For all I know, Fox News news host Shepard Smith and his counterparts on the network’s opinion side are great friends off the air. Maybe they all go bowling together, exchange heartfelt holiday cards, and show up for each other’s weddings and midsummer barbecues. When the cameras are on, though, Smith and his prime-time colleagues evince a mutual contempt that, as happened this week, occasionally bubbles over into open hostility.
The basis for this contempt is no secret. Smith is a competent and credible journalist whose afternoon show, Shepard Smith Reporting, is a true Fox News outlier in terms of general sanity and reliability. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, whose respective evening opinion programs air in much more prominent time slots than Smith’s show, are smarmy nativists jostling to curry favor with our idiot demagogue president. Smith’s and the opinion hosts’ respective goals are fundamentally incompatible, which is why they so often clash. Smith clearly thinks that the opinion hosts undermine the credibility of his own news reporting. Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham clearly see Smith as an invader from the so-called liberal media. Smith and Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace are consistently the best that the network’s on-air news division has to offer, and it is Fox’s choice, and Fox’s fault, that everyone else falls short of their standards.
The latest edition of Shep Smith vs. His Much More Famous Colleagues aired this week, as Smith and Carlson scuffled over their competing interpretations of the now-infamous phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Smith and his judicial analyst of choice, Judge Andrew Napolitano, have maintained that Trump may have committed a crime when he asked Zelensky to consider investigating former vice president and current Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Carlson and his judicial analyst, former prosecutor Joseph diGenova, have basically argued that Trump is the most unfairly persecuted man in human history and that whatever crimes may have been committed were clearly and exclusively committed by Democrats. Smith’s analysis reflected the mainstream media consensus on the Trump-Zelensky phone call. But in the topsy-turvy world of Fox News, it was Carlson who was the sober man of reason, with Smith the frothy-mouthed speculator.
The tiff began on Tuesday afternoon, when Smith welcomed Napolitano onto Shepard Smith Reporting to discuss the implications of the aforementioned telephone call. (At that time, the summary of that call had not yet been made public.) “The president admits that on a phone call with the president of Ukraine he requested that the president of Ukraine investigate his 2020 political rival Joe Biden. Is that a crime?” Smith asked Napolitano.
“It is a crime for the president to solicit aid for his campaign from a foreign government,” Napolitano said.
“So that to which the president has admitted is in and of itself a crime?” Smith asked.
“Yes, this is the same crime for which the Trump Organization was investigated by Bob Mueller,” Napolitano replied, and after a brief exchange he reiterated that point: “It’s the same crime. An agreement or a solicitation for assistance for an American campaign, regulated by the Federal Election Commission, where you are seeking the assistance from a foreign government, that’s the crime.”
Later that night, on his namesake opinion program, Carlson talked to diGenova, an attorney and television commentator whose entertaining Wikipedia page notes that, during an Ingraham Angle appearance in March 2019, he “misstated [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s] name as ‘Anastasio Ocasio-Cortez’ and pronounced her name with an exaggerated Italian accent.” Mamma mia! Anyway, Carlson asked diGenova to comment on Napolitano’s analysis from earlier that day.
“I think Judge Napolitano is a fool and I think what he said today is foolish,” diGenova said. “No, it is not a crime. Let me underscore emphatically that nothing that the president said on that call or what we think he said on that call constitutes a crime and even if he had said you’re not going to get the money, it would not be a crime.” DiGenova did not go on to explain his logic, such as it was, but it was basically the same old Fox News line: The president cannot be guilty of a crime, any crime, because the Democrats are the real criminals.
Smith was not about to let this retort pass unnoticed. On Wednesday afternoon, hours after the White House had declassified and released the summary of the call between Trump and Zelensky, Smith brought Napolitano back onto Shepard Smith Reporting, where the former judge reiterated his opinion that asking a foreign government for “anything that helps the campaign, whether it’s cash or emails or smearing your opponent, is a thing of value.”
“And therefore requesting it is a crime,” Smith clarified.
“Yes,” said an emphatic Napolitano. At that point, things got fun. Looking directly into the camera and speaking very deliberately—as he does sometimes when he is trying to rebut something stupid that his opinion colleagues or Donald Trump have said—Smith took Carlson and diGenova to task. “A partisan guest who supports President Trump was asked about Judge Napolitano’s legal assessment,” Smith said. “And when he was asked, he said, unchallenged, Judge Napolitano is a fool. Attacking our colleague who is here to offer legal assessments, on our air, in our work home, is repugnant.”
