Smith gives Fox News even-tempered voice
It's just minutes after the June 10 shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Fox News anchor Shepard Smith is on the air, and he is shaking his head.
Gone is the easygoing, good-natured anchor of "Studio B" of a few days earlier, when Smith deftly extracted the precise amount of information needed from an overexcited eyewitness to a tornado before easing him off the air, then teased the program's stage manager about a viewer's claim that he wanted to date her -- "Ed, her husband, wouldn't like that. She's great with child" -- and then had the cameras cut to a shot of a sheepish, pregnant stage manager, smiling.
Instead, on this day, in somber baritone, Smith is talking over live video of the chaotic post-shooting scene, about the e-mails he gets every day from the "fringe" -- the ones that declare President Barack Obama wasn't born in the United States, the ones that claim he's "a socialist Marxist who is at a fast rate destroying this country," the ones that, Smith says, have "become more and more frightening. It's not a new thing ... it's been happening to a degree since the election."
It's vintage Smith, a truth-telling moment that can veer into either outrage or humor -- with conservatives (mostly) the unspoken target -- which the 44-year-old Mississippi native has repeatedly engaged in since joining Fox News at its founding in 1996. There were his incensed reports at the government's botched relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina; his calling out of Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher during last year's campaign for claiming that Mr. Obama's election would be "death" to Israel; and recently, during a Web-only broadcast about the Obama administration's release of torture memos, an exercised Smith dropped the "F" bomb, declaring that America doesn't torture.
"Ohhhhh," he sighs in that deep broadcaster's rumble that sometimes, weirdly, resembles nothing so much as Bing Crosby's when expressing sorrow at Bob Hope's shenanigans.
"I did drop the F-bomb. I'm better than that, I shouldn't have done that," he says then repeated. "I wish I hadn't done that, I'm better than that."
Then, warming to the subject at hand, Smith's voice rises.
"I'm proud of the fact that America doesn't torture, and over time, we, our government, of, by and for us, has done things in the heat of the moment that we've later realized were wrong. In many cases we've apologized for such things, made reparations for such things, but in all cases we've gotten back to our centers, and our center is we're America, we don't torture."
Are these outbursts those of a straightforward newsman? No, but Smith insists what he does is news, and in doing so, defies the Fox News stereotype as an exclusive bastion of right-wing opinion.
As he and any Fox News official will be quick to point out, seven hours of Fox's original programming is devoted to opinion, the other 10 to news, and for two of those news hours, Smith can be found hosting the free-wheeling afternoon show "Studio B" -- which, during the Holocaust shooting, posted higher ratings than CNN and MSNBC combined -- and the more straightforward "Fox Report" at 7 p.m.
"We wake up to find out what the truth is, to speak to truth to power and then report what we've learned," Smith said in a phone interview. "I've always thought of it as a pretty heavy thing that we do. We have an enormous responsibility, and I take it very seriously."
Perhaps a little too seriously for some conservatives.
Shortly after Smith's broadcast, the right-wing blogosphere erupted with demands for his firing. Rush Limbaugh called Smith's claims "simply preposterous" and mocked him for "whining and moaning and complaining," noting that he wasn't the only recipient of such hate mail. Even Glenn Beck -- whom Smith describes as a "good new friend" -- jumped in, claiming he gets "more e-mail from fringe groups than anybody out there."
Smith won't say if he's a Republican or a Democrat. He doesn't like politics much at all, in fact, and he claims no friction with Beck or Sean Hannity or Bill O'Reilly.
"There are all kinds of people in families. Mine, at least, we all get along great. There are some ideologues around here. People have different political backgrounds and all of that, but I don't play on that field. I just do the news."
Indeed, by showcasing Smith as its lead news anchor at a cable channel known mostly for its fiery conservative commentators, Fox News is trying to show that its brand is more diverse than it gets credit for -- and to grow its already sizable audience, which, in the age of Obama, has been flocking to the cable channel in droves.
It's not completely clear if those exploding ratings are being fanned by the O'Reillys of the world or because Smith, as Fox's face of news, is, perhaps, perceived as more energetic or less of a bloviator than his counterparts at CNN or MSNBC.
It's a strategy that seems to be working. Fox is the second highest-rated cable network in prime time after USA Channel and the highest rated cable news network overall, beating all of its rivals combined. Not unsurprisingly, Fox's news executives see the ratings as confirmation of the credibility and believability of its news team, as fronted by Smith.
"Whoever has the best facts on the table wins with the audience," says Michael Clemente, senior vice president for editorial at Fox. "I think it's human nature to try to position everyone, to frame them up in three simple words, this person's this, that, tall, or short or blond, brunette, whatever and that's way too simple." Smith recalls, during his years in the trenches of local TV news, working "in a lot of places where management wants you to do news a certain way. Here, they just let us do. They just let us do. On the news side, Roger Ailes [Fox News' founder] has never, from the moment I walked in this door, never said we should cover a story one way or the other."
Raised in the small town of Holly Springs, a suburb of Oxford, Smith graduated from the University of Mississippi before beginning that long journey to the top of television news. For the most part, Smith has let his Southern good ol' boy accent disappear into the blandness of anchorspeak, but it surfaces now and then, "Let me tell you" (pronounced yew).
As a teenager working at a Hardee's, "they didn't want me to work the drive-thru initially because my accent was so thick they didn't understand me -- and that was in Destin, Fla., the Redneck Riviera, so there was a time when it was worse than it is now."
It's a long way, these days, from Hardee's. Smith lives in Manhattan, vacations in the Hamptons, and, even though his $7 million, three-year contract runs out next year, every day swears total fealty to Fox and the man who created it, Roger Ailes.
"I'm loyal to Roger Ailes for giving me this chance and I always will be, because he's always been so loyal and so fair to me," Smith says. "Our top guy is at the top of this industry and everyone in this industry knows it and I'm so lucky to be here. And that sounds like the biggest suckup of the year, but it's a fact."
That obsession with loyalty is endemic within the Fox news organization, as a recent profile in Esquire of Smith noted. It was titled, tellingly, "Because They Hate Us and Want to See Us Fail" -- a quote, he says, from his junior high Spanish teacher when he asked why he had to conjugate a certain verb. Smith, like most of his colleagues at Fox, becomes energized, even feverish, at the notion of "us" versus "them" -- underdogs who have suddenly sprinted into the lead.
"Last night [May 20] we beat every one combined" in the ratings, Smith said. "All of our competition combined. Of course they're going to take shots at us, of course they're going to try and take us down," he says.
"I know who we are and what we are and I" -- pronounced, suddenly going all Southern again, "Ah" -- "love it. And I don't know how many people in our industry feel that way anymore.
"I promise you, on my Nana's grave, that's how I feel."
First Published June 17, 2009 12:00 am