Megyn Kelly-Sean Hannity Dust-Up Is Latest Challenge for Fox News

Brian Steinberg

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the founding of Fox News Channel, two of its most important employees are acting as if they’re gearing up for a separation.

The TV-news business is filled with gossip and sidelong remarks, but most is chewed over in private. In one of the most public needlings since Keith Olbermann and Bill O’Reilly hurled invective at each other and their networks’ parent corporations in the mid-to-late 2000s, Fox News’ Sean Hannity took on a colleague, Megyn Kelly, questioning her over remarks she made about Donald Trump and rival Hillary Clinton making appearances only on programs known to be friendly to their cause.

“Donald Trump, with all due respect to my friend at 10 p.m., will go on ‘Hannity’ and pretty much only ‘Hannity’ and will not venture out to the unsafe spaces these days, which doesn’t exactly expand the tent,” Kelly said Wednesday night. Hannity used Twitter to retort, accusing Kelly, a self-avowed “independent,” of supporting Clinton.

It’s likely the last thing the new executives running Fox News Channel want to take place. The network, arguably the financial linchpin of its parent company, 21st Century Fox has just suffered what is likely the biggest disruption in its two decades of existence. Its former leader and the architect of its popular program schedule, Roger Ailes, was ousted in July after being accused of sexual harassment in a lawsuit from former anchor Gretchen Carlson. Ailes denied those charges, as well as other allegations made by women at Fox News and by women from his past. In his place, the corporate parent company 21st Century Fox elevated Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy to run Fox News. Rupert Murdoch, the Fox executive chairman, is supervising their efforts.

Their squabbling points to bigger challenges looming at Fox News. Megyn Kelly’s contract expires sometime next year. Would she seek to leave if the atmosphere was less than hospitable? Hannity’s contract is believed to last until some time in 2020. Adding to the uncertainty: Bill O’Reilly’s contract also expires in 2017.

Spokespersons for Fox News and Megyn Kelly could not be reached for immediate comment.

Shine and Abernethy have already had to tweak the network’s programming lineup. Greta Van Susteren, who has led the network’s 7 p.m. hour, left abruptly early last month in the wake of a contract dispute. Brit Hume has taken over the program, but is expected to stay only through the election. A hint of what the new executives like might be seen in the new Sunday program, “Perino & Stirewalt: I’ll Tell You What.” The show, expected to air through November 13, tackles politics and is based on a podcast led by its hosts, Dana Perino and Chris Stirewalt.

Hannity has made no secret in recent weeks of his support for Trump’s candidacy. Last month, Fox News Channel had to tell the host he could no longer appear in promotions for a Presidential candidate after he was spotted making a cameo in an eight-minute-long video from Trump’s  campaign that surfaced on YouTube. “We were not aware of Sean Hannity participating in a promotional video and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election season,” the network said in a statement. Most cable-news networks and other media outlets have rules about on-air talent aligning themselves with political causes or candidates, though Hannity is often portrayed as part of Fox News’ opinion programming. He’s not a journalist, in the strictest sense of the word.

But he is popular among viewers. In September, Hannity’s 10 p.m. program attracted the most viewers between 25 and 54, the demographic coveted most by advertisers, of any cable news program – marking the first time he has won the distinction since his show moved to its current timeslot to make way for Kelly in 2013.  Kelly, meanwhile, led cable news in that same viewer demo for the third quarter.

Ratings don’t seem to be the issue for the latest Fox News brouhaha. When asked on Twitter Thursday evening why he casting aspersion on a colleague, Hannity replied that he would stand by fellow employees “when they stand by me.”

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