AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2010

The Anti-Anchor   

With his folksy, down-to-earth persona and machine-gun delivery, Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith is the antithesis of the traditional Voice of God anchor. And heís more than willing to firmly express conclusions that challenge the views of the Fox News pundits if thatís where the facts lead him.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Fox News Channel's No. 1 anchor--the one with the boyish good looks and Southern charm--joined two colleagues as a guest on "The Strategy Room," a discussion show streamed live on foxnews.com. The hot topic that day was the CIA's rough treatment of prisoners.

The back-and-forth began cordially enough. But then the conversation shifted to the notion that torture might actually work. Suddenly, the distinctive baritone voice that brings "Fox Report," the network's signature nightly newscast, to nearly 2 million viewers, delivered a stunner. "We are America. I don't give a rat's ass if it helps. We are America. We do not fucking torture! We don't do it!" shouted Shepard Smith, slamming his hand on the desk three times for emphasis.

The panel's other members, Fox anchor Trace Gallagher and the network's senior judicial analyst, Andrew Napolitano, continued the dialogue seemingly unfazed by the outburst. Smith repeated, "It's wrong; that's it!" He shoved his chair back from the desk, distancing himself from the conversation.

Almost immediately, video clips of the April 22 incident became a YouTube sensation. Right-wing activists weighed in, calling for Smith's head. A post by blogger TexasFred reflected the tenor of dissent. "Can someone please explain to me WHY this namby-pamby closet liberal...is still on Fox News after his incredibly childish outburst?" he asked.

The lambasting went on for weeks. Pamela Geller, editor of the ultra-right Atlas Shrugs Web site, thrashed Smith in a June post on World Net Daily that ended with, "He is torturing conservatives. Shepard Smith has got to go." Another blogger dismissed him as a "cowardly narcissist."

Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," must have been chuckling. In October 2008, the faux-news anchor dubbed Smith "the black Shep of the Fox family" for his fair reporting on the presidential campaign. Stewart said the Fox anchor had "gone rogue."

This fall, the Obama administration declared war on Fox News when then-White House Communications Director Anita Dunn described the network as "a wing of the Republican Party." But it's hard to see how that label applies to Smith. For years, David Shepard Smith Jr. has been an anomaly, often at odds with the predominant Fox world-view and spurring backlashes from the Fox faithful. At times, his reporting clashes head-on with opinions expressed by the network's conservative celebrity pundits, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. If Fox's news managers were looking for a reason to dump the 45-year-old rebel-anchor, Smith gave it to them that day in "The Strategy Room." Instead, it appears they delivered a rap on the knuckles.

Michael Clemente, Fox News' senior vice president for news editorial, says he has spoken with Smith about the outburst. "You can cross a line with profanity; I think he regrets using it," says Clemente, who oversees at Fox what he describes as the A-section of a newspaper--the space where the most important stories appear. Smith answers directly to him.

Clemente suggests that Smith might have "let his hair down a little bit" because the show was online-only rather than on live TV.

Jay Wallace, Fox's vice president for news editorial and Smith's longtime friend and former producer, puts it more bluntly about the passionate outbursts: "He knows when he's being bullshitted, and I think he doesn't have the fear to call someone out." Wallace, who worked with Smith in Baghdad and during Hurricane Katrina before assuming his current job, adds, "He may know that it may piss the second floor off, the executives off, but if he knows it's a fair comment and he's being bullshitted, he's going to take the shot."

On October 27, Smith took a shot at his own network during a report on his 3 p.m. show "Studio B" about New Jersey's tight gubernatorial race. With candidates locked in a dead heat, Fox News reporter Shannon Bream interviewed only the Republican. Smith asked when the Democratic candidate would be interviewed. "We have in multiple requests, and when it comes through, we'll let you know," Bream replied.

Smith responded with a befuddled: "Wow. I didn't know that was about to happen. My apologies for the lack of balance there. If I'd had control it wouldn't have happened."

Wallace says despite "hold-your-breath moments," Smith "is not a problem here."

The numbers might explain why: Nielsen Media Research's third-quarter ratings for 2009 show that for 95 consecutive months, Smith's 7 p.m. "Fox Report" has been No. 1 in its time slot, beating MSNBC and CNN combined. When he celebrated his 10th anniversary hosting "Fox Report" on September 13, he was on course to have his best year ever.

