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What Shepard Smith’s Exit Means for Fox News

For a figure who strove to present the news as evenhandedly as possible, Shepard Smith had become extremely controversial by the time he announced his departure from Fox News on Oct. 11.

Indeed, it was his equanimity that made him controversial. Smith, the host of Fox’s hard-news 3 p.m. hour as well as anchor of the cabler’s breaking-news division, refused to toe the line on key Fox News stories — from the so-called Uranium One scandal to the current impeachment inquiry. This made him plenty of enemies, especially recently.

Some of those enemies were network colleagues broadcasting on Fox’s evening opinion side: Sean Hannity has criticized Smith in the past, and Tucker Carlson and Smith had a widely reported war of words on their respective shows last month. And one enemy watched from the White House: The day before Smith’s announcement, President Trump, on Twitter, listed Smith as one of the reasons Fox had become “much different than it used to be in the good old days.”

Trump got right that the network had changed, but precisely backward what had shifted it. Smith, who’d been with Fox News since its inception, represented continuity with an aspect of the network’s history. Provocation has been part of Fox News’ DNA since its first day on the air in 1996, but the network’s identity does emphasize news running alongside opinion. Smith’s hour helped keep that balance at least somewhat intact: There, news was the star, even and perhaps especially when it ran counter to the official Fox narrative elsewhere.

It was a lonely position. In a profile I wrote of Smith for Time magazine in 2018, the anchor noted that “some of our opinion programming is there strictly to be entertaining. I get that. I don’t work there. I wouldn’t work there.” But he was forced to work in its midst, with his hour surrounded by news broadcasts with a deep ideological bent, followed in the evenings by outright propaganda and, for a time, often preempted by Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ daily briefings in which she scolded, ignored and misled journalists. Those daily briefings have ended — a further sign of contempt for journalists at large — but one wouldn’t know that from much of Fox’s programming, which remains both congenial toward the president and a more effective means of transmitting his messages than any briefing could ever be.

“Smith’s absence going forward means that the argument for Fox News’ independence is substantially weakened.”

Smith was both at odds with the philosophy that makes Fox News so popular and pragmatically useful for Fox’s leadership.

He was the anchor to whom the network could point to prove its status as a real journalistic outlet. (That doing so gave away the strong lean in the rest of its news slate was what it was.) If Fox broadcast Smith, even for an hour a day and even with his opinion-side colleagues not just contradicting him but decrying him, it was provably a sign of journalistic independence.

While Smith was not the only on-air journalist, in the classical sense, at Fox — Chris Wallace is at least well-regarded enough to have moderated a presidential debate in 2016 — his absence going forward means that the argument for independence is substantially weakened.

So, too, is Fox’s dayside lineup, lacking an anchor with credibility, or a backbone for more serious and less slanted information, among viewers outside the network’s core constituency.

The question is how much, or whether, that matters to Fox. The network was willing to release him from a contract he had only signed last year. In my Time profile, the anchor warned that he was prepared to leave Fox if he were pressured to alter the hour he controlled: “If ratings go down or viewers scream too much and we make changes to accommodate, we are in extreme dereliction of duty. I cannot do it. I will not do it. I’ll quit. I’ll stop doing it completely.”

That he ended up leaving Fox and, for now, journalism, the year after this warning, should matter to Fox and its viewership. But that viewership saw Smith’s news surrounded by broadcasts that contradicted it in tone and/or in substance; it was the hour they could yell at the screen, or tune out. And the network ignored his threat and created conditions over which he’d leave, then allowed him to go. Given how high Fox’s ratings fly when it disregards Smith’s style, does anyone really believe that the anchor will be replaced in the long term with a broadcaster as willing to play reporter as Smith was, particularly with Trump, Fox’s most popular subject, as viewer-in-chief?

In 2018, Smith followed his threat to depart with a reason he might stay: “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.” He’s likely to find that Fox at 3 p.m., in the long term, ends up blending into the day’s pro-Trump, anti-opposition dramas; in the battle between “most-viewed” by a passionate core audience and “most-trusted” by the public at large, “most-viewed” wins out every time. The losers are Smith and the rest of us living in a reality that’s governed more by passion than fact.

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