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Shep's stunning exit

Shep Smith's exit is not just an end of an era for Fox -- it's a sign of what's happening to our country.

Smith was a Fox News original. He was an outstanding journalist. He didn't change -- the network changed around him. In the Trump age, his brand of truth-telling wasn't all that welcomed by Fox's viewers or even by some of his own colleagues. Tensions with the sycophantic pro-Trump opinion hosts were his breaking point. Sometime last month, Smith decided that he had simply had enough. Key facts:

 -- Smith is walking away from a $15 million/year contract.

 -- Smith's fans inside Fox are devastated. Some are worried about the future of Fox's news division.

 -- His spokesman says "he is not retiring." 

 -- But he is subject to a non-compete for an unspecified period of time, so he won't be popping up on CNN or MSNBC right away.

 -- "We will keep everyone informed once a new dayside news program is announced," Fox told staffers in an internal memo. "Until then, we are planning to have a series of rotating news anchors host the 3PM time slot which will now be entitled Fox News Reporting."

Here's everything we know so far...

He decided to walk

All the parties involved say that this was Smith's decision. A difficult decision. With President Trump actively distorting the truth and many of his own colleagues helping him do it, Smith prided himself on anchoring a newscast that countered the network's pro-Trump opinion shows. The way Smith saw it, he was making sure that accurate information was getting on Fox's air. "I wonder," he told Time mag's Daniel D'Addario last year, "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." That was part of his rationale for renewing his contract at the time. 

But journalists inside Fox have been feeling squeezed. This is something that keeps coming up in the reporting for my forthcoming book about Fox and Trump. As for Smith, his departure was a long time coming. "It was clear he wasn't happy, on air and off air," one of my sources said. "I think it probably just got to be too much" for him, another said.

So why now? Over to Oliver now, who has more...

The final straw?

Oliver Darcy emails: The breaking point for Smith was the tension between him and the opinion side of Fox. In late September, you'll remember, Tucker Carlson mocked Smith for standing up for his friend and colleague Judge Andrew Napolitano after the judge was called a "fool" by one of Carlson's guests. The network's lack of a vocal defense for Smith following the incident bothered him and the whole episode factored into his decision to leave, a person familiar with the matter told me.

BUT: Contrary to rampant speculation, Smith was never given an "ultimatum" to stop criticizing Carlson. Instead, I'm told that Smith was reminded about the Fox's old adage regarding "not shooting inside the tent." Bottom line: "It is clear where the 2nd floor's allegiance lies," the person said, meaning that Fox execs care more about appeasing Carlson than Smith.

 --> FWIW, Fox strongly denies that he was given a reminder. "At no time did anyone -- including anyone in management or a third party -- speak to Shepard Smith regarding that matter," a spokesperson said. "Anything to the contrary is entirely false and wildly inaccurate."

Shep's stealth exit

It came out of the blue. Smith spoke at the end of his newscast and said it was his last day, stunning everyone. Then he immediately "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," per WaPo's Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison.

This stealth exit led to rumors that he had been "escorted out" of the building, which Fox forcefully denied...

No connection to Barr-Murdoch meeting

As soon as Smith made his announcement, there was social media speculation that it was somehow connected to this week's curious meeting between Rupert Murdoch and William Barr. But all of our reporting points away from that kind of conspiratorial thinking. And Smith's spokesman Chris Giglio says: "The decision to leave was Shep’s and his alone – he will be taking an extended period of time off to be with his family. Following that – who knows – he is not retiring."

 --> If you haven't watched Shep's sign-off yet, catch the video here. "Even in our current polarized nation," he said, "it is my hope that the facts will win the day, that the truth will always matter, that journalism and journalists will thrive." 

Exit closes wormhole from Fox-verse to fact-based reality

Oliver Darcy emails: Smith's departure removes a stubborn glitch in the matrix over at Fox. He was THE anchor who regularly and aggressively fact-checked Trump. Yes, sometimes anchors like Neil Cavuto take aim at Trump. But Smith was THE person who consistently and forcefully pushed back.

And Smith not only fact-checked the President, he frequently dismantled the right-wing talking points peddled by the network's opinion hosts. To be succinct, Smith's exit removes a stubborn wormhole from the Fox-verse to fact-based reality.