Nielsen's tracking shows that at 7 p.m., MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" drew 654,000 viewers, down 12 percent from a year ago. CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" had an audience of 658,000, down 24 percent. Smith's "Fox Report" had an audience of 1.8 million, up 12 percent from this time in 2008. (Dobbs left CNN in November.)

Smith wins in another important category, according to Nielsen. He is the only one to show an increase with the 25-to-54-year-old crowd, the demographic that lures advertising dollars to television news. In October, he was up 18 percent over a year before.

"He is by far the most consistent. At times he has tripled his competitors. In total viewers, he's the dominant, No. 1 on cable news" compared with his competitors, says Chris Ariens, who oversees mediabistro.com's TVNewser. Fox executives have taken notice. In 2007, Smith signed a three-year contract reportedly close to $8 million, making him one of the highest-paid newscasters in cable TV history. He's also become one of the most controversial.

Not everyone took the torture incident as seriously as Geller and TexasFred. Media critics tended to see it as simply a reflection of Smith's confident, off-the-cuff disposition. "He has a down-to-earth charm, the image of a straight-shooter and a little mischievous. He comes off like someone you would partner up with in a bar," says Eric Deggans, a TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times. "He has hit on a persona that is popular with viewers." Writer Tom Junod profiled Smith for an Esquire story that ran in February. During an interview, Junod likened Smith to the little boy in his Catholic school class who could talk out of turn and escape punishment from the nuns, who "would just redden and smile. If I did it, I would get cracked with a ruler. That little boy is Shep."

Shepard Smith is the antithesis of the "voice of God" anchor (think the late Walter Cronkite). He is a maverick, a hyperkinetic anchor with a folksy, aw-shucks delivery that distinguishes him from more staid broadcasters such as CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

He comes off as a hybrid, a cross between the traditional "just the facts, ma'am" style of serious news coupled with a willingness to take people on when he chooses to. "It's a mix of straight news and entertainment," says Gail Shister, who for decades covered television for the Philadelphia Inquirer and now writes online for TVNewser.

Early in his career, Smith became known for his rapid delivery. "An Uzi has nothing on Smith," Shister says. "Shep is not afraid to speak truth to power. He clearly does not follow a party line. He isn't a classic news anchor in any sense."

Smith derives inspiration from nontraditional sources, says National Public Radio media reporter David Folkenflik. "You can see elements of local news broadcasts in what he does. He's taken a page, to some degree, from entertainment news. At times, he's perfectly happy to delve into tabloid, delighting in the bizarre and the weird," Folkenflik says. And, he adds, Smith "doesn't like taking talking points from anyone."

That became obvious when he did an on-air takedown of Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, aka Joe the Plumber, during last year's presidential race. The New York Times noted the extraordinary exchange, which took place during a live interview with the man Republican presidential candidate John McCain had catapulted into the public eye.

A November 1, 2008, Times editorial led with a disclaimer: "We do not often cheer on Fox News's coverage of politics." The editorial then went on to praise Smith for "five painful live-on-Fox minutes" during which he grilled Wurzelbacher about his charge that electing Barack Obama would be "death to Israel." Smith ended the interview with an exasperated, "Man, it just gets frightening sometimes."

On election night in November 2008, Smith took on Ralph Nader, the consumer crusader and perennial independent presidential candidate, over a comment Nader made during a radio interview, saying that Obama's choice is "whether he's going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations." Nader attempted to explain. But Smith let him have it: "This year you were reduced to irrelevant. And I just wonder now if that's what you want your legacy to be. The man who on the night that the first African American president in the history of this nation was elected, you ask if he's going to be Uncle Sam or Uncle Tom. Stunning."

At times during his career, Smith's relationship with Fox has appeared to be schizophrenic. Junod pointed out in his Esquire piece that Smith has "always managed to be a part of Fox and apart from it at the same time." He cited the 2008 campaign, during which Smith "distinguished himself by treating Republicans as aggressively as Fox News normally treats Democrats."

While covering the Holocaust Museum shooting in June, Smith mentioned a Department of Homeland Security report that warned of domestic right-wing extremist groups gaining ground in the United States. It was particularly timely since the alleged shooter, 89-year-old James W. von Brunn, was a self-proclaimed white supremacist and anti-Semite.

Some took the mention of the report as an attack on America's political right. Smith became the target of hate mail and blog attacks despite pointing out on the air that the Bush administration had commissioned the study, which also focused on groups on the left side of the political spectrum. In contrast, Fox mainstays Hannity and Beck condemned the report as an attack against conservatives. "A lot of right-wing bloggers wanted him fired over this," says Eric Boehlert, a writer for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.

