Why the official story of Shep Smith's abrupt departure from Fox News doesn't add up
Shepard Smith’s sudden departure from Fox News signaled that the drawbridge has effectively been raised, and all Trump nonbelievers belong on the other side of Rupert Murdoch's cable castle. No longer a place where any serious dissension—or Trump fact-checking—is allowed, Fox News has embraced its core mission of disseminating propaganda. The move shouldn't be surprising given the state of today's cultish right-wing media, where devotion to Trump now dictates so much of the content. It's a conservative media movement that has never been concerned with facts and accuracy, but today has descended into something even more irresponsible.
That's why it’s not surprising Smith had to go. The idea that the conservative media would in any meaningful way ever stand up to Trump always struck me as pure fantasy. That's because most of the conservative press is in the same business as Trump: waging culture wars and hoisting up the banner of white nationalist victimhood.
Smith, of course, hadn't fit into Fox News' propaganda blueprint for a very long time, which meant he constantly created a buzz when he did what virtually nobody else at Fox News would do since Trump’s inauguration, which is to point out, subtly, that the president of the United States lies all the time about everything. Under Trump, Fox News voices are allowed to occasionally criticize White House policy, but nobody is allowed to announce the emperor has no clothes, and Smith often tiptoed right up to that line.
Meanwhile, Trump’s presidency continues to highlight just how shallow the ethics and guidelines are within the conservative media, as players scramble to make sure they remain on his good side. "Glenn Beck, the radio host who once called Mr. Trump ‘an immoral man who is absent decency or dignity,’ now says that his defeat in 2020 would mark ‘the end of the country as we know it,’" The New York Times noted last week in an article looking at how so many Never Trump conservative journalists (He's a "racist"! He's a "fascist"!) have morphed into Trump's most loyal defenders. And no, none of the conservative commentators in the piece could offer up a coherent reason for their radical conversion regarding Trump. (Hint: Follow the money and follow the clicks.)
Those who did not convert often found themselves with a vanishing audience, which is one reason The Weekly Standard was forced to shut down. One of its editors, Stephen Hayes, last week launched a new conservative media voice, The Dispatch, in hopes of finding an anti-Trump conservative following. (Good luck.)
Meanwhile, when it comes to Smith's very sudden departure from Fox News, nothing adds up.
The public story from Fox News is that the move was Smith’s decision alone. Additional reporting suggested Smith felt increasingly uncomfortable with Fox News’ direction and content during the Trump era. But bolting mid-contract and shocking the whole company on a Friday afternoon simply is not how these situations are normally handled. Fox News is in the communications business. The way a company like that communicates a major on-air departure is with a well-choreographed joint statement. Instead, Fox appeared completely flat-footed as Smith announced his departure live on national television, and then quickly slipped out the back door of the company's Sixth Avenue offices.
Also, why is Smith uncomfortable now? Fox News has been a cesspool of misinformation for many, many years. What became so pressing that the afternoon anchor simply could not continue working where he'd been working for more than two decades? Was it a coincidence Smith had to break his contract two weeks after getting into a public feud with Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s signature Trump sycophants? (Smith's bosses were noticeably mute in defending him while the Carlson spat played out.) Was it a coincidence Smith had to suddenly break his contract the same week Trump errand boy Attorney General William Barr met privately with Smith’s boss, Rupert Murdoch, at a time Trump was whining about what he perceived as slights in Fox News' coverage? And let's be honest, who walks away from a $15 million-a-year job because they suddenly have vague feelings of corporate unease?
Meanwhile, Smith's departure generated lots of chatter about what a blow it was to Fox's "news division," and how serious journalists at the cable channel felt so demoralized by his exit. Fact: The Fox "news division" is a unicorn because it doesn't really exist. Yes, the Beltway conventional wisdom is that Fox is merely "opinionated" at night but that the rest of the day’s programming deals with legit news gathering. And to that I always say: You've seen Fox & Friends in the morning and The Five in the afternoon, right? The two shows represent a bottomless pit of propaganda, lies, and smear attacks on Democrats. “Oh but wait, Brett Baier is a serious anchor who’s on at 6 PM,” I'm constantly told. The same Brett Baier who, one week before the 2016 election, reported on-air that Hillary Clinton would soon be indicted? I'll pass.
Smith's exit puts the final exclamation point on that, since my guess is there's virtually no chance his 3 to 4 PM time slot, when Shepard Smith Reporting aired, remains reality-based without him at the helm. Smith himself worried about that, which was one of the stated reasons why he renewed his contract back in 2018. "To stop doing it would be bad because I think that there is a need for it and I know the degree to which we care about it and focus on it and we want it to be as perfect as it can be," he told Time in March of that year. "And I wonder, 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? I don’t know."
Smith's weekday program often offered a brief, 60-minute window into a fact-based world to Fox News viewers. That window has now been shut, and Fox News is officially hermetically sealed.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.