Before 30 seconds had passed during Thursday’s episode of Shepard Smith Reporting, the host had said what most of his Fox News colleagues had been trying very hard not to say all afternoon. “The bottom line on today’s document—according to the document, not the attorney general—is this: Robert Mueller reports he could not exonerate President Trump,” Smith declared. After noting that the special counsel had found that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election “was no hoax” and that “the [Trump] campaign expected to benefit from the stolen information that the Russians released,” Smith reiterated his initial point. “Robert Mueller’s report does not clear President Trump of obstruction of justice,” he said. “In fact, the special counsel wrote that if he could clear the president of obstruction of justice, he would, but that he could not.”
As experienced Fox watchers know, Shepard Smith Reporting is an outlier on the network. Smith has been with Fox News since the network was founded, and his long tenure perhaps gives him license to deviate from the party line. Smith works from his own news desk, which has a different visual style than any other Fox program. His guests—generally—are actual journalists and other factual adults. (The next time Sebastian Gorka goes on Smith’s program will be the first time Sebastian Gorka goes on Smith’s program.) In recent years, Smith has spent much of his airtime speaking slowly and directly into the camera, in the soothing tones used by crisis negotiators. During these monologues, he rebuts the dumb things said by his colleagues on the network’s opinion side. His program is a beacon of candor in a sea of partisan bullshit.
I’ve always believed that Fox executives appreciate Smith’s heterodoxy, insofar as they can point to his program as proof that Fox is a news network and not just a vehicle for anti-elitist resentments and nativist propaganda. I also get the sense that Smith enjoys being the fly in his network’s ointment, and on Thursday he had an Olympic-size pool worth of ointment to dive into.
From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fox News spent roughly equal amounts of time covering the collusion and obstruction sections of the Mueller report, perhaps to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of the unresolved obstruction investigation. Smith, on the other hand, dispensed with the collusion section in a line or two before outlining each of the 10 instances of possible obstruction covered in the Mueller report. “So, for now, whether the president obstructed justice is an open question,” Smith concluded, before cueing up a tape of Trump, earlier on Thursday, boasting to a veterans group that the report had uncovered “no collusion, no obstruction.” Smith is pretty much the only Fox host who does this, using footage of the president to underscore his unreliability.
Smith later welcomed former prosecutor Bob Bianchi, who joined the Fox News host in criticizing Attorney General William Barr’s Thursday morning press conference. “I felt that he was trying to be a cheerleader for the president, and I think that’s ill-advised for the president himself. This report speaks for itself,” said Bianchi. “But when he’s getting up there and he’s making comments that are, you know, ‘He was emotionally upset.’ Well, boy, that bothered me, Shep.”
Smith responded by suggesting that the goal of Barr’s press conference was to “control the narrative” before the full report was released. “If I’m the president, I’m real happy with what William Barr did this morning,” said Smith. “But if I’m one seeking the truth about what’s in this report, in many cases, uh, we were deceived.”
Smith wasn’t the only Fox anchor to criticize Barr—Chris Wallace also did so earlier on Thursday morning. When Wallace joined Smith around 3:20, the two men lingered briefly on Barr before turning back to the obstruction section of the report. Wallace noted that Trump’s staffers may have saved the president from being charged with obstruction by refusing to do the unsavory things that the president asked them to do. “But that also doesn’t absolve the president. Because it’s the asking that’s the wrong thing to do,” said Smith.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Wallace. “I mean, that’s obviously … ”
“I didn’t say it’s criminal,” said Smith. “That’s for somebody else to decide. But it’s certainly not what you’re supposed to do.”
“It’s certainly not what you’re supposed to do,” Wallace agreed. “Whether or not that’s a basis for a criminal prosecution, evidently the attorney general says no.”
The dynamic between Wallace and Smith is always fun to watch. Both men are credible voices, which puts them in the minority when it comes to Fox’s marquee on-air personalities. Wallace seems to regard Smith as a bit of a loose cannon, though, and often seems to be on the verge of rolling his eyes and saying, “Now, Shepard … ” Wallace’s segment on Thursday concluded with one of the best “Now, Shepard … ” moments I’ve ever seen. While discussing Rudy Giuliani’s performance as the president’s personal counsel, Wallace noted that “given the fact that the president in so many cases … said, ‘I don’t recall what happened’—the fact that [Giuliani] didn’t allow the president to sit for an in-person live interview with the special counsel and his prosecutors probably was very helpful.”
“[I] was surprised that [Trump] had forgotten so many things, though,” said Smith. “Because I remember specifically him telling us that he has one of the best memories ever.”
Wallace paused and blinked. “That’s true,” he said, and he gave a little smile.
“He did tell us that,” said Smith.
“He did tell us that,” Wallace echoed.
It was the best burn I’d heard all day. It was also delivered at 3:30 in the afternoon, in a low-leverage time slot when the only people watching Fox News were journalists writing roundups of how Fox News covered the Mueller report. Fox News hopes to contain the damage that Smith’s honest reporting inflicts while simultaneously benefiting from the cover it provides. Smith’s burns are real, but they are controlled burns, cordoned off from the rest of the network. At 4 p.m., Smith signed off and Neil Cavuto signed on. Within 10 minutes, Cavuto had characterized the Mueller probe as “sort of a jump ball” with regard to its overall findings. “He was not lying to prosecutors. And thereby, they can’t get to anything to charge him with,” Fox’s Bret Baier told Cavuto.
“And bottom line, [obstruction of justice] didn’t happen, right?” Cavuto replied. “I mean, he might’ve been thinking about it, talking about it, but it didn’t happen.” As far as the rest of the Fox News roster was concerned, Shepard Smith Reporting might as well not have happened either.