by Eric Boehlert
It must have been an awkward elevator ride for Shep Smith over at Fox News headquarters last Friday, heading up to the 12th-floor studio where his Fox Report program originates. I’m just imagining the nasty looks he must have gotten from co-workers — if any of them even agreed to ride between floors with him — on the day that liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman praised Smith in print. Krugman actually referenced him by name as somebody inside Fox News who refused to go along with the “big hate”: the right wing’s anti-Obama rhetoric — almost bloodlust — that now dominates conservative discourse.
Talk about putting a target on the back of a Fox News anchor. A shout-out from the hated Times op-ed page? Things only got worse for Smith over the weekend when the Times‘ Frank Rich also singled out the Fox News anchor for praise. I mean, c’mon. Were Krugman and Rich trying to get the guy fired?!
In fact, even before being name-dropped by Times liberals, right-wing bloggers had already teed off on Smith (“Shep sucks“; “Shepard Smith has got to go“) for having the nerve to call out the “crazies” on the fringe who were targeting President Obama and feeding off conspiratorial hate.
The truth, of course, is that Smith’s job isn’t in danger. He’s considered an untouchable (ratings) golden boy within Fox News who has the backing of his boss, Roger Ailes. (Not to mention a gargantuan $7 million salary.)
Yet by pushing back on the air against the same right-wing hatred that others at Fox News now regularly foment, I wonder if Smith feels increasingly uncomfortable or alienated within Fox News. If he feels like a stranger within the cable news channel he’s been with since its inception, as it now rushes headlong into the GOP fever swamps and does it with Glenn Beck, and his conspiratorial ranting, as the new face and voice of Fox News.
I’m starting to wonder if Fox News is big enough for Shep Smith and Glenn Beck.
For the past decade, Fox News brass offered up the same predictable retort that the channel did news during the day and opinion after 8 p.m., and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. (Even if all the opinion ran in one direction.) But now it’s opinion in the morning with Fox & Friends, it’s opinion in the late afternoon with Glenn Beck at 5 p.m., and opinion 24/7 with Fox Nation online, which mines the territory of everything right of the Drudge Report.
Smith for years has publicly defended Ailes’ credo of “fair and balanced,” but it’s hard to see how the anchor believes it anymore, as he watches the channel he works for actively rile up the right-wing crazies. If Smith watches any of the other 22 hours of Fox News programming that air each day when he’s not in front of the camera, he certainly understands that his employer probably represents the most dangerous voice today when it comes to whipping up irrational hostility toward the new president.
Since Smith has been at Fox News, its transformation has mirrored that of the Republican Party. Meaning, back in the late 1990s, the GOP still projected a semblance of a big tent party, and so did Fox News, which, in its early days, often did a reasonable job of reporting the news and keeping the wild partisan fever in check. Yes, it had an anti-establishment chip on its shoulder, and Smith over the years has been proud to display his, but it still performed a newsgathering service.
It wasn’t until the Florida recount in 2000, I think, that Fox News went all in with the GOP and made a conscious decision to sever its ties with traditional journalism. Since then, of course, whatever journalism links remained were certainly cut during Fox News’ unabashed cheerleading of the Iraq war and unquestionably in the wake of the Obama’s inauguration, when Fox News rushed into the fever swamps.
In fact, Fox News now routinely apes the most radical and hateful rhetoric found anywhere on the far right. Fox News, like the Republican Party (or at least Rush Limbaugh’s Republican Party) is now for true believers only. Dissenting voices, such as Smith’s, are no longer welcome. Viewers prefer a drum-tight conformity and become incensed when somebody veers off script, even for just two or three minutes. Fox News is for those who think that Obama is a fascist, that he might not be a natural-born citizen, and that he wants to take away your guns.
Basically, Fox News is for those who are convinced that Obama is destroying America on purpose.
Whether consciously or not (its prime-time shows are run as hands-off fiefdoms, so I doubt there’s been internal coordination), Fox News has positioned itself as the opposition party of the Obama White House. And it’s hard for anyone to make the serious claim that Fox News still practices journalism as it’s commonly defined or recognized. The question then becomes, does Smith want to make his living being part of the opposition party?
And a party led by Beck?
What started the latest fracas? In reporting on the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust museum shooting, when it became known that the alleged gunman was a lone-wolf white supremacist, Smith recalled that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a report in April warning about exactly that type of attack. It was a report that conservatives universally condemned, claiming it targeted Obama’s political opponents.
Last Wednesday, though, Smith stated the obvious:
[T]his is a former military guy and he’s gone extremist. They were warning us for a reason — not about something political or social or anything else. … It was a warning to us all. And it appears now that they were right.
In the eyes of Fox News’ right-wing viewers, that was heresy. After all, Fox News’ own Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly had led the charge in demonizing the DHS report, claiming it represented a clear case of the Obama administration targeting (harassing?) everyday Americans, even “moms that worry about massive debt,” Beck warned ominously. (The report, which was begun under the Bush administration, was actually about skinheads and white supremacists, but that never slowed Beck’s attacks.)
Not only did Smith take part in some necessary truth-telling about the DHS report, he then bemoaned the “more and more frightening” emails he was receiving from conspiratorial “crazies” on the far right, who were feeding off anti-Obama conspiracy theories, “feeding each other the same bunch of hate that’s not based in fact.” Specifically, Smith singled out the shut-ins (my phrase, not his) who claim Obama isn’t a natural-born citizen and therefore is ineligible to sit in the Oval Office. That right-wing school of thought has been going strong for the past year, and it turns out that the museum shooting suspect, James von Brunn, was a loyal disciple of it.
“We know it’s absolutely — there is no truth whatsoever — zero — to any of those ideas, yet they live within the computer and they fester in people’s minds,” Smith lamented.
Smith has made news before with brief outbursts that ran counter to the Fox News orthodoxy. (See here, here, and here.) But last week’s eruption seemed to strike a different chord because, indirectly, at least, it pointed a finger of blame at Fox News and the hate rhetoric it’s been wallowing in.
Maybe Smith just doesn’t like the new Glenn Beck direction that Fox News is taking. The pushback might also be explained by some of the internal politics within the Fox News executive suites. For instance, former editorial czar John Moody was recently moved upstairs. It was Moody who for years issued the daily Fox News marching orders in the form of morning memos that laid out the day’s talking points and which stories the network would hit and which ones it would play down.
In Moody’s place now, and overseeing editorial, is Jay Wallace, who used to be an executive producer for Smith’s show. Perhaps Smith now feels less restricted in terms of network orthodoxy knowing his ally is in charge and that he won’t have to answer to a Moody email or phone call regarding messaging. (Wallace is seen as being less rigid in terms of FNC messaging.)
But what is still considered verboten within Rupert Murdoch’s world is criticizing other Fox News personalities on the air. And while Smith did not name names last week with his tangent about “crazies” who are still searching for Obama’s birth certificate, it’s quite obvious that Fox News itself is guilty of pushing the “birther” conspiracy theory. (And so is Limbaugh, which made his indirect attack on Smith last week all the more telling.)
In truth, the Fox News big tent that Smith used to work for has collapsed. And today, Beck is holding up the last remaining pole.
Where does Smith fit in?