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Shepard Smith, leaning against prevailing winds on Fox News

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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.

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"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."


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