Mainstream reporters and journalists who give a platform to so-called “canceled” public figures often get an earful from audiences who aren’t keen to hear from famous people accused of misconduct. But Michael Smerconish doesn’t seem to mind.
Over the past several years, amid a media reckoning over sexual misconduct and racism, Smerconish’s radio show has developed a reputation as a safe harbor for media and political figures generally considered persona non grata due to controversies that cost them high-profile gigs.
Last month, Smerconish welcomed Donald McNeil Jr., once a high-profile New York Times science reporter, onto his show to discuss his take on the theory that COVID-19 originated from a leak in a Chinese laboratory. The interview was one of McNeil’s first since exiting the Times after The Daily Beast reported that several teenagers and their parents complained about the reporter’s alleged inappropriate conduct, including the use of the “n-word,” while serving as a guide on a Times-affiliated trip for high-school students. The past allegations and the paper’s handling of the claims sparked internal backlash among some staffers, and the Times eventually pushed McNeil to resign.
Though they did not discuss the controversy that led to McNeil’s ouster from a prestigious journalistic perch (or his lengthy public essay addressing the claims against him), the ex-Times reporter was just the latest in a line of media figures who’ve seemingly attempted to rehab their career via Smerconish’s show when other mainstream outlets seem reluctant to give them any airtime.
Smerconish has similarly played host to Megyn Kelly, whose NBC morning program was canceled after she made comments defending blackface Halloween costumes. Since her dramatic NBC exit, the mere presence of Kelly can send shockwaves through that outlet. For example, her 2019 appearance on Fox News—shortly after her exit from the cable channel—set off a wave of internal panic among staff, who were reassured by network CEO Suzanne Scott that her interview did not mean she was permanently returning to Fox.
Smerconish has also played host in recent months to former Democratic Rep. Katie Hill, who resigned in late 2019 following a scandal in which she was both the subject of revenge porn and a participant in an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate on her congressional campaign.
But few have benefited more from Smerconish’s enthusiasm for embracing media pariahs than Mark Halperin.
In 2017, the high-profile political journalist was abruptly forced out of gigs at NBC, MSNBC, and Showtime over multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Subsequent attempts at a comeback have been met with heavy resistance: Projects that he worked on, including a book and an election event with his former colleagues at MSNBC’s Morning Joe, were subject to massive criticism as soon as the public got wind of them.
But at a time when other networks and platforms wouldn’t touch the political pundit, Smerconish made a point of welcoming Halperin back on-air. In fact, Halperin has become one of the radio show’s more prominent recurring guests, appearing nearly every week to discuss the political events of the week. This month alone, he’s been on to discuss President Joe Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin and Republican politics. In 2019, amid criticism of his interviews with Halperin, Smerconish fretted on-air that “to not let him opine after two years would be akin to a professional death sentence."
Smerconish’s willingness to give airtime to media personae non gratae hasn’t been limited simply to his radio show.
Bill O’Reilly left Fox News in 2017 after it was revealed that he and the network paid out multimillion-dollar settlements to multiple women accusing him of sexual misconduct. When he re-emerged with a subscriber-only webcast a few months later, his first guest was none other than Smerconish, who for years had often served as a fill-in host on The O’Reilly Factor. During their chat, O’Reilly also promised to appear on Smerconish’s CNN program, an engagement he ultimately backed out of, citing his issues with the cable-news network.
“Bill O’Reilly called me yesterday, and although complimentary toward me personally, regarding me as a straight shooter and so on and so forth, said that because of his history with my network, he just wasn’t comfortable in coming on, at least not at this time,” Smerconish explained at the time.
He continued: “Which disappoints me, because I think we’d have had a good conversation. Needless to say, there’s a lot of ground that I would have liked to have covered with him. But that’s not going to happen, at least not now.”
Smerconish’s apparent chumminess with disgraced media men like O’Reilly and Halperin, both accused of serious misconduct, has drawn its share of criticism. In a statement, women’s advocacy group UltraViolet wrote: “Right now, we’re in the midst of a cultural shift that can result in a safer, more fair and more equitable world for everyone. Unfortunately, media figures like Smerconish are giving a platform to men who are fighting tooth and nail to stop it. By giving a platform to aggrieved men like Bill O’Reilly and Mark Halperin, Smerconish is undermining progress, making all of us less safe and less able to come forward about abuse, and protecting these men from accountability.”
But in an email to The Daily Beast, Smerconish disputed any characterization of his show as having rehabilitated men accused of sexual misconduct, pointing out that he has also hosted prominent media women who’ve faced controversy, including Kelly and Hill.
“From 8 years at SXM, encompassing thousands of hours and hundreds of guests, you suggest you are onto a male trend by naming 3 who have appeared on my program after controversy?” he wrote. “For parity, kindly note my invitations/interviews of, say, Megyn Kelly, Katie Hill and Bari Weiss when each was in the news. I let my listeners decide.”
The CNN and SiriusXM host has done a little of everything in media and politics. He has served as an operative for the Pennsylvania GOP, a bureaucrat in George H.W. Bush’s administration, an independent political columnist, a lawyer for the Philadelphia police union and a famous boxer, and, for years, has helmed shows on cable news and satellite radio where he muses for hours on everything from politics to media to entertainment.
Smerconish’s show has been so friendly to such individuals perhaps because of his independent politics and his sympathetic view of public figures cast out of their jobs over various transgressions.
And so Smerconish regularly reads Halperin’s columns on-air, or, as he did during one December 2020 episode, offers to call influential conservative book editor Judith Regan to help pitch a Halperin-authored book on the presidential election.
He also is more than happy to defend his controversial guests from callers who express reservations about their appearance on his air. After Halperin’s initial appearance following his dramatic downfall, Smerconish faced criticism from colleagues at CNN (which first broke the news of Halperin’s misconduct) as well as listeners who dialed in to challenge his decision to have the Game Change author on his program.
During one 2019 episode of his SiriusXM radio show, the centrist pundit lashed out at such critics, lamenting the rise of “woke” online culture and claiming he and Halperin had been caught in its crosshairs.
“All of the sudden it became a Twitter mob directed at Mark and consequently directed at me because I was viewed as his enabler on his path to recovery,” Smerconish said. “And people went absolutely batshit. And it went on for a couple of days and then the Twitter mob that Bill Maher describes moved on and set their sights on somebody else.”
He added: “They’re constantly moving the goal posts so they can say ‘Gotcha.’”
Indeed, the CNN host has assured his radio listeners that the criticism won’t stop him.
Earlier this month, Jeffrey Toobin appeared on CNN for the first time since the fall, when his network contributorship was put on ice—and he was fired from a New Yorker staff writer gig—after he exposed himself during a work Zoom call (he was not aware that his camera was on, and has since apologized).
During a December radio segment, Smerconish declared that Toobin “doesn’t deserve a professional death sentence.” And earlier this month, Smerconish even promised to have Toobin back on his radio and television shows as soon as he can.
Asked about his defense of Toobin, Smerconish gently reminded one caller of his history of rehabbing media men accused of workplace misconduct.
“I was the first guest on O’Reilly’s post-Fox podcast,” he noted.