Open War Breaks Out at Fox News

Prominent on-air news and opinion hosts at Fox News are going at it tooth and nail, as ailing 86-year-old Rupert Murdoch moves to hand the reins of the network to his liberal son Lachlan.  In early February, I got wind of an internal war bubbling below the surface at Fox News.  The combatants included several prominent on-air personalities, and there were growing signs that they were gearing up to engage in a serious battle with one another. The conflict pitted representatives of the daytime hard news department against several stars who are faces of the channel during prime time, when opinion-themed shows dominate.  Like many Americans in the workplace, beliefs in different opposing ideologies were pushing these people apart.  Adding fuel to the fire in the highly competitive hothouse environment of cable television news were jealousy and resentment.

Finally, this past week, the battle went public.  It involved three top Fox News  personalities: Shepard SmithSean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.

Opening skirmishes in this long simmering conflict began last year, when veteran left-of-center Fox News hosts Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace were the first on-air talent to publicly throw down the gauntlet.  Both of them are highly valued and well paid linchpins of the hard news side of the Fox News Channel.  Last year, Shepard Smith, 54, the channel's lead news anchor and host of the 3 P.M. E.T. hour-long news show Shepard Smith Reporting, outed himself as a critic of President Donald Trump.  Also in his sights were other prominent Fox News personnel who had defended Trump, including the channel's senior judicial analyst, former judge Andrew Napolitano.  As the Washington Post reported in a swooning profile of Smith on March 22, 2017, "Andrew Napolitano had validated the unfounded claim that President Barack Obama had recruited British agents to bug Trump Tower during the campaign."  "Smith stepped in to say otherwise."  On air, the Post article noted, Smith issued a shot across the bow when he said:

Fox News cannot confirm Judge Napolitano's commentary.  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.

Smith's slap at Napolitano – and by extension at President Trump, whom Smith increasingly demeaned in his on-air reporting – did not please FNC's core audience of conservative viewers.  As the Post article noted, Smith's "off-message comments about Trump have made him an apostate to the conservative Fox News orthodoxy."

Shepard Smith on the futuristic FNC News Deck.  Photo by Alex Kroke, Fox News.

The Post obviously delighted in reporting:

In mid-February [2017], following Trump's freewheeling news conference, Smith labeled Trump's responses "absolutely crazy."  He even – horror of horrors!, defended CNN, Fox's mortal enemy, when Trump blasted it as "fake news" during another news conference.  "CNN's reporting was not fake news," Smith said.  "Its journalists follow the same standards to which other news organizations, including Fox News, adhere."

Smith's persistent fact-mongering has made him persona non grata among some parts of the Fox News faithful, in an echo of the hostile reaction to then-Fox anchor Megyn Kelly's tough questioning of Trump during the campaign.  For weeks, Fox fans have stormed social media with demands for Smith's firing and boycott threats if the network doesn't get rid of him.

The other Fox News news department antagonist in this evolving war is Chris Wallace.  So far, Wallace has not joined in the latest public mud wrestling.  Wallace, who is 70 but looks at least a decade younger, is a registered Democrat who previously spent years working for NBC News and ABC News before he joined Fox News in 2003 as the new host of Fox News Sunday.  His task was to give the struggling program an infusion of energy and gravitas – and to pump up the profile of the also-ran show and its ratings.  Fox News viewers have long harbored doubts about Wallace's commitment to the channel's one-time motto of "fair and balanced," conservative-friendly reporting.

Chris Wallace.

On October 20, 2017, Chris Wallace had apparently had enough of FNC's prime-time opinion show hosts.  As CNN reported, "Fox News host Chris Wallace slams network colleagues for attacks on press."  Wallace's unnamed but obvious target was Sean Hannity.

Fox News host Chris Wallace leveled sharp criticism in an article published Thursday against some of his colleagues who have echoed President Trump and used their perch at the network to attack the media as "fake news[.]" ...

"I don't like them bashing the media, because oftentimes what they're bashing is stuff that we on the news side are doing," he added.  "I don't think they recognize that they have a role at Fox News and we have a role at Fox News.  I don't know what's in their head.  I just think it's bad form."

