For Fox News, the formula for success has been broadcasting decidedly conservative opinions while maintaining a thin veneer of objectivity through its daytime programming.
And until last Friday, that countervailing force was spearheaded by veteran anchor Shepard Smith, whose fact-based reporting stood diametrically opposed to the popular primetime personalities who were reliable allies of the Trump administration.
In the closing moments of his daily 3 p.m. broadcast, Smith announced that he had asked management to be let out of his recently renewed multi-million dollar contract, stunning staffers in the studio as well as viewers at home and fellow reporters.
“Recently, I asked the company to allow me to leave,” Smith told viewers. “After requesting that I stay, they obliged.”
A member of the channel’s original staff at its inception in October 1996, Smith served most recently as chief news anchor and managing editor of the news division. His exit on Friday caught nearly everyone, both inside and outside of Fox, by surprise.
Neil Cavuto, the business anchor whose daily 4 p.m. show would immediately follow Smith’s show, was visibly shaken by the news and found himself at a loss for words when his broadcast began.
“Wow,” he said. “I’m Neil Cavuto. Like you, I’m a little stunned. I’m a little heartbroken.” After praising Smith, he apologized to viewers for being “shell shocked” and proceeded to the next segment with Fox’s Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts, who was similarly caught off guard.
“I’ve just been trying to compile my thoughts, too,” Roberts said. “Neil, I walked out here to do the hit and suddenly got hit by a subway train. Holy Mackerel! Let’s try to get to the news at hand as I try to digest the other news that we just heard, oh my God, it’s completely shocking.”
The abrupt exit reportedly came as tensions between Smith and Tucker Carlson, the two unofficial leaders of the network’s increasingly irreconcilable news and opinion divisions, reached a boiling point.
After frequent Carlson guest Joe diGenova called Andrew Napolitano, a senior legal analyst on the network, a “fool” for saying that Trump had committed a crime in soliciting aid from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Smith hit back, calling diGenova’s comments “repugnant.”
The next night, Carlson invited diGenova back on his show and mocked Smith for his outrage. When asked about the public feud between Smith and Carlson, Fox News President Jay Wallace told Variety that “fighting on air is an absolute no-go for us.”
“Emotions can run high, and they do at times, so they do,” he said. “Our guidance has always been to deal with this—if you have a problem with someone, pick up the phone. These are sharp people. Why do you want to parade this in front of everyone? Our audience doesn’t want to see it.”
But the network’s failure to defend Smith and his reporting was viewed as support for Carlson, which bothered Smith and factored into his decision to leave, a source inside Fox told CNN’s Brian Stelter.
“It is clear where the 2nd floor’s allegiance lies,” the source said, suggesting that Fox executives cared more about appeasing Carlson than defending Smith.
In light of Smith’s departure, some anchors and staffers at Fox are deeply concerned that the news division, which was already overshadowed by the opinion side, is at risk of being drowned out entirely.
"It feels like death in the news division," a source told me of Shep Smith's shock departure. The person said staffers at the network are "shocked" and that some were crying. "At least we had him," the person said. https://t.co/eyAg5g4ldM
— Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) October 11, 2019
Former Fox News personalities react to Shepard Smith leaving the network. “Shepard was really sort of the directional compass for those of us that were journalists,” says Conor Powell, former Fox News correspondent. pic.twitter.com/W8Yzecv9mG
— Reliable Sources (@ReliableSources) October 13, 2019
“His departure comes at a tough time for this country,” one staffer told Stelter. “We’re going into an election that promises to be the most chaotic one we’ve ever seen. The President himself is on the verge of being impeached. We’re heading into some uncharted territory here and without Shep to help reign in the chaos, I fear things are going to get much, much worse.”
In the same interview with Variety, Wallace said the channel will unveil Smith’s permanent replacement early next year. In the meantime, a rotation of current news anchors including Bret Baier and Chris Wallace will take turns hosting the 3 p.m. timeslot.
“This is going to remain a solid news hour, with our best news stars,” Wallace said. “Journalism is a huge part of the mandate here.”