Case in point: A blogger on the ultra conservative Hot Air characterized Smith's comments on the DHS report as "warning America that his own viewership is teeming with would-be presidential assassins. If he truly believes this, why doesn't he quit?"

Smith's journey into television journalism began on August 16, 1977, with the death of Elvis Presley. The impressionable 13-year-old was dazzled by live television coverage of The King's funeral in Memphis. A self-defined "gadget geek," he was awestruck by the technology. "I knew I wanted to do that someday," he says.

With the U.S. Open tennis tournament in full swing and Fashion Week taking over the Big Apple, Smith sat in his cozy office on the 17th floor of the Fox News Channel headquarters in midtown Manhattan, struggling with a bout of summer allergies, a holdover from childhood. He lamented that his beloved Ole Miss Rebels were forced to cancel a football game because 24 players were down with the flu. He also talked about his childhood.

Smith grew up in a Tom Sawyer setting in rural Mississippi. Like much of the Deep South, his tiny hometown of Holly Springs was segregated. His father was a cotton merchant; his mother taught English. When the bottom fell out of the cotton market in 1977, the family fell on hard times. By his senior year in high school, his parents separated and he moved to Florida with his mother and younger brother.

"Suddenly, we were transplanted," he recalls. "It was a traumatic experience. Our family lived in the same house for generations."

Smith enrolled in the University of Mississippi to study journalism but left a few courses short of graduation to work in television. He married his college sweetheart in 1987; they divorced six years later. They had no children, and he hasn't remarried.

Smith job-hopped in Florida, working at TV stations in Panama City, Fort Myers, Orlando and Miami before landing a job in Los Angeles with "A Current Affair," a TV newsmagazine produced by 20th Century Fox. He joined Fox News as a field reporter when the network launched in 1996.

He remembers the early days there as "other planetish." He adds, "Everybody was young and fresh. They just sort of spent money. There was no real structure."

In 1999, Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes tapped him to anchor "Fox Report." Smith is effusive in his praise for Ailes, who was president of CNBC, NBC's business news and talk network, before launching Fox News. Ailes also had a high-profile career in politics. He worked for the Nixon and Reagan campaigns and spent years as a Republican operative in Washington, D.C. Smith shrugs off Ailes' strong links to the GOP.

"Roger has always had my back and never lied to me and never told me what to say," Smith says. "He treats me with respect and has given me every opportunity. He helped me make the adjustment from Holly Springs to being a leading news anchor on the most-watched evening news on cable TV. He's the reason I stay."

Smith rents a house in the Hamptons, 80 miles from New York City, and often invites Fox staffers to join him there. After work, he goes home to a loft in Greenwich Village. During the day he has his comforts, a smoke after newscasts, Snickers Bars and cans of diet Coke, which he keeps in a mini fridge in his office. He compulsively stares at a computer screen or works on his BlackBerry. He prides himself on his ability to multitask, even during commercial breaks when he is doing the evening news.

Media critics point to Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 as a seminal moment in Smith's career. Video clips of him standing on an exit off Interstate 10, across from the Louisiana Superdome, passionately describing the waves of human misery emerging from the floodwaters, are Internet mainstays.

"When you see the truth, that's when you have a responsibility to do the right thing, and I knew that," he says. "I was humbled to be in that position. It was horrifying; I had to drown out the lies."

Smith did not hide his anger when he realized Katrina was being used as a political football. "That there were people in great need and no leadership was emerging to help them was beyond reason to me. That was all the perspective I needed," he says. "Everybody wanted to make this a partisan thing, but it was a failure on all levels that I never could have dreamed of."

TV analyst Andrew Tyndall recalls that during Katrina Smith functioned as a reporter dealing with facts, not ideology. "Fox tried to do their standard operational procedure; they had talking points, a certain way the story had to be covered. Smith just turned around and said, 'Look, I am on the scene, and that's not true.' He reported it his way."

Tyndall compares Smith's style to the late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey's "just folks" manner of delivering the news. "It's a populist style that trumps ideology," he says.

If Katrina was a high point, what was the low? "Jennifer Lopez," Smith says without hesitation. During a live TV broadcast in 2002, Smith announced that J. Lo's new song, "Jenny From The Block," was about Lopez's roots, about how she's still a neighborhood girl at heart. "But folks from that street in New York, the Bronx section, sound more likely to give her a curb job [a beating] than a blow job!" He was quick to make the correction, "Or a block party!"