The comments from Wallace, who hosts "Fox News Sunday" and is widely considered to be one of the main faces of the Fox News' hard news division, represent perhaps the most searing criticism the network's opinion division has faced in recent memory from a colleague.  A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Another preview of what was soon to come

Exactly six weeks ago, a reliable source familiar with the thinking of two of FNC's prime-time hosts offered the following analysis while insisting on anonymity:

Shep [Smith] and [Chris] Wallace have taken pot shots at [Fox News] opinion programming.  It's a never ending source of laughter at how [expletive deleted] their ratings are and how they are "pretend journalists" who seem incapable of ever breaking any real news.

The [prime time] opinion programming side of Fox is openly mocked in the halls of Fox by what they [the opinion programming hosts and staff] call "the so-called news division."

On February 7, a source with knowledge of the goings-on at the highest levels of Fox News described the thinking of at least two of Fox News's prime-time hosts and their staffs:

The horrendous ratings of Chris Wallace and Shep Smith [Smith's audience is about 50% of what the prime-time hosts pull in] show how out of touch they are with the Fox audience, and the general consensus is that both Shep and Chris should just pack up and go to work for MSNBC or CNN because the Fox audience hates their biased views.

One need only to look at Fox News election night [coverage in] 2016.  They [Smith and Wallace] were absolutely and visibly stunned by Donald Trump's victory.

A simmering cold war goes hot

In the increasingly polarized and volatile political climate of 2018, it didn't take long for these adversaries at Fox News to take their private war public – to lash out at each other and make their escalating disagreements clear for all to see.

I immediately suspected that a new front in the war would soon be opened when the news broke on March 15 that Shep Smith had signed a new "multiyear contract as Fox's chief news anchor and managing editor of breaking news."  Not coincidentally, on the same day, Time magazine published a hagiographic 3,000-word article on Smith titled "Shep Smith Has the Hardest Job on Fox News."  Judging by the dates in the captions of the numerous dramatic and artsy black-and-white photographs of Smith at work that accompanied the article, the project had been in preparation for some time prior to publication.  In reading it, a popular description of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) came to mind: "The mainstream media's favorite Republican."  In this case, Shep Smith emerged as the equivalent: "The MSM's favorite – and only approved – Fox News host."

The Time article on Smith is a classic piece of idealized writing and should be taught in journalism schools as an example of how not to write a balanced and accurate profile of a well-known person.  The running theme of Time's article is, in effect, "even though this guy works for Fox News, which all of us hate, he's a serious journalist, and he isn't so bad after all.  Give him credit for trying to hold the line against Trump partisans like Hannity."

From Time:

As Fox has tacked further to the right in its opinion programming, Smith's role has at times seemed like a challenge.  Being the old-fashioned anchorman and reporter at a network known for new-fashioned provocation and opinion may be the hardest job at Fox News, and one Smith mused about walking away from over the course of two interviews this winter.

The author misses the past, when Smith anchored an early evening "news" show, whereas these days:

Fox's night-time slate is dominated by opinion – the fire-breathing sort practiced by Tucker Carlson at eight, Sean Hannity at nine, and Laura Ingraham at ten.

Actually, that is not quite correct.  The 7 P.M. E.T. hour, occupied by Shep Smith until 2013, is still a news hour, now anchored by non-partisan host Martha MacCallum.

Of the relationship between Smith and Fox News's "fire-breathing" evening hosts, Time reports, "Their coexistence with Smith is increasingly uneasy."

OK, but it was Smith, after all, who delivered the first salvo last year.  And with Time's reporter hanging on his every word, Smith was happy to take the bait offered by the nation's oldest news weekly:

Smith says he's unbothered by the divergence between his reporting and Fox's opinion slate.  "We serve different masters.  We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules.  They don't really have rules on the opinion side.  They can say whatever they want.  If it's their opinion.  I don't really watch a lot of opinion programming.  I'm busy..."

