NEW YORK -- Slipping into a tracking booth to record headlines for his 7 p.m. national newscast, Shepard Smith bellows: "Bus meets semi in Florida, children critically injured."
Why is Smith trumpeting a local accident as his third major story, before the FBI's blunders in failing to detect the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers?
"Good pictures, and kids are involved," he says.
They call him the anti-anchor here in the Fox News building, the sometimes smirking man from Holly Springs, Miss., whom nobody would confuse with Bob Schieffer or Brian Williams. Smith presides over a breathless, mile-a-minute, graphics-laden, video-saturated program that careens from war to missing women to what Smith calls "goofy things."
"It won't kill us to give 20 seconds of cute dogs," he says.
When he took over the "Fox Report" in 1999, Smith says, "I wanted to do it faster and not waste people's time. If it's only worth 15 seconds, it's only 15 seconds. 'Stocks are up today,' boom, next. . . . Our theory was simple: Give it to me rat-a-tat-tat. Have a little fun. Everything doesn't have to be in-depth."
Indeed, by barreling through 60 to 70 stories in an hour, many of them 20 or 25 seconds each, Smith clearly sacrifices depth. He runs a few of the taped packages that are a mainstay of network newscasts -- which he dismisses as "formulaic" -- but the program is basically Smith as NASCAR driver, racing through the news at breakneck speed.
The 41-year-old college dropout not only hogs the airtime, he uses slang-filled, stripped-down language that he likens to storytelling on Mississippi front porches. Smith's "smart-aleck" style helps to "puncture the pomposity" of news, says media analyst Andrew Tyndall. As for the pace of the program, Tyndall says, "The only place I've seen an equivalent velocity would be on the tabloid entertainment shows."
This has brought box office success. The show is drawing nearly 1.4 million viewers, up 62 percent from 2001 and beating CNN and MSNBC combined.
Unlike a number of Fox anchors, Smith hasn't been accused of pushing a conservative agenda. He says he keeps his opinions to himself and doesn't "bloviate" about the news like Bill O'Reilly, who follows him. "We're under a real microscope here," he says.
Fox News Senior Vice President John Moody says he sometimes pushes producer Jay Wallace to cover such developments as a new president suddenly appointed in Bolivia. "Jay throws me a bone and does a few international stories," Moody says. "There's a certain push-pull. They want to do stories that are going to get people's attention."
As for the show's closing "G Block," which often features celebrity news and gossip, Moody says: "I often suggest we might want to preempt that for news. It's all about things like Angelina Jolie's tattoo."
The man everyone calls Shep has a knack for getting himself into trouble, but Fox executives believe that only adds to his rebel image. On the air in 2002, he meant to say that some people in the Bronx, where Jennifer Lopez was filming a video, sounded "more likely to give her a curb job than a" -- but uttered a street term for oral sex rather than the scripted "block party."
"My life flashed before my eyes," says Smith, who immediately apologized. "You just can't say that on television. The first thing I thought about was my poor mother." The flub became huge when the clip rocketed across the Internet and was picked up by Howard Stern.
Smith also drew negative headlines for his arrest in Tallahassee during the 2000 presidential recount when he was accused of running his car into a producer trying to save a parking space, a charge that was reduced to misdemeanor battery and settled with the producer. "I didn't run over a woman; we had a disagreement," Smith says, conceding only that "I was not as calm as I could have been."
In April, using bad information from a producer, Smith announced the passing of Pope John Paul II a day before he died. "Nobody's sorrier about that than I am," he says.
Smith apologized to Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, who asked him if he'd ever played basketball. "You missed a basket, you didn't blow the game," Ailes recalls saying. "Now go play the game and win."
Smith, who grew up with just two television stations -- only CBS and PBS signals reached his town -- had a series of local TV reporting jobs around the country until he was covering the 1996 standoff involving Montana's anti-government Freemen for Fox's affiliate service. "I watched him anchor with no assets, no support and no diva act," Ailes recalls. "I said, 'You know, that guy's really good.' "
Smith was constantly on the road for Fox, covering hurricanes, floods and murders, and had no desire to anchor. But with his contract nearing expiration six years ago, he says, "I didn't have any sense from management that they were trying to keep me." He volunteered to anchor -- originally doing news cut-ins on the midnight-to-6 a.m. shift -- to get some tape he could use while job-hunting. Instead, Smith was given a "Fox Report" tryout and never left.
He keeps an eye on the CBS, NBC and ABC newscasts before he goes on, "but I could not care less what they lead with. I could not care less what's above the fold in The Washington Post or New York Times or Washington Times or New York Post."
On a recent Friday, Smith is doing his 3 p.m. program, "Studio B," and teases a report on the still-pending Michael Jackson case. "One week since they got the case and still nothing," he says.
When two lawyers debating Jackson's guilt or innocence run a bit long, Wallace says in the control room, "Music, please." The two men keep talking. "You guys hear the orchestra?" Smith says on the air. "We pay the orchestra by the note, and if we pay the orchestra too much, we won't have the money to cover this thing."
