The Value of Shepard Smith

Like an apostate sorcerer, the Fox News anchor reveals the secrets of his dark order.

Shepard Smith discussing the migrant caravan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Fox News.

This article is part of Watching Fox, a Slate series about Fox News.

On Monday, Oct. 29, for what felt like the millionth time in recent memory, Shepard Smith bit the (frequently xenophobic) hand that feeds him (lots of dollars). For days beforehand, many of Smith’s Fox News colleagues had been amplifying and justifying President Trump’s risible claim that the “migrant caravan” making its way slowly toward the United States posed an imminent national security crisis. The main point of this lie, of course, was to stoke Republican voters’ worst fears over undocumented immigration in the final weeks before the midterm elections. Like an apostate magician revealing the secrets of his order, Smith told his viewers exactly what his colleagues were up to.

“The migrants, according to Fox News reporting, are more than two months away. If any of them actually come here,” Smith said slowly and clearly, as if trying to make himself understood to a lunkish child. “But tomorrow is one week before the midterm election, which is what all of this is about. There is no invasion. No one’s coming to get you. There’s nothing at all to worry about.”

You may have already seen this clip, although you probably didn’t see it live since, after all, it aired at 3 in the afternoon; it made the social media rounds later that day. It was a striking moment even for Smith, who has long served as the adult in the room at Fox News: a beacon of actual journalism on a network dominated by alarmist right-wing propaganda. It was also a futile one, as his colleagues went right on touting the dangers of the caravan. (“The migrant caravan is a real thing, despite what they may be telling you on television,” Fox’s Tucker Carlson told his viewers five hours later.) Smith functions as a sort of internal ombudsman for Fox News, and in the manner of ombudsmen everywhere, nobody pays attention to him. He is the conscience that his bosses and colleagues choose to ignore.

Smith, who has been with Fox News since its inception, hosts Shepard Smith Reporting every weekday afternoon and leads the network’s breaking news coverage when it happens. But increasingly, his real job is to deliver sick burns on his idiot colleagues. As the network’s opinion hosts have gotten dumber and meaner in the Trump era, Smith has taken it upon himself to rebut their most odious and illogical contentions, and to report the details that his colleagues generally omit. This makes him a bit of a Sisyphean figure, albeit one who earns millions of dollars per year for repeatedly pushing his particular boulder up the same damn hill.

Every weekday afternoon, it feels like a pirate broadcaster has somehow commandeered Fox’s signal. Smith maintains a Rolodex of guests that is largely separate from the guests you’ll see on the network’s other shows, even the other more or less straightforward news programs. (I have never seen Sebastian Gorka on Smith’s program, for instance, and for this feat alone Smith may well deserve a Peabody.) Whenever he interviews someone who works for the Wall Street Journal, Smith makes a point of noting that the Journal and Fox News share corporate parentage. It’s a small habit but an important one—because journalists are supposed to inform their audience of possible conflicts of interest. I have never seen any other Fox News anchor take the time to do this.

Smith tends to cover actual news stories as opposed to the ginned-up pieces of agitprop that are popular among his colleagues. He is more willing than anyone else on the network to spotlight Trump’s glaring inconsistencies. “President Trump says Republicans will protect people with pre-existing conditions. So why is his Justice Department suing to get rid of protections for previously existing conditions?” Smith said on Monday afternoon’s broadcast as a lead-in to a segment with an Axios reporter. This question would not be asked elsewhere on Fox News.

Smith’s low-leverage timeslot can give the impression that the folksy anchor has been exiled by his own network, and to an extent that is true. He used to also host an evening show, until Fox News gave its nights over completely to opinion programming. But the fact that relatively few people are watching Fox News at 3 p.m. gives Smith a certain freedom to say what he wants and to run his show according to his own standards. He is an outlier on Fox News, which raises two obvious questions: Why does the network keep him around, and what should we make of his work there?

The first question is the easiest to answer. Smith gives the network plausible deniability. His good work whitewashes the rest of Fox’s garbage content. When outsiders tar the network as a mere propaganda shop, Fox News can point to Smith’s work as proof that it is indeed a legitimate news outlet. In previous interviews, Smith has drawn a line between Fox’s news and opinion divisions, and has basically described them as two separate operations under the same roof. I don’t find this distinction particularly convincing, and I suspect that casual Fox News viewers don’t observe this distinction at all.

Still, I’m glad that Smith has chosen to stay where he is rather than flee to another network, because I do believe he provides a valuable service for Fox News viewers. If you watch Fox News for long enough, you will start to find its tendentiousness reasonable. This fate is inevitable. The network is so good and so disciplined at its insane messaging that, after a while, anyone—even you—might start to believe that the slow approach of the migrant caravan is a worthwhile news story and that the people who oppose it might at least be raising interesting questions; that it doesn’t matter that bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc’s rhetoric mirrored the president’s; that it’s the liberals who are somehow being unfair to this presidency.

Smith serves as the antidote to this gaslighting. He’s a decoder ring for the rest of Fox News. By watching his program—a down-the-middle news show with little evident slant or bias—and considering it in relation to the other programs on the network, viewers begin to realize exactly what Fox isn’t saying, to understand the information or context that’s been systematically omitted from the rest of the network’s programming. By reporting the news as it is, rather than as Donald Trump wants it to be, Smith’s show consistently reveals his colleagues’ flaws and biases for viewers who might be otherwise convinced to take them at their word.

When more than a dozen mail bombs were mailed to prominent Democrats and Trump critics across America, for example, Smith was the first Fox anchor to clearly and repeatedly state that the bomber’s targets were all also frequent rhetorical targets of the president. After the suspect was revealed to be a raving Trump partisan with a “CNN Sucks” sticker on his van, Smith got into an on-air argument with Fox’s Chris Wallace, insisting that it was fair to openly wonder whether Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has served to incite political violence. “To ignore the elephant in the room is just, you know, it’s a fool’s folly,” said Smith.

That’s Shepard Smith for you: consistently stating the obvious on a network that is committed to calling things as they aren’t.