"I get it," he says, "that some of our opinion programming is there strictly to be entertaining.  I get that.  I don't work there.  I wouldn't work there.  I don't want to sit around and yell at each other and talk about your philosophy and my philosophy.  That sounds horrible to me."

The Time author, of course, just had to touch on Smith's "personal life," in order no doubt to soften Smith's image for Time's audience of P.C. left-of-center readers.

Smith, who'd been dogged by rumors for much of his career, publicly acknowledged he is gay in 2017.  "I think that's the part you like," he shoots back when I ask if his boyfriend of six years works in the news business.  Some of the honey drips away from his drawl.  "I don't mind talking about it.  It's just, you know, that's just my personal life.  And I'm not hiding anything.  I have a longtime boyfriend and we're as happy as we can be and we live a very normal life and go to dinner and go to games and see his family and see my family.  It's great for us."

Not content to dump on his prime-time colleagues, Smith had some choice words about the Fox News viewing audience as well.

"It depends on what you're looking for," he says.  "Are you looking for news and information so that you can make decisions about your life and your family?  Or are you looking for your worldview to be confirmed?  For that second kind of viewer, when the facts fly in the face of your worldview, that can be unsettling.  Sometimes, then, they don't like me.  And there are other times when the facts work beautifully with their worldview.  Then, they're very happy."

Is Smith doing his job for the money (around $10 million a year, according to one source)?  Not a chance.  It comes down to altruism.

He's decided to stay in some part because the times are so precarious.  In his telling, before he signed his new contract, he was nervous about what would come on Fox's air after he left.  "To stop doing it would be bad because I think that there is a need for it and I know the degree to which we care about it and focus on it and we want it to be as perfect as it can be.  And I wonder, if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place in this place that is most watched, most listened, most viewed, most trusted?  I don't know."

Sean Hannity.  Photo by Fox News.

It soon became clear after the Time article hit that Sean Hannity had had enough.  Not known in the past for ever criticizing a fellow Fox News employee, Hannity tweeted this at 12:44 P.M. E.T. on March 16:

While Shep is a friend with political views I do not share, and great at breaking news, he is clueless about what we do every day. Hannity breaks news daily-Warrant on a Trump assoc, the unmasking scandal, leaking intel, Fisa abuse, HRC lawbreaking, dossier and more REAL NEWS! 9p

Forty-one minutes later, Laura Ingraham joined the fray by tweeting:

Always liked Shep, but his comments were inconsiderate & inaccurate. The hard working team at the Ingraham Angle does real reporting, develops impt sources and scores big interviews. Very proud of them.

President Donald Trump and Laura Ingraham.

Finally, the battle of Fox News news hosts versus Fox News opinion hosts had been joined.  Immediately, the rest of the media jumped on the story.  "Shepard Smith: Fox News opinion hosts 'don't really have rules,'" wrote Joe Concha at The Hill.  Persistent Fox News critic Oliver Darcy obviously delighted in covering the story for CNN, including quoting what he called Hannity's "eye-popping tweets," in an article titled "Hannity jabs Shep Smith in sign of rift between Fox News opinion and news."

The larger context

This recent, and potentially escalating, series of skirmishes in the war of attrition for the heart and soul of the Fox News Channel is being fought out in the midst of potential further upheavals at the executive level of the nation's #1 cable news outlet.  Only eighteen months ago, in one of the first sex scandals that marked the opening salvo in the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo campaign, Fox News co-founder and CEO Roger Ailes was unceremoniously purged from the channel days after he was accused of sexual harassment by former anchor Gretchen Carlson and several other female employees.  (Ailes, who died on May 18, 2017, denied the charges, which were settled by 21st Century Fox and never made it to court.)  Ailes had wielded near total control of Fox News since it launched in 1996, and, a pioneering modern media genius, he was widely credited with singlehandedly taking the channel from nowhere to #1 in the ratings within five years of its launch.  Under Ailes's leadership, from 2001 on, Fox News's winning streak in the ratings was unchallenged for the next decade and a half.

