Politics

Shepard Smith Was Fox News’ Propaganda-Alert System

Without him, the network’s opinion hosts have finally defeated the news.

Shepard Smith, seen in 2009.
Shepard Smith called out the half-truths and inaccurate insinuations that lead his colleagues’ broadcasts, and they hated him for it.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Shepard Smith, the most competent man on Fox News, announced his resignation on Friday afternoon, marking the all-but-total Trumpist takeover of the network’s news priorities. “Recently, I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News,” Smith said at the end of that afternoon’s Shepard Smith Reporting. “After requesting that I stay, they obliged.” Smith had been with Fox News since its launch in 1996, and over time became an avatar of the ongoing battle between the network’s relatively sane news division and the xenophobic bootlickers on its opinion side. That battle is finally over now. News lost.

Over his 23-year tenure, Smith developed a reputation for editorial independence, presiding over reliable newscasts that were free from the partisan sophistry that pervades much of the rest of the network. While his colleagues spent countless broadcasts yelling about “her emails” and allowing furious dimwits like Dan Bongino on the air, Smith showcased actual journalists and reported real stories. “Gathering and reporting the news has been my life’s work,” Smith said at the end of Friday’s program, and at this work he excelled. Shepard Smith Reporting wasn’t just good by Fox’s low standards. It was an objectively good news program.

Smith’s journalistic credibility undoubtedly gave Fox News some cover, because the organization could point to Smith as evidence that it was indeed a news network and not just a conduit for fervid conservative agitprop. Over the years, some Fox critics had characterized Smith as a useful stooge for his bosses—implying that while he may have been “the adult in the room,” he was still in the room, which made him complicit in the network’s dishonest mission. And Fox News certainly did its best to marginalize Smith’s heterodoxy, sticking his show at 3 p.m. when most of the people watching Fox News were likely doing it with the volume muted in hotel lobbies and airport terminals. Still, Smith did his best with what he had to work with. He spent an hour each day reporting the actual news, delivering commentaries drawn from actual facts, and dispelling the paranoid Trumpist fantasies in which his colleagues so frequently indulged. If he served Fox’s purposes by doing this, well, he served his viewers, too. He told the truth to a group of people who desperately needed to hear it.

Smith’s countervailing role became even more important once Donald Trump became president and the nation went off the rails. Over the past three years, Smith transformed into a one-man fact-checking bureau, regularly rebutting the inaccurate claims made by Trump and his lackeys on Fox News’ opinion side. This was not “fact-checking” in the purportedly neutral Glenn Kessler sense, in which inaccuracies on both sides are called out regardless of the relative power positions at hand. Rather, Smith specifically addressed the inaccurate tales told by Trump and his hangers-on. In 2017, when Sean Hannity and other Fox opinion hosts were breathlessly touting the so-called Uranium One story as the “real” Russia scandal, Smith regularly reminded his viewers it was a diversionary tactic meant to preemptively discredit the ongoing Mueller investigation. In the month preceding the 2018 midterm elections, when the rest of Fox News featured wall-to-wall coverage of the so-called “migrant caravan” marching through Mexico toward America’s southern border, Smith assessed the story for what it was: a scare tactic meant to inflame xenophobic passions and drive conservative voters to the polls. Earlier this year, when his colleagues rushed en masse to downplay and dismiss the significance of the Mueller report, Smith consistently acknowledged the gravity of the report’s conclusions.

By calling out Trump so openly and often, Smith was also tacitly calling out his own network for amplifying and enabling the president’s paranoid narcissism. By emphasizing that his colleagues’ lead stories were riddled with half-truths and inaccurate insinuations, Smith was clearly criticizing those colleagues. Not surprisingly, his colleagues hated this. Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, and their recurring cast of guest idiots held Smith in palpable contempt for what they deemed his liberal bias. Just last month, Smith and Carlson briefly feuded over their competing interpretations of the Ukraine story. (Smith reported that Trump may indeed have committed an impeachable offense in his infamous phone call with the president of Ukraine. Carlson, um, saw things differently.) “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,” Carlson said at the time in response to Smith, all but accusing him of liberal bias. That’s Fox News in a nutshell: Integrity is ridiculed as bias while sophistry is enshrined as news.

Soon after that, according to Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair, Fox brass ordered Smith to stand down and stop fighting with Carlson. (Fox News denied that any such conversation took place.) Two weeks later, Smith tendered his resignation. On Friday’s program, Smith noted that the decision to leave was his alone, and that’s certainly possible. Perhaps he’s leaving for personal reasons. Perhaps Smith read the room and found it increasingly inhospitable to his work. Perhaps he was no longer comfortable providing the network with plausible deniability.

Back in 2018, when Smith signed the multiyear contract with Fox News from which he is currently walking away, he told Time that he remained at the network in part out of fear over what sort of programming would replace him if he were to leave. It isn’t hard to guess what kind of show will probably come next: more red meat tossed to a rabid base. Smith’s resignation removes the single biggest impediment to editorial uniformity on Fox News, making it much easier for the network to toe the party line as the 2020 presidential election approaches and impeachment hearings loom. It sidelines Andrew Napolitano, the independent-minded conservative judicial analyst who was a frequent guest on Shepard Smith Reporting. It leaves Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace—and perhaps Geraldo Rivera (!)—as the most prominent independent voices remaining at the network. And it underscores the extent to which Fox News is unwilling to tolerate any substantive dissent from the Trumpist agenda. “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day, that the truth will always matter, that journalism and journalists will thrive,” Smith said in his final signoff. They won’t, not anymore—not on Fox News, at least.