Fractures in conservative opposition to gay rights and even same-sex marriage have now widened to include the core of the right’s message machine, the Fox News Channel, where a cadre of younger voices have begun to defend same-sex relationships and even advocate openly for same-sex marriage.
The channel’s heterodox posture on gay rights comes despite Fox’s siding comfortably with mainstream Republican positions on other divisive social issues of the day, such as abortion and contraception.
But like the Republican Party, whose leaders have begun to step away from anti-gay positions that are deeply unpopular with younger voters, Fox appears to be feeling pressure both from its younger staff and key audience segments to reflect what polls suggest is a rapidly shifting consensus. And over the past year, Shepard Smith, the host of afternoon news show Studio B, has emerged as a vocal champion of same-sex marriage. After President Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage, Smith looked into the camera said that the Republican Party was “on the wrong side of history” on the issue.
“In television people are worried about the demo,” said Margaret Hoover, a former Fox News contributor and former Bush administration staffer who left the network last year, referring to television advertisers preoccupation with viewers between 18 and 49. “‘Are you getting the demo?’ And the demo supports gay rights.”
Smith’s May marriage remarks provided a shock both to elements of Fox’s conservative audience and to liberals, whose enmity with Fox has only deepend through the Obama years.
“The president of the United States: now in the 21st century,” Smith said, and asked reporter Ed Henry: “I am curious whether you believe in this time of rising debt and medical issues and all the rest, if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly without much question on the wrong side of history.”
The media picked up on the moment, which was covered like a one-off or an anomaly; The Atlantic Wire wrote that Smith’s reaction “was not your typical Fox News,” and Smith came under fire from Rush Limbaugh for the comment.
Smith hasn’t stopped since then — quipping recently that “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day” was “the national day of intolerance.” And he’s been joined by Megyn Kelly, while other voices on the network — John Stossel, Andrew Napolitano — have shied away from conservative dogma on gay marriage.
Whether Fox’s on-air talent is going rogue or the mandate is coming from on high, some of the network’s most prominent names have started to speak louder and more favorably in support of a cherished liberal cause — winning grudging praise from the left and outrage from the right.
“There has been a softening [at Fox] if you look at the big picture,” said Michael Cole-Schwartz, communications director for the Human Rights Campaign. “It’s just representative of where the country is going on this issue. The more rabid anti-gay voices continue to be marginalized and there’s just not a lot of appetite for anti-gay sentiment.”
Fox is tracing, and perhaps at times leading, a broad and at times disconcertingly fast shift inside Republican politics. Some of the party’s most important donors, organized in part by out former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, now double as donors to marriage equality campaigns. A new generation of leaders have made explicit that the party must, as House Minority Leader Eric Cantor told BuzzFeed last month, show “tolerance” for diverging views on marriage. And Republicans are shying away from making gay marriage a campaign issue this year, Politico noted recently, as polling shows that the country is moving towards broader support of the issue.
Smith is the most notable and frequent example to buck Fox News’ regular party line on the issue.
But the same week that Smith described “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” organized by fellow Fox host Mike Huckabee, as a “national day of intolerance,” Kelly joined Smith on his side of the gay marriage debate while interviewing Dr. Robert Jeffress:
“This country has a long history of discrimination against certain groups. Eventually we wind up getting it right. Right? Against women, against blacks, the civil rights movement and so on. And in justifying that discrimination when it was in place, some folks turn to the Bible and turn to their religious beliefs and said we have to have slavery because it’s in the Bible. Women have to be second-class citizens because that’s in the Bible. Blacks and whites can’t get married because that’s in the Bible. That wound up in a case. A judge wrote that in an opinion, which the Supreme Court ultimately struck that down, saying that’s not right, judge—the Equal Protection clause says you can’t do that. Why is gay marriage any different?” she asked.
Kelly’s remarks won an “Yglesias Award” from blogger Andrew Sullivan, which the blogger — an early and constant online gay rights voice — grants to writers or commentators who buck a party line.
Hoover, who was a Fox contributor for four years and is now at CNN, these instances are “hosts saying what they really think,” as opposed to a top-down directive from company leadership.
“My sense especially knowing Megyn and Shep and where they are in the building, and their shows and their influence within the building, my sense of it is that this is both of them taking a principled stand,” Hoover said. “It probably isn’t representative of Fox’s positioning on an issue. Clearly Mike Huckabee doesn’t feel the same way.”
Another former Fox employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in fact, higher-ups actively frown on Smith’s outspokenness.
“Shep is on really thin ice,” the former employee said. “If he wasn’t so popular and highly rated (and highly paid) Roger [Ailes] would have yanked him off the air months ago.”
A spokeswoman for Fox did not respond to requests for comment.
Fox critics don’t believe the network has instituted a new policy on the issue, but do concede that among some of the highest-profile anchors there’s been a change in tone.
“We certainly want to give credit where credit is due, the anchors that you mentioned we’ve also noticed have been good on LGBT issues,” said Jess Levin, a spokeswoman for Media Matters, which has waged a concerted campaign against the channel. “Megyn was really good on the Chaz Bono thing, she called it disgusting what people were doing. But we don’t think the network as a whole gets a pass.”
Kelly defended Chaz Bono, the transgender son of the musicians Sonny Bono and Cher, though each had children from other relationships, while interviewing a psychiatrist who’d written an editorial for FoxNews.com urging parents to not let their children watch Bono on “Dancing With the Stars.”
“There’s so much hate for gays and lesbians and transgendered people,” Kelly said. “You seem to be adding to the hate.” She later repeated the point to fellow host Bill O’Reilly.
The shift at Fox has also started to ruffle some conservative feathers. The Media Research Center, through its website NewsBusters, expressed its displeasure by clipping the Chaz Bono clip and Smith’s Chick-Fil-A comment and slamming both of them: Smith spoke “out of the blue,” Kelly “did not admit that gay-left advocates often cite pro-LGBT shows on the major networks as proof that ‘tolerance’ is on the march and conservatives should stop opposing them in public.”
On Kelly, NewsBusters asks: “Who said Fox News was the right-wing channel?”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Chaz Bono’s parentage.