At Fox News, Trump Impeachment Inquiry Brings On-Air Sniping

Fox News personalities are facing heckles, insults and criticism for their coverage this week of President Trump and the impeachment inquiry.

And that’s just from their own colleagues.

In an unusual airing of intramural grievances, Fox News anchors and pundits have let loose at one another in full public view — lobbing attacks across time slots and offering a rare glimpse into tensions behind the scenes at the top-rated cable news network.

In one striking exchange, a guest on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show on Tuesday dismissed Andrew Napolitano, the veteran Fox News legal analyst, as a “fool” for saying Mr. Trump’s urging of a favor from the Ukrainian prime minister constituted a crime.

Shepard Smith, the network’s chief news anchor, fired back the next afternoon, declaring it “repugnant” that a guest would insult a Fox News colleague — and adding, pointedly, that the remark had gone “unchallenged” by Mr. Carlson.

Back on the air Wednesday night, Mr. Carlson gleefully extended the feud, mocking Mr. Smith’s comments and noting, “Unlike maybe some dayside hosts, I’m not very partisan.” (Mr. Smith, a nonpartisan news anchor, is often accused by Mr. Trump of a liberal bias.)

The on-air bickering came as Fox News journalists embarked on a sensitive task: covering the details of Mr. Trump’s interactions with Ukraine even as their network’s star commentators have striven to dismiss the matter as a “witch hunt” led by Democrats.

On Friday, Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” anchor, observed that the spin from Mr. Trump’s defenders “is not surprising, but it is astonishing, and I think deeply misleading.”

Mr. Wallace did not specify which defenders he was referring to. But liberals were quick to point out that Fox News’s prime-time hosts have been among Mr. Trump’s most vocal allies in the past few days. On Thursday, Sean Hannity opened his Fox program by addressing, in his words, “the radical, destructive, delusional Democratic Party and the media mob, their allies in crime, which has now descended into complete and utter madness.” (Fox News said that Mr. Wallace was not referring to his prime-time colleagues.)

Friction between Fox News’s news reporting staff and its pro-Trump lineup of prime time commentators is not new. Journalists in the network’s Washington bureau have grumbled about the president granting interviews to pundits like Mr. Hannity rather than the White House team.

What was unusual was the spectacle of network personalities clashing on-air. Under the iron rule of its former chairman, Roger Ailes, overt conflict between hosts was quickly snuffed out. That Mr. Carlson and Mr. Smith traded jabs over 36 hours suggested that the Ailes style of harsh discipline had eroded at the network.

Earlier in the week, an episode of the talk show “The Five” deteriorated after the liberal pundit Juan Williams suggested that his conservative co-hosts were echoing talking points from the White House. “Asking a foreign government to investigate a political rival is illegal,” Mr. Williams said, before his colleagues angrily shouted him down.

“You get that from Media Matters, Juan?” one co-host, Greg Gutfeld, said in an angered tone, referring to an advocacy group that regularly denigrates Fox News. Even by the standards of “The Five,” it was a stinging exchange.

Mr. Wallace, in his appearances Friday on Fox News, offered a grim analysis of Mr. Trump’s political standing, even as he made clear he did not view impeachment as inevitable. But he swatted down some of his colleagues’ suggestions that the whistle-blower’s complaint contained little of note.

“To dismiss this as a political hack seems to be an effort by the president’s defenders to make nothing out of something, and there is something here,” Mr. Wallace said.

At one point, the news anchor Sandra Smith challenged Mr. Wallace, saying that she did not see a clear offer of quid pro quo — “the exchange of something for value” — in the rough transcript of Mr. Trump’s call.

Mr. Wallace arched a brow. “You don’t think that dirt on Joe Biden and Joe Biden’s son would be of value?” he asked.

For all the trouble faced by Mr. Trump this week, Fox News’s viewership has remained high — in fact, higher than usual.

On Thursday evening, “Hannity” was seen by more than four million live viewers, a milestone mark by prime time news standards and a rating that Mr. Hannity has achieved only a few times this quarter.


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