 -- Everyone from Sean Hannity to Bret Baier wished Smith well on Friday... (Mediaite)

 -- Former Fox correspondent Courtney Kealy to Smith: "Hoping your crucial voice re-emerges again soon."

 -- Former Fox correspondent Conor Powell tweeted: Shep "is the best breaking news anchor on TV. A fantastic coworker and mentor. I am sorry to see him leave Fox News but completely understand why he is leaving. Staying there isn't worth the damage to one's personal and professional reputation."

 -- WaPo's Erik Wemple: "There’ll be no replicating what Smith accomplished, and there’ll be no mistaking the implications. Facts are losing their tenuous foothold at Fox News."

 -- "There is also a presumption among many" at Fox "that the anchor was caught in a verbal vice from Trump that was straining relations for executives with the White House and other big names at the once Fair and Balanced network," Deadline's Dominic Patten writes, calling it "a situation in which Smith was the sacrificial lamb, even if it was eventually by his own choice..."

Fox staffers: "It feels like the death of the news division"

Oliver Darcy emails: Fox staffers were absolutely floored by the news. Just look at Neil Cavuto and John Roberts' faces...
On set, I'm told, employees were "openly weeping" following Smith's announcement. "It feels like the death of the news division," a senior Fox employee told me. "At least we had him." Another Fox staffer echoed that sentiment, telling me, "This news division is dead." That person wondered, "Who can fill that role?"

 --> Darcy adds: It's also possible that in the days and weeks to come, others might follow Smith out the door. One Fox staffer noted to me that many employees "were here and have stayed here solely" for Smith. "Don't be surprised if there's an exodus," the person said, adding, "Fox hasn't just lost Shep today."

Network management clearly anticipated some of these reactions...

Fox execs acknowledge "difficult" day for Shep's colleagues

"We know this was an extremely difficult decision for him and he made it with much deliberation, care and consideration," Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and president Jay Wallace wrote in Friday's internal memo. "While this day is especially challenging for both of us who have worked alongside him for 23 years, we respect his decision and are deeply grateful for his immense contributions to the entire network."

They added: "We also know this day is just as difficult for those of you who had the fortune of working closely with Shep for so many years... We are incredibly proud of the signature reporting and anchoring style he honed here, along with everything he accomplished during his monumental 23-year tenure."

About Shep's ratings...

Trump said on Friday that Smith had "terrible ratings." That's not true. "Shepard Smith Reporting" usually outrated CNN and MSNBC in its time slot, because Fox News as a whole has a big base audience. But it IS true that Smith's hour was the lowest-rated in Fox's daytime lineup.

Here's how I see it: His 3pm hour was one of Fox's most celebrated shows outside Fox HQ. Smith's fans were glad he was on Fox, trying to counteract the propagandistic shows elsewhere on the network's schedule. But they weren't part of Fox's core audience. To the contrary, many of the network's loyal viewers detested Smith for the very same reasons that others cheered for his solid reporting...

 --> Brian Lowry tweeted: There's "no small amount of irony in Trump saying 'I wish him well' about Shep, since the 'We wish him well' statement from Fox News was a fine art under Roger Ailes..."

Speaking of Trump and Fox...

The president recited the names of his favorite Fox hosts at Friday night's rally, just as he did on Thursday. He said John Solomon deserves a Pulitzer. He said "thank God we have them on our side." And he will be calling into Judge Jeanine Pirro's show on Saturday night. 'Nuff said.


 -- The Shep news is WaPo's No. 1 most-read story right now while Kevin McAleenan's departure as acting homeland security secretary is No. 5 on the site... (WaPo)

-- Friday marked "seven months since the last White House press briefing..." (Twitter)

 -- Daniel Dale's latest: "Trump made at least 12 verifiably false claims" at Thursday's rally. "That's a) not good but b) low for him for a speech of that length..." (CNN)

 -- Trump's attacks against Hunter Biden were so vicious and bogus that Chuck Todd said he wouldn't air the clips on "MTP Daily" Friday. "Politics ain't beanbag, but it isn't supposed to be this either. We all need to play a role in not rewarding this kind of politics..." (Twitter)

 -- And at Friday's rally, Trump said Nancy Pelosi "hates the United States of America" because she is conducting an impeachment inquiry...