He immediately apologized. "Sorry about that slipup there," he said somberly to his audience. "I have no idea how that happened. But it won't happen again." Once off the air, he dialed his mother in Florida. "When she answered, I said, 'Don't know if you were watching, but I'm sorry about that. It was an accident.' She said, 'Oh son, I know. It's fine.' "

A few years later, there was another high-profile blooper: In 2005, while reporting from Rome, Smith announced the passing of Pope John Paul II a day before he died. There were extenuating circumstances, including bad information from a producer, but he took full responsibility for the error.

"Anything that came out of my mouth was my fault. It was not a proud moment," he says.

Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik recalls his reaction to Smith at the time of the pope mishap. "I saw him as a jump-the-gun hot dog looking to make a name for himself, a cowboy," says Zurawik. But after years of watching him on the air, Zurawik has come to believe, "This guy might be as good as anybody doing this. Who's better? He has helped make Fox News more credible to me." Zurawik wrote a congratulatory column on Smith's 10th anniversary at "Fox Report."

So how did the F-word tumble out during that April Webcast? "I wasn't in a TV mode. I was hanging out up there; it's supposed to be looser" in cyberspace, Smith says. "It was astounding to me that people were trying to come up with some way to rationalize torture. I wasn't happy at the moment. Then that word came out. I dropped the F-bomb."

That wasn't the first time he lost his cool in public. Smith was arrested on November 17, 2000, after an altercation with another journalist over a parking space outside the Capitol in Tallahassee during the presidential vote recount. He was charged with aggravated battery with a motor vehicle, a felony, and released on $10,000 bond. According to police reports, Smith pulled up and yelled at a reporter to move as she attempted to save a parking space for coworkers. When she refused, he shouted an obscenity and "hit the gas."

The woman was treated for bruises at a Tallahassee hospital and released that same day. According to news accounts, the charge later was dismissed when the two reached agreement for an undisclosed sum. Smith admits, "I could have handled that better."

The sun is fading and the anchor who knows everyone in the place calls out greetings as he walks through the corridors in the headquarters of News Corp., which owns Fox News Channel and is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Smith is heading to do the 7 p.m. "Fox Report." Some members of his camera crew come into the glitzy red, white and blue studio on the 12th floor bundled up in sweaters and jackets. Smith likes it cool in there. The anchor is wearing a gray pinstriped suit accented by a red tie. He is poring over copy and fidgeting a bit, tugging at the back of his jacket and adjusting the tie. Somebody is counting down--"one minute, 45 seconds.."--and finally, he is welcoming his 1.8 million viewers with the familiar, "I'm Shepard Smith. This is Fox News." He leads with Iran firing a missile and asks, "How worried should we really be about this?" After that, he moves to surging violence in Afghanistan and turns to Fox's White House correspondent, Major Garrett, to "get us up to speed on that."

Later in the broadcast comes a story that is vintage Smith: There is a controversy brewing in Kentucky after a football coach organized a church trip that included a mass baptism of some of his players. "And, they got video of it all," Smith tells viewers. "We're told nine players were submerged in water." During the hour, the anchor is in constant motion. He walks up a few steps and introduces the news standing on a platform suspended from the ceiling. It looks like something constructed for a circus performance. Then he is standing on a Lucite desk with a metal base. Imagine Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley standing on a desk.

After a commercial break, Smith is seated at the desk with the cube, a gigantic multi-screened psychedelic prop designed just for him, beaming images in the background.

When commercials are on, he glances at his BlackBerry and scrolls through headlines on a computer. His camera crew is young and agile--they shove equipment around as he bounces right, left, from desk to floor. Staffers call the state-of-art studio, built to suit his style, "Shep's playroom."

Smith has earned his status as the golden boy of Fox's news division. Yet there is an inevitable tension between his role and the network's as the voice of conservatism in America. Both Smith and Fox executives talk about a firewall between news and the channel's pundits. But it's not always easy for Smith to distance himself.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich highlighted one episode that underscores the contrast in a June 14 column. He quoted Smith as saying, "If you're one who believes that abortion is murder, at what point do you go out and kill someone who's performing abortions?" Dr. George Tiller's killer, Smith told viewers, provided an answer. (Tiller, a doctor who performed abortions, was murdered May 31 while inside his Kansas church.)