Smith went on to note that he had consulted at least four other regular Fox News legal contributors who agreed with Napolitano’s analysis: criminal defense attorney Caroline Polisi, former prosecutor and DOJ official Jim Trusty, former assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Little, and former prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer.* “Your assessment of how this will go forward now, from a legal perspective?” Smith asked Napolitano.
“Well, I think the president’s supporters will dig their heels in, and I think the president’s detractors will dig their heels in,” Napolitano replied, and he knew what he was talking about. Not six hours later, Carlson kicked off the fourth round of this fight by bringing diGenova back on his show for a second straight appearance.
“Well, apparently, our daytime host, who hosted Judge Napolitano, was watching last night and was outraged by what you said and, quite ironically, called you partisan,” said Carlson, cueing up tape of Smith’s Wednesday remarks and clearly implying that Smith was actually the partisan one here. (According to the New York Times, diGenova has “endorsed the notion that a secretive group of F.B.I. agents concocted the Russia investigation as a way to keep Mr.
Trump from becoming president, a theory with little supporting evidence.”) “ ‘Repugnant,’ Carlson smirked, after the tape had played. “Not clear if that was you or me, but someone’s repugnant.” He went on: “Now, unlike maybe some day-side hosts, I’m not very partisan”—accusing your opponents of all the things of which you and your co-ideologues are guilty is a classic Fox News tactic—“and it was a sincere question. Is it a crime or not?”
“Absolutely not,” said diGenova. “Now, let me sort of educate Judge Napolitano. The president of the United States is the executive branch under Article II. He is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. He can ask anyone—a citizen, a foreign leader—a question. He can make a suggestion about an investigation because he runs them.”
“Why do we find ourselves in a situation where people aren’t willing to admit that their passions are guiding their news coverage?” Carlson asked a little bit later, again throwing shade at Smith for his purported partisanship. “Wouldn’t it be better if we just said out loud, you know, this is what I think?”
“I am blatantly obvious about the fact that I support the president of the United States,” diGenova said—at last, an unambiguously accurate statement. “Judge Napolitano just doesn’t like the president of the United States. That’s fine. He’s entitled to that. He’s entitled to feel that way. He’s a disappointed office-seeker—he didn’t get the seat on the Supreme Court that he desperately wanted and he’s been mad about it ever since.”
“It makes people cynical,” said Carlson, concluding the segment. “When you dress up news coverage, when you dress up, rather, partisanship as news coverage, and pretend that your angry political opinions are news, you know, people tune out.”
“They do,” said diGenova.
“They know dishonesty when they see it,” Carlson said, and I was torn between wanting to scream at and applaud his sanctimony. Carlson’s treatment of Smith—and of the whole Ukraine story—exemplifies the ways in which Fox News dismisses all negative coverage of the current presidential administration. They maintain that the accurate reporting done by gold-standard news outlets of mayhem and malfeasance in the Trump White House is exclusively the product of blatant dishonesty and personal animus—and that the self-evident good guys are and always have been under siege by the forces of liberal elitist godlessness. They assume the conclusion as the premise and are thus freed to operate on a tribal, ad hominem basis in which facts are dismissed as folly. “They know dishonesty when they see it.” Brother, they sure do.
On Thursday’s episode of Shepard Smith Reporting, Smith said nothing whatsoever about Carlson or diGenova, perhaps because he had decided to take the high road, perhaps because, as Gabriel Sherman reported Thursday for Vanity Fair, he had been ordered by Fox News’ president and CEO to back off Carlson or else be pulled from the air. Whatever the reason, Judge Napolitano was nowhere to be seen. Smith did not bother answering Carlson and diGenova’s Wednesday night insults. Instead, he covered the developments in the Ukraine whistleblower story, spoke to two U.S. representatives, and talked a bit about vaping-related illness. It was a perfectly cromulent episode of television, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed in Smith’s decision to stand down. Such is the nature of the news-opinion divide at Fox News: News always loses.
Correction, Sept. 30, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Caroline Polisi’s and Jeffrey Cramer’s last names.
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