The chaos that ensued after Ailes's ouster – the departure of prime-time host Megyn Kelly five months later, followed by the firing of the channel's #1 host, Bill O'Reilly, in April 2017, and the ill advised move of the weak ensemble gab show The Five to prime time in May – challenged the channel's 15-year ratings dominance.

Things finally settled down in the fall of 2017, with the premiere of a new prime-time lineup consisting of conservative opinion hosts Tucker Carlson at 8 P.M., Sean Hannity at 9, and Laura Ingraham at 10.  There were also two live news shows at 7 and 11 P.M. E.T., hosted by veteran reporters and hosts Martha MacCallum and Shannon Bream.  The ratings for the reconfigured Fox News weeknight schedule have been strong since then, although in recent weeks, MSNBC has often won the time period between 9 P.M. and 12 A.M. E.T.

Future uncertainty for Fox News arises from the pending sale of most of the parts of 21st Century Fox, a transnational media empire of which Fox News is a profitable component, to the Walt Disney Co.  The Fox News Channel, however, is not included in the projected sale, and it will continue to be controlled for the foreseeable future by the Murdoch family.

Lachlan Murdoch.  Credit: BusinessWire News Release, 2014.

Twenty-First Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch, who is 86, recently was seriously injured in a boating accident and is expected to gradually cede day-to-day control of his remaining assets, including Fox News, to his older son Lachlan, who, like his younger brother James, is described as much more liberal and progressive than the old man.  Lachlan is expected to reassert Murdoch family influence and control of Fox News staffing and programming as the "heir apparent" in the not too distant future.  With James Murdoch expected to assume a leadership role at Disney after the sale of 21st Century Fox is completed, the two media princes have come to be known as "the Murdoch Boys."

After eight years of President Barack Obama and one year of President Trump, with the country – and the media – so totally polarized, it was probably inevitable that conflicting loyalties and different opinions on how Fox News should report the news and present opinion would eventually come to the fore.

For his part, Sean Hannity has emerged since President Trump's inauguration as one of the most prominent leaders of a campaign to get to the bottom of the Russia collusion allegations and the investigations that have ensnared and frustrated President Trump since even before he was elected president in 2016.  In the course of "peeling back the onion" of the complex and evolving story, Hannity has enlisted the help of a number of contributors, including journalists Sara Carter and John Solomon and Fox News analyst and attorney Gregg Jarrett.  During the past year, they have established a counter-narrative exposing corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the outgoing Obama administration to weaponize intrusive spying and in effect take down the new president.  This narrative that runs completely counter to the rest of the MSM's fake news is now bearing fruit, including with the firing of FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe on March 16 for lying to investigators while under oath and leaking to the news media.

Instead of positioning himself and his contributors for a Pulitzer Prize or another prestigious media award for their efforts, Hannity's broadcasts have earned him the enmity of the Washington establishment, including competing mainstream media outlets CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS.  The Deep State is the tail wagging most of the nation's news media dogs.

The importance of Fox News – and of reporting on it – derives from the fact that it is the only remaining MSM news source that – for much of the day, at least – provides anything close to traditional objective balanced and factual news coverage of current events.  The Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, among others analyzing recent MSM news coverage, has confirmed this fact.

Where this story goes from here – or finally ends up – is anybody's guess at this point.

As the week ended – at the conclusion of his live Friday afternoon show – Shepard Smith announced that he was going on vacation.  Smith, in New York, was wrapping up a live remote interview with Chris Wallace, who was in Washington, D.C., when this dialogue ensued, as reported by Joe Concha at The Hill:

"No shooting inside the tent.  Everything is wonderful," Smith laughed as the interview with Wallace ended.  "Going to take a one-week vacation that was previously planned, and be back in a week, and everything will be peachy-keen & hunky-dory.  I can't wait."

"That's what they always say: Previously planned and one-week vacation," an amused Wallace replied.

"I have the airline tickets.  It's been booked for awhile.  Tell everyone down there [in Washington, D.C.] hello for me, OK?"

Peter Barry Chowka is a veteran reporter and analyst of news on national politics, media, and popular culture.  He is a frequent contributor to American Thinker.  Follow Peter on Twitter at @pchowka.

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