Why Are NBC and Megyn Kelly Catering to Putin?

Vladimir Putin with Megyn Kelly. Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru

Kelly’s one-on-one with Putin offers an object lesson in the perils of getting too close to an interview subject.

It’s no secret that profit-driven cutbacks, the pressure for clicks and buzz, and a general lack of understanding of the topics they are covering distinguish, more often than not, the major news networks. Edward R. Murrow’s dictum that “we cannot make good news from bad practice” is honored more in the breach than in the observance. But even by those standards, NBC’s Megyn Kelly managed to set something of a new low with her visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, where she hosted the plenary session, and her interview with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

This was supposed to be her big get, the proof that, in landing the ruthless autocrat, she could move seamlessly from cable television to broadcast news. Certainly Kelly went all-out to profile herself. The night before the forum took place, the New York TimesVanessa Friedman noted, NBC sought to gin up some extra publicity by tweeting pictures of Kelly at a dinner party with Putin and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, where she wore a “sea-blue crushed-velvet off-the-shoulder cocktail dress with black spaghetti straps and a high slit, by the designer, Yigal Azrouel.” FootwearNews.com adds that her heels reached a soaring 4.5 inches. But it was all downhill from there.

The atmosphere may have been festive, but the purpose of the forum is not simply to allow Putin to shine, but also to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated and remains an attractive place for foreign investors. According to the Russian government, the forum attracted an unprecedented fourteen thousand participants, including the Indian prime minister and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Reports from Russia indicate that deals for investment capital amounting to some 2 trillion rubles were signed, though whether these transactions will actually be consummated is another matter. Putin himself publicly called on American business to encourage Washington to cooperate with Moscow.

Simply by appearing on the podium with the Russian president, Kelly played a part in Putin’s campaign to influence American policy. She legitimized an event that the Obama administration explicitly discouraged American companies from attending. In addition, her appearance raises the question of whether she was compensated financially, or in the form of receiving the interview as a quid pro quo shortly after her appearance at the forum. Put bluntly, the plenary session that Kelly moderated was supposed to allow her to appear to be an independent and objective journalist, but was as phony as they come. It consisted of Putin’s pals—Modi; Christian Kern, the federal chancellor of Austria; and Igor Dodon, the president of Moldova. This wasn’t a debating society, but a mutual admiration club. Anyway, at a time when allegations of untoward Russian influence are swirling around Washington, it’s particularly disingenuous for NBC to act as though it can exempt itself from basic journalistic standards.

Then there was Kelly’s interview with Putin. It offers an object lesson in the perils of getting too close to an interview subject. Upon her return to the United States, Kelly was thrilled to report about Putin being “warm” and “personable.” She observed, “honestly he was warm behind the scenes, he laughed, he smiled, he cracked jokes, he seemed like a normal person,” on the Today show Monday. “Which in and of itself was a little surprising given all we know and have heard about him.”

But was it really surprising that Putin, a former KGB agent who has climbed to the top of the Russian political system, can turn on the charm at will? Kelly sounds like an ingénue, rather than the hardboiled journalist she has always fancied herself. There is a long history of journalists truckling to the Kremlin, not to mention government officials. Her effusions about Putin sound one step removed from former American ambassador Joseph E. Davies, who rhapsodized in his memoir Mission to Moscow that Stalin’s “brown eyes are exceedingly kind and gentle. A child would like to sit on his knee and a dog would sidle up to him.”

During the interview, Kelly didn’t throw softball questions. But they were stale, unimaginative and predictable. Putin, who thrives on verbal combat, often looked bored with Kelly’s pallid attempt at interrogation. In essence, Kelly ended up giving Putin another forum to ventilate his grievances without offering any new insights into what makes him tick. Indeed, it was Putin who burned Kelly. She was outmatched, outgunned and outmaneuvered. He deftly turned around her own fawning behavior on Kelly.