State Department on "lockdown"

"State Department reporters are protesting what they see as unprecedented stonewalling of questions surrounding the Ukraine scandal that led to the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, with their correspondents' association calling on senior officials to break the impasse," Politico's Michael Calderone reports. He quotes a reporter saying "they're basically on lockdown..." More here...

NYMag's im🍑 cover

New York magazine's cover package includes several stories about impeachment, plus this instantly iconic cover. Look out for the stories on Monday...


 -- Erin Burnett on "OutFront" Friday: "Trump's day, well, pretty bad. The president losing five major court cases, including one that could give Democrats his tax returns..." (CNN)

 -- Every day, the headlines are worse for Rudy Giuliani. Saturday's two-column lead story in the NYT: "Giuliani's Ukraine Work Is Said to Be Investigated..." (NYT)

 -- The general election debates will be held in Indiana, Utah, Michigan and Tennessee next fall. Here's the schedule... (CNN)

"Catch and Kill" latest

Friday's biggest development: Ronan Farrow's former producer Rich McHugh told his story, backing up Farrow, in a first person piece for Vanity Fair.

"One year ago, I resigned from NBC News because they ordered me to stop reporting on Harvey Weinstein, and I did not believe that they had been truthful with me or Ronan." McHugh recounts Harvey Weinstein's surveillance campaign and says "what I faced from my bosses at NBC, though, felt worse than being spied on by Weinstein's paid thugs. As a reporter, you expect the powerful people you're investigating to play rough. What’s harder to experience is the stress and anxiety of being attacked from the inside, by the people who are supposed to have your back." McHugh clearly sides with Farrow's view that there was a "corporate coverup," an assertion that NBC completely denies.

NBC's secret settlement agreements?

NBC News, to its credit, has been covering this controversy on its networks and website, and did so again on Friday: "Ronan Farrow's book says NBC reached nondisclosure agreements with at least 7 women" is the headline on this story by Daniel Arkin.

Farrow talked about these payments on "GMA" Friday morning. Some of the agreements, he said, were with women who had complaints about Matt Lauer -- calling into question the company's claims that management had no idea about Lauer's alleged misconduct until Brooke Nevils told HR in November 2017.

A spokesperson for NBCUniversal responded with this new statement: "As we said a year ago, we have reviewed all available records and there is still no evidence of any claims or settlements related to Matt Lauer's misconduct that pre-date his firing. The few examples that Farrow cites with any detail involve employees who, by their own admission, made no formal complaint, and whose departures were completely routine." Arkin has more here...

Rebecca Traister's take

"Throughout the book," she writes, "there is a sense of suffocating foreboding, the dawning realization that almost no one in the narrative is clean." Her takeaway: "What I want is not even for all the bad people to be punished; all I really want is for them not to be in charge anymore." Read...

This Sunday on "Reliable Sources"

We're still pursuing some potential guests, but we already have a stellar lineup: Sam Donaldson, Douglas Brinkley, Irin Carmon, David Zurawik, Amanda Marcotte, and Peter Wehner will join me live Sunday at 11am ET on CNN. Hope you'll join us too! 

Recommended reads for your weekend 👓

By Katie Pellico:

 -- NYT offered two great takes on TikTok this week: Arit John profiled "The Future Teen Stars of America Live on TikTok," while James Poniewozik, Amanda Hess, Jon Caramanica, Gia Kourlas and Wesley Morris reported on their "48 Hours in the Strange and Beautiful World of TikTok..."

 -- As Prince Harry's war with British tabloids roils, a smaller battle occurred in the background this week. Read about how Coleen Rooney took the bad headlines into her own hands and nabbed her own leaker...

 -- In this wake of this week's controversy over Ellen DeGeneres' friendship with George W. Bush, BuzzFeed News' Shannon Keating explains why "Kindness Is Not Enough..."

 -- Kevin Roose's latest: "What Does PewDiePie Really Believe?"

 -- A fascinating WSJ feature: "At a time of deep political division in the American electorate," these 19 counties have "shown extraordinary political flexibility, voting for the winner in every presidential election since 1980..."

 -- "Want to interview cartel hit men or human smugglers?" Read Gustavo Solis' profile of the "fixers" who help journalists "make it happen" along the U.S.-Mexico border...

 -- After a letter from attorney John Dowd was "widely derided" for its use of Comic Sans, Emma Goldberg defends the eyeroll-inducing font: "Hating Comic Sans Is Not a Personality..."

