A few years ago, the Erik Wemple Blog was roaming one of those well-appointed Washington media fetes, poking around for someone to chat up for a few minutes. Soon enough we bumped into someone from Fox News, a staple on the so-called straight news side of the network. We asked him about the propagandists on the opinion side — such as Sean Hannity, the official New York subsidiary of the Trump White House.

The Fox Newser cupped his hands around his eyes, as if to say that he ignores all that noise, that he stays in his lane.

It may be time for a new strategy, because the opinion side of Fox News is eating the place whole. On Friday afternoon, Shepard Smith — the network’s most secure tether to real-world news — sat before his viewers and announced that he’s gone. His eloquent sign-off was steeped in idealism: “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,” he said.

“Hope” was a good choice of words, considering that Smith couldn’t express any conviction that facts, truth and journalism would stand a chance at his soon-to-be-former workplace. The 23-year veteran of Fox News, after all, had been delivering facts during his 3 p.m. broadcast — “Shepard Smith Reporting” — and the fantasists on the opinion side interpreted his broadcasts as snubs, attacks on their wildly popular franchises. Honesty obliged Smith to describe the opinion operation as he saw it. “They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion," he told Time magazine in 2018.

Unable to handle the truth, Hannity complained.

The precursor to Smith’s voluntary departure occurred just weeks ago. In one of his typically tendentious segments, Tucker Carlson interviewed a guest who called Fox News’s Andrew Napolitano a “fool" for opining that Trump’s apparent actions regarding Ukraine — asking a fellow head of state to investigate a possible political opponent — constituted a crime. Carlson’s failure to defend Napolitano in the segment, rebutted Smith, was “repugnant.” In turn, Carlson said a sly reference on air to a “partisan” voice on Fox News’s day-side lineup.

Why would Carlson snipe at Smith on air? Oh, because he’d learned long ago that opinion shows like his are beyond the reach of management. This is the guy, after all, who said that immigrants make the United States “dirtier.” This is the guy, after all, who made racist comments about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). This is the guy, after all, who said that white nationalism was a “hoax.” What sanctions did Carlson suffer for these transgressions?

“Fox News is behind us as they have been since the very first day. Toughness is a rare quality in a TV network, and we are grateful for that,” said Carlson after Media Matters surfaced a number of misogynistic and racist comments from Carlson in long-ago radio appearances.

Check out this CNN retraction; check out former MSNBCer Martin Bashir; check out George Stephanopoulos and his Clinton Foundation contributions. No men in media remain farther beyond the reach of scolding network statements, of the shame of suspension, of any consequence whatsoever, than Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. They offend, they lie, they smear, they continue hosting their shows. And they continue running the network.

In the last week of September, Fox News encountered a choice: Remonstrate Carlson for calling Smith a “partisan”; tell Smith to stand down on his criticism of Carlson; or do nothing. By all indications, it chose Door No. 3, though there was some reporting that corporate brass had instructed Smith to knock it off — and it was denied forcefully and plausibly by Fox News.

Again: Fox News did nothing when Carlson bullied Smith. People in positions of responsibility at the network, it would appear, hid under their desks. Though the network’s suits had for decades professed the neutrality and professionalism of the straight-news types like Smith and his distinguished colleague Chris Wallace, there was no corporate statement brushing back Carlson for calling Smith a “partisan.” How easy would that have been? “Fox News has always been a locus of fierce debate about the controversies of our times, even when the protagonists are Fox News employees. However, any suggestion that 23-year Fox News anchor Shepard Smith is anything other than a neutral and professional journalist is not only erroneous but also reprehensible. We are proud to stand behind his work.”

That Fox News failed to take such a step says a great deal. The civil war at the network that we hear so much about on the Internet is actually no civil war whatsoever. It’s a steady and feebly opposed siege of lies, ratings and money against a “straight news” operation whose primary purpose is to give company execs something to point to when the opinion-mongers offend. In fairness to the Fox News suits, “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace and his straight-arrow style remain on board, and the network instituted a live news show at the 11 p.m. hour. Personnel on the so-called straight news side do occasionally make news with accountability work. And, of course, Fox News rules the ratings.

Reduced to its essence, however, this saga boils down to choosing Tucker Carlson — a career journeyman in cable news — over Shepard Smith — a company mainstay. Its silence on Smith, come to think of it, summons parallels to its spineless non-responses to the recent, preposterous attacks of President Trump. “From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good @FoxNews Poll. Whoever their Pollster is, they suck,” Trump tweeted last week:

Perhaps we missed the rebuttal from Fox News. Recent Trump tweets ripping Fox News have fallen heavily on the straight-news side — again, without a response from Fox News:

Any given week at Fox News thus affords chief executive Suzanne Scott and president/executive editor Jay Wallace an opportunity or two to step up and provide some leadership. Stick up for standards. Take a stand for a staff favorite and a true journalist such as Smith. Executives at most news organization jump at the opportunity to defend their colleagues from baseless presidential attacks.

But the real leaders of Fox News aren’t in the C-suite. They’re staring at you every weeknight at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

We’ve asked the network to comment on these leadership issues and will update this post if we receive a statement.