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by tom bunting, a Real Journalist

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Shepard Smith leaving Fox News is only a big deal for media observers

October 12, 2019 6:31 PM
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Shepard Smith leaving Fox News is only a big deal for media observers

Yesterday, Fox News’ chief anchor Shepard Smith announced he would be leaving the cable news outlet, where he worked for its twenty-three entire existence. Fox News is the nation’s most important publication, a fever swamp of conservative agenda-setting responsible for birthing the Tea Party movement and which counts the President among its daily viewers. The political world exploded in response to Smith’s news; the departure was covered in every national newspaper and the majority of political news outlets. It’s a “disaster for Fox News” according Media Matters, and a “sign of what’s happening to our country” to CNN’s Brian Stelter. To many, Smith’s departure signals the end of the Cold War between Fox’s opinion and straight-news anchors, a wholehearted embrace of Trump and the future erosion of the American political discourse. 

While this all may be true, it’s difficult to see how Shepard’s departure really matters. Whatever war we imagine took place at Fox News ended a long time ago, if it ever even existed. Shepard stood basically alone among Fox News’ anchors, and his influence was inconsequential to the network’s ideological leanings and its viewers. 

For the past few years, Shepard has been one of the few certified Good Ones at Fox, earning the admiration of mainstream voices for his wholehearted attempts at objectivity on an otherwise propagandistic channel. As managing editor of breaking news, he led Fox’s daytime coverage—the so-called Real News portion of Fox—and has been in the midst of a years-long feud with the more opinionated evening anchors. What this means is that Shepard was one of the few voices on Fox willing to criticize the President. These comments were often literally the bare minimum of fact checking—a Washington Post profile from 2017 leads with an example of Shepard saying that “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-president of the United States was surveilled at any time, in any way” while covering a Trump tweet. Yet on a channel as partisan as Fox, Shepard’s score-keeping was downright rebellious. 

But was Shepard’s role at Fox really significant? To the Fox News narrative understood by liberals and mainstream media observers, it certainly was. Here was a man standing up to Fox’s appointed ideological leader, a lone voice pushing for the truth while surrounded by false prohibits. “Shep Smith was able to carve out, essentially, an hour of honesty,” Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple tweeted in reaction to Smith’s resignation, “It’s an accident of TV news history that the network won’t likely replicate.” 

This is fascinating and important if you follow Fox News abstractly as a story in the broader context of media and politics in the United States. But if you’re a person who actually watches and is informed by Fox News, Smith’s departure probably matters very little to you. Smith’s show Shepard Smith Reporting was consistently the least viewed hour on Fox’s daytime schedule, which as a programming block is vastly less popular than the fascistic crazies who take over at 7pm. A recent feud between Tucker Carlson and Smith inspired the mainstream imagination, but what was left unsaid in most of the coverage is that Carlson almost triples Smith’s audience numbers. Shepard also failed to utilize social media the way Fox’s evening anchors have. In fact, the most popular Fox host on Twitter, Sean Hannity, regularly links followers to news articles on his own (unhinged) site instead of those from Shepard’s breaking news division. 

Shepard Smith was ultimately a local broadcast guy who got in on the ground floor of Fox News. He stayed in spite of years of clear journalistic lapses committed by just about every coworker he shared the screen with, all the while giving Fox a veneer of respectability to mainstream media. That leaves with him, but ultimately, that’s all it was: an illusion of objectivity, one that was always and especially now completely inconsequential to the millions of people indoctrinated by Fox News’s beating heart of partisan worship. It’s a great media story; it’s an inconsequential event for everyone else.