The Media Today

What Shep Smith’s exit says about Fox News

October 14, 2019

In March 2018, Shep Smith mused, in an interview with Time magazine, about walking away from his Fox News show. “I wonder,” he asked, “if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place in this place that is most watched, most listened, most viewed, most trusted?” A year and a half later, we’re about to find out the answer. As his hour drew to a close on Friday afternoon, Smith, smiling placidly, heralded “a personal moment now.” No one—not least his colleagues—knew what was coming next. “This is my last newscast here,” Smith eventually said. “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day, that the truth will always matter, that journalism—and journalists—will thrive. I’m Shepard Smith, Fox News, New York.” With those words, Smith shuffled some papers and waved at the camera; then—according to the Washington Post—he slipped out of the building via the freight elevator, avoiding both the paparazzi and emotional goodbyes.

As his Time interview made clear, Smith—a redoubt of sanity in the increasingly warped universe of Fox News—had grown sick of the latitude afforded the network’s opinion hosts. His tipping point, the Post and CNN report, was a recent spat with Tucker Carlson: Smith criticized Carlson for failing to stick up for Andrew Napolitano, a legal analyst on Fox, after a guest on Carlson’s show called Napolitano “a fool”; Carlson shot back that Smith is “a partisan.” Per CNN’s Oliver Darcy, Smith was irked that network executives did not have his back; instead, he was reportedly reminded not to “shoot inside the tent.” (Fox called the latter claim “wildly inaccurate.”) Smith’s departure could now become a tipping point in its own right: an inside source told Darcy that it could trigger an exodus of staffers who “stayed here solely” for Smith. “Fox hasn’t just lost Shep today,” the source said.

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In media circles, Smith’s exit drove a conversation throughout the weekend. On Reliable Sources, CNN’s Brian Stelter called it a “cultural moment” that’s “bigger than Fox”; Conor Powell, formerly a correspondent for the network, told Stelter that Smith “was really the directional compass for those of us that were journalists” at Fox. “His voice didn’t always make it past his own show—a lot of the other shows just sort of ignored what he reported—but at least, day in and day out, Shepard’s voice was on the channel.” Commentators concurred that with Smith gone from Fox, so, too, are facts. His departure “sends a clear and dismaying message: Fox’s vaunted ‘news’ division has been routed,” Matt Gertz, of Fox-antagonist Media Matters for America, wrote. “Fox belongs to the Seans Hannity and Lous Dobbs. And now, everyone knows it.”

At least until any exodus, such verdicts seem a little harsh on some of those Smith left behind: his own team of reporters and producers, for example, and hosts such as Chris Wallace, who have proved they can sit in the same studio as Trump administration figures without going all gooey-eyed at them. There’s no question, however, that Smith’s resignation is a defining loss for the serious people left at Fox—writing last year, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman called him the network’s “most visible capital-J journalist and quasi-ombudsman”—as well as a clear victory for its propagandists. (Sean Hannity praised Smith on Friday, but has previously called him “clueless.”)

It’s also a victory for Trump. The president repeatedly trashed Smith, including in a tweet on the eve of Smith’s exit; on Friday, Trump needled Smith’s “terrible” ratings (which, while low by Fox News standards, were high compared to competitors’) under the guise of wishing him well. Over the weekend, Trump continued to behave like the network’s programmer in chief. On Saturday, he dialed into Jeanine Pirro’s show for a sycophantic interview. (“Do you take vitamins?” Pirro asked, expressing awe at Trump’s stamina. “How do you do this?”) Yesterday, on Twitter, he mocked Wallace, and suggested his fans should tune into Mark Levin’s show and Steve Hilton’s to get their nightly impeachment-Bidens-Ukraine-scandal fix.

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In recent months, skeptical voices have refuted the suggestion that there is a genuine news-opinion divide at Fox. Those voices don’t need to be wrong for Smith’s departure to point at a concerning broader truth. As Sherman wrote last year, Fox has reportedly been rudderless since the ouster of Roger Ailes, in 2016; in Ailes’s absence, opinion hosts have had freer rein to do their own thing, which has often meant doing Trump’s thing on his behalf. The news-opinion divide (and this is not Smith’s fault) may often have been more smoke and mirrors than an actual firewall, but the appearance of one was of critical importance to Ailes. The disappearance of Smith—who had been with Fox ever since Ailes founded the network, in 1996—further erodes that perception, perhaps more so than any individual event of the post-Ailes era.

Below, more on Shep Smith and Fox News:

  • Next steps for Shep: Smith is not retiring, but he won’t resurface on a rival network anytime soon, seemingly for contractual reasons. For now, he plans to spend more time with his family. Also for the time being, Fox will replace Smith with a rotating cast of hosts, and rename his show Fox News Reporting. Trace Gallagher is first up today.
  • A Murdoch walks into a Barr: Last week, Maggie Haberman and Katie Benner, of the New York Times, reported that William Barr, the attorney general, took a private meeting with Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox News, at Murdoch’s New York home. It’s not clear what they discussed, but speculation that Smith’s departure was linked to the meeting is wide of the mark, Smith’s spokesperson said.
  • “Personal struggles”: Carl Cameron, formerly a reporter at Fox News, toured the studios following Smith’s departure, and was heavily critical of the network. In a statement to Mediaite, Fox unloaded on Cameron: a spokesperson said he “has a very short memory for our endless compassion, patience and graciousness in dealing with his multitude of personal struggles.” This, the Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr noted, was not what Fox said at the time of Cameron’s departure.
  • Litmus test: Fox personalities have stayed loyal to Trump despite the president’s frequent tirades against the network. According to the Times, over the summer, Trump even phoned Suzanne Scott, Fox News’s CEO, to complain about coverage. “In cajoling and bullying his closest media allies, Mr. Trump is wielding the total-loyalty litmus test that he has used to keep close associates in line,” the Times reports.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.