Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Shepard Smith always stood out at Fox News. Now he’s out of Fox News.
Smith made his name at the network being the odd man out by speaking truth to conservative power, which he did to wide critical acclaim during his passionate coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he challenged a president, George W. Bush, who was the ideological champion Fox rallied behind in that era.
Smith made his exit this week after pushing forward the same challenges to a different administration, one even more exalted in the daily coverage on Fox. But this time, the endless scandals surrounding President Donald Trump turned out to be an even bigger hurricane. One with gale force winds that apparently became too powerful for Smith to continue to withstand.
Accounts generally agree that Smith was the one to abruptly pull the plug on his Fox career. But that decision only came after months of being fragged in public by others in Fox uniform: prime time stars like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. They frequently could not abide Smith’s insistence on holding the Trump administration accountable for its actions and its disassociation from — and apparent disdain for — the truth. “Lie after lie after lie,” is how Smith put it in one especially aroused newscast.
He had other enemies, mainly among Fox News viewers, many of whom did not enjoy seeing any disruption in the daily affirmation of their views. For them, Smith was like having Debbie Downer on the field refusing to do cartwheels like the rest of the cheerleading squad.
A typical rant: “Mr. Smith infuses his show with a demonstrably hateful, contemptuous, and toxic anti-Trump tone, and his ‘reporting’ often sounds like Democrat talking point propaganda.”
Smith told me once of the barrage of hate emails that became routine for him whenever his reporting on news stories ran up against conservative orthodoxy. Some of these messages even wished death on his family. Mainly, he said, they wanted to tell him, “You don’t belong there.” But he insisted, “I do belong here.”
That was then, pre-Trump.
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It was also before the death of Smith’s patron at Fox, Roger Ailes. Despite his reputation for using his network to advance the conservative point of view, Ailes was an unflagging supporter of Smith and his news-centric approach. Ailes called him his “go-to guy,” and told me, “Shep is hard news.” Smith, for his part, privately called Ailes his mentor and a kind of father figure for him. And, when Ailes died, Smith paid tribute to him, acknowledging the sexual harassment allegations against Ailes. Smith said, “Last year, we began to learn of another side of Roger Ailes… I didn’t believe it to be true at first — this man I so admired, despite our differences… The accusations were mortifying.”
Ailes enjoyed having a pure news presenter amidst the hard-right flamethrowers that populated most of his network. It gave Fox some credibility, but also cover. Whenever the network was accused of taking up Republican talking points as the mantra for the day, Ailes would point to Smith as proof of “balance.” And Smith never complained about being rolled out as the network’s defensive shield.
He mostly enjoyed the status of being the main news anchor for the highest-rated news network. Smith had a lot of the local boy from Holly Springs, Mississippi in him (he told me he attended every home game for Ole Miss, his alma mater), and clearly enjoyed himself on the air. With his theatrical flourishes, Smith had an insistent delivery that some critics called “hyperbolic “or “operatic.” That style came out most clearly in his hurricane coverage, which at some points left him in tears.
One notable conservative detractor, Rush Limbaugh, tried an especially pointed and nasty put-down when he said, “Shep Smith was crying so much during his reporting from New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina, his mascara was running.”
But the critic that mattered most was surely the critic-in-chief. Trump took many personal shots at Smith — none so personally ugly as Limbaugh’s maybe, but nasty, nonetheless. Trump once even asked a different Fox reporter, John Roberts, to “hit back” at Smith for him.
Now neither he nor the core Fox audience will have Smith to kick around anymore. The viewers will get more of what they want from Fox News: a full-throated defense of the president, without any of Smith’s throat-clearing.
And the president will get more of what he wants when he tunes into his favorite channel: fealty, not journalism.