"These are extraordinary words to hear on Fox," Rich wrote. He noted that the network's star, Bill O'Reilly, had "assailed" Tiller, calling him "Tiller the baby killer" and likening him to the Nazis on 29 of his shows before the doctor was murdered.

Media Matters' Boehlert wrote that "Smith for years has publicly defended [Roger] Ailes' credo of 'fair and balanced,' but it's hard to see how the anchor believes it anymore, as he watches the channel he works for actively rile up the right-wing crazies."

Smith loses patience with the notion that he is somehow tainted by what goes on during the 22 hours a day when he's not on the air. "We make a conscious effort, every day, every moment, to separate straight news from opinion shows. I deliver straight news, that's it. They do their thing, I do mine," Smith says, irritated that the subject even came up.

"There is a perception from outside that we are just one thing, that this thing is soup. It's not soup. If it were soup it would not work, we couldn't have a newscast."

On a segment of his newscast earlier this year, he appeared to be mocking Glenn Beck over a new Friday program being heavily promoted by Fox. It was all in good fun, he says. "Glenn came in and hugged me after and thanked me for the publicity," Smith says. He compares the two main dimensions of Fox--news and punditry--to a family. It can be dysfunctional at times, "but at the end of the day we all love each other."

For eight years, the voluble host of Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor" has occupied an office next to Smith's. "I'm trying to get him booted out. I'd like to put a Jacuzzi in there," Bill O'Reilly quipped during a telephone interview in October. On a more serious note, he says there is no sharing of information or collaboration between Smith and pundits like himself. Asked about Shep's takedown of Joe the Plumber during the presidential campaign, O'Reilly says, "It wouldn't be something we would discuss."

O'Reilly describes Smith as "a Southern guy who doesn't take himself all that seriously. There's a twinkle in his eye. He gets upset sometimes when he sees injustice. I like that. I think that's needed... Basically, he is very accessible to the folks. The folks believe he's one of them, not some anchorman from Mount Olympus."

Fox Vice President Clemente and Smith both draw parallels to the separation of news pages and opinion sections at newspapers.

Bob Zelnick, a former TV reporter for ABC who watches Smith's news shows more than 50 percent of the time, doesn't buy the idea that Fox keeps the anchor around to add ideological balance to programming as some might assume. The real reason, he says, lies in those sky-high Nielsen ratings and Smith's appeal to younger viewers.

"If you look at his show, what hits me repeatedly is the pitch to youth, not the 12-year-olds, but the 25-year-olds. There's more crime, more high-speed cop chases, more murders, all the things you would associate with tabloid journalism," says Zelnick, a journalism professor at Boston University. "I do not equate tabloid necessarily with bad journalism."

Zelnick defines what Smith does as "flashier, thematic and jazzier, with a lot of stories selected for their emotional impact. How many times do you turn Shep on and see a dog stranded in a car at a flood site?"

Smith was scheduled to call me at 4:15 p.m. on September 30 for an interview to tie up loose ends for this piece. The telephone rang precisely on time and the deep, rich voice was on the line talking about the terrible drubbing his nationally ranked Ole Miss Rebels had taken at the hands of South Carolina the Saturday before.

For all his wealth and VIP status, he remains approachable, down-to-earth. When he was informed that fellow Mississippian Jerry Mitchell, a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, had won a $500,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, he was effusive. He applauds Mitchell's reporting on cold-case murders from the civil rights era. So, where does he see himself in 10 years?

"I don't have any idea. I have been thinking about that sort of thing a lot lately. I've been doing this for a long time," he says. He has about 18 months left on his contract; after that, "I don't know what the company will want or what I will want. I don't know what opportunities might be out there."

And then there's the lure of Mississippi. Smith's office is a shrine to the University of Mississippi in Oxford. An Ole Miss doormat welcomes visitors. A pictorial history of the school sits on a coffee table in front of the couch. A football signed by New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a standout at Ole Miss, rests on a shelf. He owns a house in Oxford; his father lives a few miles down the road. They go to home games together.

He calls The Grove, a spot on campus where people gather to tailgate, "my happiest place. This is where I feel the best on a sunny day in the fall. It's very, very simple and pure."

Smith also recognizes the needs of his home state. At some point he wants to be in a position to raise money and awareness on health and education issues for a place he describes as "a little behind." "I've been a very fortunate guy, and I've got to get down there and give back a little bit."