 -- Entertainment Weekly published a lengthy exchange with Elizabeth Warren about HBO's "Ballers," "and only 'Ballers...'"

 -- Read Elle's full interview with Mindy Kaling. There's more to it than the tit-for-tat with the TV Academy that ensued after its publication...

🎙️ Andrew Marantz on his new book "Antisocial"

New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz embedded with extremist "gate-crashers" teeming on social media platforms and the lax "gate-keepers" in Silicon Valley for his new book "Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation." I loved our conversation on this week's "Reliable" podcast. We talked about the Overton Window, media manipulation, the "alt right," and much more. He says "the only way forward is to really really look this stuff in the face..."

🎧 Listen to the full podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or your pod player of choice...

Climate change: If you cover it, they will read

Francesca Hoffman emails: News outlets are finally making more concerted efforts to cover the climate crisis effectively, and the numbers show that audiences are paying attention. 

You'll remember the recent Reliable Sources podcast featuring CJR's Kyle Pope on "Covering Climate Now." The initiative, spearheaded by CJR and The Nation, had over 250 newsrooms around the world ramp up their climate coverage leading up to the UN Climate Action Summit on September 23. 

Data from digital advertising platform Taboola reveals that in the week leading up to the UN summit, over 40 million people read stories about climate change, the environment, pollution, carbon dioxide, Greta Thunberg, and greenhouse gasses. That's more than double the average weekly readership for those topics in 2019.
The coverage of these topics also doubled: The 1,300 publishers in the U.S. that use Taboola's ads modules produced about 22,000 articles on these subjects. In times when newsrooms are short-staffed and financially constrained, here's hoping great journalism on climate change keeps happening year-round, not just when newsy UN events are upon us or when the next natural disaster strikes...

"Why We Hate" examines roots of tribalism and violence

Brian Lowry emails: Steven Spielberg and Alex Gibney are the big-name filmmakers behind "Why We Hate," a six-part Discovery Channel docu-series that explores the roots of tribalism and hatred from an anthropological and sociological perspective. It's an interesting and ambitious project, if one slightly overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the subject matter, oscillating as it does between the macro and the anecdotal...


 -- "Apple Told Some Apple TV+ Show Developers Not To Anger China," Alex Kantrowitz and John Paczkowski report... (BuzzFeed News)

 -- Brooks Barnes' latest: Netflix goes all out to wow children as streaming wars intensify..." (NYT)

"Masters of the Air" from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks lands at Apple

Brian Lowry emails: Sandra Gonzalez has the details on "Masters of the Air," and as shots across the bow go, it's hard to imagine a bigger one for Apple than offering another World War II epic from Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who previously produced "The Pacific" and "Band of Brothers" for HBO. If Apple wanted to serve notice that it's not just dabbling in the entertainment space, this announcement two weeks before the formal launch of Apple TV+ should get everyone's attention, while serving the dual purpose of looking like the one that got away from HBO...

Kevin Hart breaks his silence

Lisa Respers France emails: Kevin Hart has broken his silence as the cause of his car crash has been determined. His attorney told me that while Hart is doing some work promoting his "Jumanji" sequel he doesn't actually plan on returning to work until next year. Hart, who was injured in the crash, is instead focusing on his healing and rehabilitation.


By Lisa Respers France:

 -- "The Office" boss doesn't want to disappoint fans with a reboot...

 -- Harry Styles "Lights Up" in his first music video in two years...


"El Camino" cooks up a weaker batch of "Breaking Bad"

Brian Lowry emails: "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" manages to somehow be pretty good and wholly unnecessary, adding an epilogue to a series that signed off in satisfying fashion six years ago. The movie, featuring Aaron Paul, lands on Netflix and in select theaters this weekend, before an eventual showing on the network that originally aired the show, AMC.

Lifetime's "The College Admissions Scandal" earns its passing grade

Brian Lowry emails: The title of "The College Admissions Scandal" tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this "Ripped from the headlines" Lifetime movie, except for the fact that it's a semi-fictionalized account of what transpired, and that none of the big names are involved. That prompted the Washington Post's Steven Zeitchik to quip that for Lori Loughlin, being unable to play a juicy character in a Lifetime move that's based on her is "the cruelest punishment."
Thanks for reading! Send me your feedback via email or connect with me on Twitter. See you Sunday...
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