Shepard Smith boosted Fox News’ credibility, not its bottom line

Journalists from across the TV-news sector will miss Shepard Smith at Fox News. The bean counters at the cable-news outlet’s parent, Fox Corp., will not.

Smith sent media circles teetering off their centers Friday by announcing in the final minutes of his mid-afternoon show that he was leaving the network as soon as he finished uttering the last sentence on his teleprompter. “I heard Shepard’s sign off in real time on my car radio and had to pull over to process it,’says Alisyn Camerota, the CNN “New Day” anchor who worked at Fox News for more than a decade. “Before he was an anchor, there were many breaking news stories we worked on, side by side in the field and I was always floored by his indefatigable work ethic. After a 12-hour shift of reporting, he’d still be in the van editing his own pieces well past midnight, after the rest of us called it a night.”

The decision was his, according to a statement he delivered, and the network tried to get him to stay, with good reason. His departure will affect perceptions of Fox News Channel’s credibility – at least among the mainstream journalism sector and the network’s detractors. Smith was known for burnishing a call-it-like-I-sees it attitude, one that sometimes challenged the network’s primetime opinion hosts, including, recently, Tucker Carlson. Those hosts, however, carry more importance to the people who keep the lights on at 1211 Sixth Avenue in New York, the headquarters of the Murdoch family’s Fox media empire.

TV anchors ranging from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough to CNN’s Jake Tapper to NBC News’ Craig Melvin raised a metaphorical glass to Smith via Twitter on Friday night. Their sentiments get a lot of attention – they are on TV, after all – but these people aren’t part of the core Fox News audience. And there’s a sense fans of Tucker Carlson, Greg Gutfeld and Laura Ingraham won’t feel the same about Smith’s “Shepard Smith Reporting.” The program handily trumped rivals like CNN’s Brooke Baldwin and MSNBC’s Ali Velshi in the third quarter, but it is the lowest-rated show on the Fox News schedule.

Will Smith’s egress erode Fox News’ journalistic bona fides? “If you agreed with Shep, then the answer is yes,” says Greta Van Susteren, who anchored a primetime hour and an early evening program at Fox News over the course of more than a decade. “If you did not agree with him, the answer is no.”

The business of Fox News Channel (and its siblings Fox Business Network and the streaming Fox Nation service) is ultimately to be found in catering to its loyalist base. In 2019, Fox News Channel is expected to bring in nearly $1.26 billion in advertising, according to estimates from Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global. But the network snares bigger bucks from its affiliate fees, or the revenue it derives from cable and satellite distributors. Kagan estimates the network will fetch more than $1.7 billion in those monies this year.

In a sense, Fox News has more to lose by angering subscribers than it does by upsetting advertisers. Little wonder the network has held firm over the past year while advocacy organizations have worked behind the scenes to get Madison Avenue to boycott its primetime programming after hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham uttered controversial, deeply polarizing remarks about immigrants and children.

Ad dollars mean a lot to Fox News and Fox Corporation. And Fox News’ daytime shows need to pull more weight after some big sponsors have chosen to move their dollars away from primetime. But die-hard subscribers who threaten to cut the cord if a carriage negotiation results in a blackout count for a lot more. The Fox News Media unit has for years been the financial engine of the Murdoch family’s power. Now, after the family sold off the bulk of its studio and cable assets to Walt Disney, its holdings are slimmer, and Fox News shoulders even more of the corporate burden.

So when Smith corrected statements made in primetime by Sean Hannity, or, as he did more recently, chastised Tucker Carlson for allowing a guest to besmirch the reputation of Judge Andrew Napolitano, he was tilting at prized possessions. The primetime opinion hosts keep the Fox News core watching more than Smith’s show does, as sad as that may sound to people who applauded the anchor’s journalism and his efforts to stick to facts.

Shepard Smith was a reporter, not a gadfly or a flamethrower. He also served as an internal inspiration that may be hard to replace. Smith “was an exemplar of solid journalism at the network for anyone in the reporting ranks. I remember one rules-of-reporting tutorial or workshop he held for some of the fresh hires, writers and young production assistants,” recalls Camerota. “I wandered into that workshop and learned more in ten minutes from him than I had in my journalism 101 class. He was a role model for many of us, inside Fox and across the TV news business. Shep will be just fine, but it’s a real loss for fact-finding and truth-telling on TV news.”

With a salary estimated at around $15 million a year, however, he made more than many CBS News correspondents can hope to take home over half a decade. Fox News can probably get more bang for its buck with a host who earns less. A new host will likely be more eager to take on more social-media and streaming duties as well.

The industry lauds institutions of high-quality journalism, but it’s not above pushing them aside. ABC News launched “Nightline” with Ted Koppel in 1980, and the show deserved the plaudits it won for covering everything from the Iran hostage crisis to Madonna’s controversial “Justify My Love” video. None of that kept the Disney-owned network from shoving it back to 12:35 a.m. in 2013 to make way for Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show.

Still, Smith gave Fox News Channel cover. Whenever Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson sparked a round of outrage, executives could point to his no-frills focus as a sign of the good work it sent through the set-top box. “With Smith gone, there will be less of a balance to point to when they are asked to defend their excesses,” says Andrew Tyndall, an industry consultant who monitors the content of TV newscasts.

Smith’s departure comes after the parent company has invested more in news. Fox News launched a news-side show with Shannon Bream at 11 p.m. in 2017. It boasts what many in the industry feel is the best polling operation in the business. National security correspondent Jennifer Griffin raised eyebrows with a recent report quoting a U.S. Green Beret he was “ashamed” by the U.S. allowing Turkey to attack Kurdish forces in Syria. Producers have worked to woo Democratic presidential candidates to town halls. And Chris Wallace’s Sunday show, in which he quizzes Republicans and Democrats in no-holds-barred fashion, is a must-see. In Smith’s absence, other news side anchors like Wallace, Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier will no doubt be scrutinized more heavily.

Fox News has demonstrated a knack for replacing even its most distinct personalities. In 2017, executives filled two-thirds of the network’s vaunted primetime lineup after the ouster of O’Reilly and Kelly’s defection to NBC, all without losing any ground to MSNBC or CNN. Indeed, executives at rival news outlets like to joke that Fox News could air an hour of one of those little glass birds dipping its beak into a cup of water and keep the faithful hanging on every swoop and lurch.

In past years, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, long one of the network’s top programmers, has worked to give available slots to staffers with promise. Fans will no doubt thrill to whoever ultimately inherits Smith’s 3 p.m. slot. But others will likely put the choice under a microscope. “The thing to watch now is whether Murdoch turns Smith’s former newscast into an early evening version of ‘Fox and Friends,’ says Rich Hanley, an associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Smith’s departure.”