Shepard Smith, one of Fox News’s leading anchors and a frequent target of President Trump, abruptly stepped down from the network on Friday, departing with little explanation after 23 years on the air.
Smith has been at Fox News since its founding in 1996 and is one of its signature figures. He was among the first people hired by Fox News’s co-founder, the late Roger Ailes, for the network’s launch. His recent tenure, however, has been marked by conflict and criticism, not just from President Trump but from within the network itself.
The internal tensions at Fox News appear to have contributed to his resignation, according to multiple people at the network and those close to Smith who spoke to The Washington Post for this story. Smith was also in the middle of a long-term contract, making his resignation — and Fox’s agreement to release him — highly unusual.
Earlier this month, he engaged in an extraordinary war of words with Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s most popular opinion hosts. Smith called Carlson “repugnant” for not defending Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano when a guest on Carlson’s program called Napolitano “a fool” for criticizing Trump’s efforts to gain damaging information on Democratic rival Joe Biden from the president of Ukraine.
Carlson fired back, clearly referring to Smith but not naming him: “Unlike maybe some dayside hosts, I’m not very partisan.”
A former Fox News staffer who has recently been in touch with Smith said that the spat with Carlson was the last straw and that Smith had grown frustrated in recent months by the repeated attacks on the news division by other opinion hosts. Fox News declined to comment on the reasons for Smith’s resignation.
In farewell remarks, Smith said, “Recently I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News and begin a new chapter. After requesting that I stay, they graciously obliged. The opportunities afforded this guy from small-town Mississippi have been many. It’s been an honor and a privilege to report the news each day to our loyal audience in context and with perspective, without fear or favor.”
Smith has often incurred the wrath of some loyal Fox News viewers with his skeptical reporting and commentary on the president, in stark contrast to its prime-time and morning hosts, who often flatter the president. Trump has given frequent interviews to his most loyal Fox News personalities but has never sat for one with Smith.
Smith’s criticism of Trump dates to the beginning of Trump’s presidency. After a presidential news conference in early 2017, for example, he called some of Trump’s responses “absolutely crazy.” He went on to defend rival news network CNN after Trump called its reporting “fake news.”
“CNN’s reporting was not fake news,” Smith said at the time. “Its journalists follow the same standards to which other news organizations, including Fox News, adhere.”
More recently, he urged Fox News viewers to read special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report of his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, strongly suggesting that it didn’t exonerate the president, as Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr had claimed. “Everyone in America should read” it, he said on the air. “Everyone.”
Trump, in turn, has sometimes disparaged Smith by name on Twitter, viewing him as an apostate at a network he believes should be loyal to him.
While complaining about a new Fox News poll showing a majority of Americans favor his impeachment, Trump on Thursday tweeted, “@FoxNews is . . . much different than it used to be in the good old days.” He named Smith as one of the people at Fox News who “doesn’t deliver for US anymore. It is so different than it used to be. Oh well, I’m President!”
In August, Trump referred to Smith as “low ratings Shep Smith,” calling him “hopeless and clueless.” And in a tweet earlier that month, he wrote “Watching Fake News CNN is better than watching Shepard Smith, the lowest rated show on @FoxNews. Actually, whenever possible, I turn to @OANN,” a small cable-news competitor.
According to Nielsen Media Research, Smith’s program dominated its time period, outdrawing competing programs on MSNBC and CNN by 48 percent and 81 percent, respectively, during the third quarter. His program attracted an average of 1.28 million viewers during the period. However, it was often the lowest-rated daytime program in Fox News’s lineup.
Smith’s departure coincided with reports this week that Barr traveled to New York to meet with Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch at Murdoch’s home in New York City. Neither side explained the reason for the meeting.
Asked by reporters on Friday for his reaction to Smith’s resignation, Trump responded with mock sympathy. “Is he leaving?” he said. “Oh, that’s a shame. . . . Is he leaving because of terrible ratings? If he’s leaving, I assume he’s leaving for bad ratings. . . . Well, I wish him well.”
In his final broadcast on Friday, the 55-year-old Smith said he had struck an agreement with Fox News in which “I won’t be reporting elsewhere at least in the near future,” an apparent reference to a “noncompete” agreement that keeps departing TV news personalities from joining competitors. He did not announce any plans other than spending time with family and friends. “Then we’ll see what comes along,” he said.
Chris Giglio, Smith’s personal spokesman, said the decision to leave Fox “was Shep’s, and his alone.” Giglio said Smith would take some time off but “he is not retiring.”
Smith’s unease at the network goes back much further than this month’s spats, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Smith had grown uncomfortable with the increasingly Trump-friendly tone of the network, and his departure was attributed to an accumulation of that unease combined with increasingly public insults and digs from outspoken opinion hosts, who have not been shy about registering their disdain for their news colleagues.
Smith was one of the most respected figures inside the Fox News newsroom, and some employees said his resignation is a blow to morale. He left the building through the freight elevator and an underground passageway to avoid possible paparazzi outside the building and the emotional interactions he may have had on his way out, according to one of the people with knowledge of his departure.
He signed off the air on Friday saying: “Even in our currently polarized nation, it’s my hope that the facts will win the day. That the truth will always matter. That journalism and journalists will thrive. I’m Shepard Smith, Fox News, New York.”
His announcement was clearly a surprise to his newsroom colleagues. Neil Cavuto, who hosts the Fox News show immediately following Smith’s newscast, reacted with a single word when Smith threw the broadcast to him: “Whoa.”
“I’m a little stunned and a little heartbroken,” Cavuto said. “A better newsman you probably cannot find.”
John Roberts, Fox News’s chief White House correspondent, was also at a loss for words. “I walked out here to do the hit and suddenly I got hit by a subway train,” he told Cavuto.
Fox News anchor Bret Baier paid tribute to Smith on his evening show, recalling how he started working with Smith on his first assignment almost 23 years ago. “He did it better than anybody in the business for years and years and years, from the beginning of Fox News Channel,” Baier said. “Fox is less tonight on the breaking news front because he’s not here.”
Smith also received well wishes from Fox News host Sean Hannity, who last year called Smith “clueless” after Smith jabbed at the network’s opinion programming in a Time Magazine profile. “He has always done great things,” Hannity wrote in a tweet, “and I know he will continue to do so.”
Staff writers David Nakamura and Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.