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Jeff Simon: Megyn Kelly and the failed TV news opportunity of the year

"Why do you feel you have the right to ask these kinds of questions" snarled Vladimir Putin. "Why do you feel you have the right to ask questions all the time?"

Megyn Kelly could have answered that it's the way democracy works: The press is free so that American citizens can know what their leaders are thinking and doing. It's why Thomas Jefferson said that if he had the choice of living in a society with newspapers and no government or government and no newspapers, he'd choose the former.

Kelly asked a lot of things in Sunday's interview with a world leader whose treatment of his own country's journalists is usually thought to be somewhere between brutal and homicidal. Most of what she asked was related to Russia's relationship with the Trump administration and with Russian hacking of the 2016 election.

Kelly asked all sorts of questions of not-so-kindly Uncle Vlad on "Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly," every one of which could be denied and batted off to TV oblivion the minute Kelly finished talking. For instance, "Do you have something on our president?" she asked as if she expected him to break down, knock back a vodka and fess up.

Of course, he said "no." All he had to do with Kelly throughout the segment was reiterate how important he is, how many servile underlings he has and, as he put it, "in the grand scheme of things, we don't care who is the president of the United States."

Some other things Putin scowled and sneered before the biggest wasted TV news opportunity of our new millennium was over:

  1. "Hackers can be anywhere."
  2. Trump's election over Clinton was a "big surprise" to him.
  3. The Kennedy assassination was performed by U.S. "intelligence services."
  4. The U.S. constantly interferes with elections all over the world and "every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
  5. "For me, this is just amazing. You've created a sensation out of nothing ... You people are so creative over there."
  6. Kelly and he developed more of a relationship over a couple of days than he ever had with "Mr. Flynn" (retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, famously photographed sitting next to Putin at dinner.)

Other than the compelling fact that there are current world leaders who can quote Isaac Newton, the important thing to remember is that Putin couldn't have cared less about charming U.S. or world audiences. He may be thought to be a torturer, a dictator, a murderer and an abuser of journalists and whole nations. But he doesn't care.

The fact that he was answering NBC News questions at all and doing so in a calm, if completely dismissive, manner, was a propaganda victory. He was doing grunt-level KGB work: elementary disinformation, misinformation and no information.

Kelly, on the other hand, blew one of the biggest opportunities she'll ever have, as did NBC News in general.

On Twitter, journalist Yasha Ali (New York Magazine, Mother Jones, Huffington Post) listed matters Kelly left untouched while she showboated "tough" questions whose answers were nonexistent: the murder and torture of gay men in Chechnya, murdered journalists, his income and personal business, and most importantly, Hillary Clinton, the loser of the 2016 election.

She employed no known journalistic technique for eliciting candor from reluctant people who can lie so easily -- neither hammer and tongs repetition of questions or the Katie Couric, cutie-pie, tinker bell approach where the sweetest and most innocuous manner turns into an informational Venus fly trap.

But then, most of the show was a failure too. A Harry Smith report on women saving elephants from ivory poachers in Kenya was decent and a Cynthia McFadden report on people addicted to the synthetic drug Subsys and its illegal marketing was solid. Both were solidly in "60 Minutes" mode but neither was likely to steal a single viewer away from "60 Minutes."

In other words, a certain enormous tune-in was completely wasted. Across the dial on "60 Minutes," they just chortled and re-ran a whole bunch of stories which were virtual templates for what Kelly's show ran on its premiere.

Granted, Kelly is no foreign affairs reporter or hard-nosed journalist. But somewhat absurdly, her Putin interview failed utterly on the Barbara Walters scale too. No, she didn't ask him what kind of tree he'd like to be but she said in advance of the show while hyping it that she personally had found him to be very different privately than he was publicly.

How so? Nothing about the private Putin, not even his surprising civility or even courtliness, was conveyed to us. Nor were we told anything about his family, his home,  his all-important oil interests, his KGB career, his public and private reputation in the world.

It was a brisk, single-segment report virtually on a single subject. It offered nothing to viewers other than a couple of conspiratorial Putin broadsides at the Kennedy assassination.

Why was it such a ridiculous wasted opportunity for NBC? Because "60 Minutes" is more vulnerable than it has ever been since its 1968 beginnings. Its current roster is as unimpressive as it has ever been, with the occasional exception of Steve Kroft, Anderson Cooper and Scott Pelley.

Pelley was unceremoniously bounced out of his nightly news anchor chair last week for keeping CBS a solid third in the ratings race at the same time that he had reported troubles getting along with his boss, CBS News President David Rhodes.

The Murdoch papers on both sides of the ocean like to call him "Poison Pelley" because he supposedly once said to a journalist "You wouldn't last 10 seconds at CBS News." Which, loosely translated, was a way of telling her "I'm Scott Pelley and you're not."

It's not a message fellow journalists find sympathetic.

Nevertheless, Pelley is a strong reporter and his treatment of Trump misinformation on the nightly news has been notable for its frosty distaste.

What's interesting about that is that it should have indicated some improvement in CBS ratings in this period where Fox news is declining severely and MSNBC is on a sharp rise (especially Rachel Maddow.)

In the news biz, Trump sells, particularly genteel Trump-bashing. But all of Pelley's chilliness on the subject nightly did nothing but sell his native frost and his high opinion of himself.

Interestingly, that very attitude might strengthen enormously "60 Minutes" should its Sunday battles with Megyn Kelly ever become serious.

NBC had its best opportunity in many years to exploit the weaknesses of "60 Minutes." (Kroft, Pelley and Leslie Stahl are not exactly Harry Reasoner, Mike Wallace and Andy Rooney.) NBC's Harry Smith and Cynthia McFadden are very good and could become even better than that over time.

But all the Kelly debut debacle proved on Sunday was that, in the words of a famous NBC late-night show, former Fox News star Megyn Kelly wasn't really ready for prime time.

Not by a long shot.


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