Shepard Smith, leaning against prevailing winds on Fox News

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

NEW YORK -- Shepard Smith had barely started his program when a Fox News producer told him that their reporter had snagged an interview with Chris Christie, the challenger locked in a tight race with New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.

"Here I am, the face of the network, it's a week before the election, and our station is about to put a Republican on live and have nothing from the Democrat," Smith recalls now. He reacted viscerally at the time, telling viewers: "Wow. . . . My apologies for the lack of balance. If I had control, it wouldn't have happened."

Seated in his Sixth Avenue office with an erect posture that matches his caffeinated style, Smith says he was unaware that correspondent Shannon Bream had grabbed Christie on the fly. "I came off looking condescending," he says. "I handled it poorly."

But the on-air rebuke underscored Smith's status as an outspoken newsman at the network defined by high-decibel conservatives, a stance that has earned him respect even from some Fox-hating liberals.

When he offers hints of his personal views -- usually on the 3 p.m. "Studio B," which Smith describes as a "completely different monster" from his evening newscast -- they often challenge right-wing orthodoxy. But the 45-year-old anchor with the brash style and booming voice betrays no discomfort over sharing the stage with the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck.

Instead, he says he is proud to work for a cable channel that has stuck with the 7 p.m. "Fox Report," where Smith just celebrated his 10th anniversary as anchor. "Think of the ratings difference if they were to put opinion in" at that hour, he says.

Not that Smith's ratings are anemic. He has drawn an impressive 1.87 million viewers this year, up 18 percent over 2008, while his chief rivals were losing audience share. Lou Dobbs, who abruptly quit CNN last week, had been drawing 759,000 viewers, while MSNBC's Chris Matthews is averaging 714,000 for a rerun of "Hardball."

As for some of the more inflammatory rhetoric heard on Fox, Smith deflects a question about Beck calling Barack Obama a racist, saying he always uses the terms "President" and "Mr." At the same time, he credits his pugnaciously conservative colleagues for his own sizable budget. "Our newscast is better because our opinion programs are successful," he says.

Michael Clemente, Fox's senior vice president, says Smith's greatest asset is his passion. "He sort of wakes up with the curiosity to find out what's going on and brings that energy home to the viewer," Clemente says. "He gets very excited about car chases. . . . He happens to be a nice-looking guy as well -- good pipes, he's got the whole tool kit."

Fox's opinion-driven programming sometimes bleeds over into its news hours, when much of the network helps drive such stories as the ACORN scandal and Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Smith, for one, did not play up those story lines.

Smith notes that he interviewed former Bush adviser Karl Rove and Democratic strategist Joe Trippi this month on election night. But Rove is a Fox contributor who appears regularly, almost always by himself, and Trippi is not part of the Fox team. In fact, Fox has no liberal commentator with the stature or ubiquity of Rove or Newt Gingrich.

To Smith, the recent White House attacks on Fox as a wing of the Republican Party are off base -- and have clearly backfired. "We're at the top of every blog and every newspaper every day," he says. "You know what that does? That raises our profile."

Smith's own profile is growing as well, thanks to appearances on such programs as "The View" and a new Web page with behind-the-scenes video that highlight Shep's goofy side, as he banters with his staff. Verizon recently launched a multimillion-dollar arrangement to be the sole sponsor of the "Fox Report" on the first Monday of each month, providing more minutes for news.

A college dropout from Holly Springs, Miss. -- Smith still has a home in the state and regularly returns for family gatherings and Ole Miss football games -- he brings a local-news sensibility to the job, casually addressing viewers like old friends. Although he no longer races through stories at breakneck speed, Smith obviously never went to anchor finishing school.

His blunt style was on display during last year's campaign when he eviscerated Joe the Plumber -- a frequent Hannity guest -- for claiming that Obama's election would destroy Israel. "I just want to make this 100 percent perfectly clear: Barack Obama has said repeatedly and demonstrated repeatedly that Israel will always be a friend to the United States no matter what happens once he becomes president -- his words," Smith said.

During an interview last month with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Smith was sympathetic to Obama's proposal for a government-run health insurance option. "Every vote against the public option is a vote for the insurance companies," Smith said, complaining about overcharging by insurance companies and adding: "It seems like we, the people, are the ones getting the shaft here."

With his rapid-fire delivery, Smith has slipped and uttered obscenities on the air. In April, during an online Fox discussion about interrogation techniques used on detainees, Smith banged the table and dropped the F-bomb, declaring: "We are America! I don't give a rat's ass if it helps. We are America! We do not [expletive] torture!"

And Smith attracted considerable attention in June, after the fatal shooting of a guard at the Holocaust museum in Washington, when he said the e-mail he receives at Fox "has become more and more frightening" and that some people are "so angry, for reasons that are absolutely wrong, ridiculous, preposterous."

He quoted from one such letter: "Shepard, how dare you tell us to get over Obama not being a U.S. citizen? Where is the birth certificate?. . . . I cannot stand Hussein, he is a socialist Marxist."

Rush Limbaugh chided Smith for "whining and moaning," but the anchor drew plaudits from liberal New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Frank Rich. "Some figures in the conservative media have refused to go along with the big hate -- people like Fox's Shepard Smith," Krugman wrote.

Smith, whose office is festooned with Ole Miss pennants and paraphernalia, draws an analogy involving his alma mater and its rival, Louisiana State University. "Because I love Ole Miss, I hate LSU," he says. "I want them to lose every game in every sport until the day I die. I might say in a fit of passion I hope it burns to the ground -- but that doesn't mean anything.

"That's how people are with Fox. They decide that Fox is the thing they love or the thing they hate."

Or, in some cases, the thing they ridicule. Despite his independent credentials, Smith found himself unfairly lumped in with the likes of Rove during a "Saturday Night Live" skit two weeks ago. He was portrayed as devilishly smirking while delivering election results that he gloated were a "death knell for the Obama administration."

Smith laughs it off: "My dad -- 81 and the coolest guy who ever lived -- said you know you've made it when you're parodied on 'Saturday Night Live.' "

As 'GMA' turns

George Stephanopoulos, the leading candidate for co-host of "Good Morning America," has let it be known that he is not willing to join the program unless it is significantly changed to suit him.

Recognizing that his strengths are in politics and hard news, Stephanopoulos has communicated to ABC that he would not want to spend considerable time doing fluffy features, network sources say. If the show cannot be reshaped to suit his interviewing talents, Stephanopoulos has argued, the move would be risky and he would prefer to remain as host of "This Week."

But another ABC insider says any new anchor joining forces with Robin Roberts would require adjustments, and the program's essential DNA will not change.

There are also growing questions whether the other candidate, Chris Cuomo, would stay as "GMA" news anchor if Stephanopoulos is tapped to succeed Diane Sawyer. In a meeting last week with ABC News President David Westin, Cuomo, who is being courted by other networks, indicated he enjoys the show and is open to remaining if he is passed over, the sources say. ABC executives told Cuomo they will make him a strong offer to keep him at the network but made no commitment about "GMA." The network plans to make a decision by mid-December.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company