was free from non-compete clauses. She agreed to pay a nondisclosure agreement, which inhibited her from discussing her NBC experience in public.
Traditional media sources claim that NBC had other reasons to terminate their contract with Megyn Kelly and force her to sign a nondisclosure agreement. In the past, Kelly had publicly accused former NBC anchor Matt Lauer of sexual harassment, and she also denounced NBC’s negligence to look into Ronan Farrow’s stories about Harvey Weinstein. When those stories began to fade, her show’s popularity decreased.
These reports make me wonder if NBC did the right thing by letting Megyn Kelly go, not for her lack of understanding of societal standards and ethical norms, but for her show’s low ratings and her insistence on denouncing NBC’s negligence to investigate sexual harassment claims in the company. Did NBC do the right thing for the wrong reason?