On October 11 2019, the Facebook page “The Other 98%” shared the following meme about the departure of anchor Shep Smith from Fox News and the behind-the-scenes meeting between Rupert Murdoch and United States Attorney General Bill Barr that purportedly came the day before it:
Text on top of and below a triptych of Barr, Murdoch, and Smith read:
Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr had a closed door meeting with Rupert Murdoch and the very next day, Shepard Smith, one of the only voices on Fox News that is critical of Trump steps down after 23 years…
On the same day the meme was posted, Shepard Smith’s seemingly abrupt departure from Fox News was widely reported, described by CNN as “shocking.” In the immediate aftermath of Smith’s on-air announcement, a spokesperson for the anchor denied that he was terminated:
Such a departure, occurring suddenly on [October 11 2019] afternoon in the middle of an anchor’s contract cycle, suggest a severe fissure between Smith and Fox management, though both sides spoke favorably of one another when announcing the exit.
Chris Giglio, a spokesperson for Smith, dismissed speculation the anchor was forced out of the network.
“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,” Giglio said. “Following that — who knows — he is not retiring.”
NBC News reported that reporters gathered on the White House lawn asked U.S. President Donald Trump about Smith’s separation from Fox News just after news broke. One of the reporters asked about a New York Times report that Attorney General Bill Barr met with Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch on October 9 2019:
When asked if his administration had pressured Fox News to part ways with Smith, Trump told reporters on the White House South Lawn before departing for a rally in Louisiana that he was unaware of Smith’s departure.
“Did I hear Shepard Smith is leaving? Is he leaving because of bad ratings?” Trump said. “I wish Shepard Smith well.”
One journalist asked why Attorney General William Barr met Wednesday with Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox News’ parent company, Fox Corp., a meeting reported by The New York Times. Trump did not address the question.
NBC linked to an October 10 2019 New York Times article; Smith’s departure from Fox News was announced the day following its publication. The paper reported:
Attorney General William P. Barr met privately Wednesday evening [October 9 2019] with Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who is one of President Trump’s frequent confidants but whose Fox News is viewed by the president as more hostile toward him than it used to be.
The meeting was held at Mr. Murdoch’s home in New York, according to someone familiar with it. It was unclear if anyone else attended or what was discussed. Aides to both Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Barr declined requests for comment on the meeting.
Although the article also detailed that Fox News was typically uncritical of Trump and his administration, events demonstrated intermittent changes in the network’s tone. Smith was mentioned by name along with another Fox News personality — Ed Henry — as having drawn the president’s ire:
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump believes that the network has become more critical of him, and he has grown increasingly critical of Fox News, denouncing some anchors and reporters he does not consider to be friendly to him, such as Shepard Smith and even Ed Henry, with whom he held a recent interview. And while Mr. Trump talks frequently with Tucker Carlson, another Fox News host, Mr. Carlson has been critical of Mr. Trump’s July call with the president of Ukraine, which prompted the impeachment inquiry. Mr. Carlson said in a column for The Daily Caller website that there was “no way” to spin what took place on that call as a positive for Mr. Trump.
On Thursday [October 10 2019], Mr. Trump lashed out at Fox News over a poll it commissioned on attitudes toward the impeachment inquiry.
At the end of the piece the New York Times linked to a tweet by Trump coupled with another in which the President said Fox News’ polling “suck[ed.]” In the linked tweet, Trump also referenced Smith by name:
Later on October 11 2019, BoingBoing sarcastically described the purported meeting between Barr and Murdoch as “surely not related” to Smith’s departure. A later edit, however, read:
[NOTE: An NBC News reporter first reported that Smith was escorted out of the building by security, then removed and redacted the statement, saying it was an error.]
According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, the meeting between Barr and Murdoch did take place, but Stelter described the widespread rumor about Smith’s firing as “a conspiracy theory”:
“There was also a left-wing conspiracy theory out there about Shep Smith the other day, and I want to debunk it,” said Stelter on Reliable Sources on [October 13 2019]. “There was a report in the New York Times that Rupert Murdoch had a meeting with Attorney General Bill Barr. That’s true they did meet, but it had nothing to do with Smith resigning a day or two later.”
“In fact, Smith had been thinking about this for several weeks. So I want to put that to rest,” CNN’s top media critic continued, before noting that it does speak volumes “that people wonder is someone pulling the strings.”
Stelter began analyzing the news as it was originally reported on October 11 2019, surmising that Smith was overwhelmed by ongoing circumstances at Fox News, and acknowledging speculation that Smith felt unshielded by the network and had requested that he be let out of his contract the month before:
In the original meme, “The Other 98%” heavily implied that United States Attorney General Bob Barr had pressured the head of Fox to oust Shep Smith, a retelling that CNN’s Brian Stelter described as a “left-wing conspiracy theory.” Stelter maintained that the October 9 2019 meeting between Barr and Murdoch occurred as reported, but held that Smith departed the network of his own volition due to various concerns and conditions as they existed for him in its employ. Further media analysis indicated that Smith’s departure may have been for myriad reasons unrelated to his boss and Barr having dinner at around the same time.