Back at his desk in the newsroom, Smith downs a Snickers bar, sips a Diet Pepsi, checks his BlackBerry and rewrites one "Fox Report" script after another. One says: "New questions about schools that promise to reform troubled teens." He changes that to: "Discipline in schools -- what's happening with your kids tonight? When does punishment become abuse, and who should decide?" Moments later he changes it again.
What Smith brashly brands "America's Newscast" leads with Hurricane Arlene, deals with several serious subjects (South Korea, hybrid cars, a U.N. scandal) but also seizes opportunities to run meaningless items with eye-catching video. In "Across America," Smith narrates as a Michigan truck slams into a motorcycle shop, 14 cars pile up on a Long Island highway and 100 couples get married in Las Vegas. "Around the World in 80 Seconds" ranges from flooding in China to a Japanese student setting off a jar of gunpowder. The "G Block" has Katie Holmes chatting with David Letterman about Tom Cruise.
Smith knows his style has its detractors. "Some people don't like it, and that's fine," he says.
Sorry, Gotta Run
CNN's Andrea Koppel, who usually covers global diplomacy, was chatting up Angelina Jolie about her work for the U.N. Refugee Agency last week when she changed the subject to "the tabloids focusing so much attention on your sex life" and began asking about "your former co-star" in the movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
A moment later, Jolie's handlers ended the interview. "I thought I could get in a quick one on Brad Pitt and whether she was dating him," Koppel says. "Hey, listen, we know which side our bread is buttered on." She says Jolie's people may have ended the sit-down because it was running long.
Update: Maybe this Variety item sheds light on what was going on:
"Legal reps for Angelina Jolie gave journos a jolt during the run-up to 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith' with a legal agreement that attempted to set new precedent in the already tense relations between celebs and the press.
"The agreement, faxed to journos from the law firm Sloane, Offer, Webster & Dern, demanded as a condition of an interview with Jolie that journalists agree to not ask any questions about 'personal relationships,' that the interview 'only be used to promote the picture,' and, incredibly, that the interview 'not be used in a manner that is disparaging, demeaning and derogatory.'
"Junket vets are accustomed to pre-interview agreements. But journos carped that the Jolie agreement took media management to an absurd level, and that even if they wanted to sign, their lawyers wouldn't allow them to agree to such a broad and vague contract."
I love the part about the interview may "only be used to promote the picture" (as opposed to committing journalism?) Koppel told me she wasn't asked to sign any agreement.
Did Biden just throw his hat into the '08 ring, as AP | http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2005-06-19-biden-2008_x.htm?POE=NEWISVA suggests? Lots of qualifiers here, especially since Biden kept saying he might run last time and then didn't:
"Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Sunday he intends to run for president in 2008.
"But Biden, who also sought the nomination in 1988, said he would give himself until the end of this year to determine if he really can raise enough money and attract enough support.
"Going after the nomination "is a real possibility," he said on CBS' Face the Nation.
" 'My intention, as I sit here now, is, as I've proceeded since last November as if I were going to run. I'm quite frankly going out, seeing whether I can gather the kind of support,' Biden said.
"Biden said he was taking his 'game on the road, letting people know what I think.'
"He added, 'If, in fact, I think that I have a clear shot at winning the nomination by this November or December, then I'm going to seek the nomination.'
Robert Byrd says in a new memoir that his long-ago Klan membership "has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me," The Washington Post | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/18/AR2005061801105.html reports. Gee, I wonder why that is. The book doesn't mention a 1945 letter in which Byrd said he'd rather die than fight in an integrated Army "degraded by race mongrels."
Looks like the mother of all court battles will soon begin, as this New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/06/20/politics/20letter.html?hp&ex=1119240000&en=ad54de6affcca09b&ei=5094&partner=homepage piece suggests:
"Conservative groups held a briefing last week at the National Press Club and promised to spend more than $20 million promoting whomever President Bush nominates to replace Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, should the ailing chief justice retire at the end of the court's term in June, as many expect. "The liberal group People for the American Way countered with the threat of its 45-computer war room on M Street and a coalition of 70 other groups to fight back.
"Caught in the middle was the White House, which had its own war plan but would not say so publicly for fear of looking ghoulish. After all, the intentions of the 80-year-old chief justice, who has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments for thyroid cancer, remain mysterious."
The WashPost | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/18/AR2005061801233.html says there are three leading candidates--one of whom, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, isn't deemed conservative enough.
The liberal drumbeat against the White House stance on Iraq is growing louder, and Arianna Huffington | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/theblog/archive/arianna-huffington/bush-finally-proposes-a-s_2769.html rolls out the ridicule:
"After 28 months of mounting U.S. losses in Iraq, after polls that say six in 10 Americans want the U.S. to withdraw some or all of the nearly 140,000 troops there, after lawmakers from both parties have introduced resolutions in both houses demanding the President come up with some kind -- any kind -- of exit strategy, after yet another deadly day . . . the president has finally admitted that some changes are needed.
"And that's why he's decided to take the bold step of . . . changing rhetoric. So the self-proclaimed 'war president' plans to 'dedicate several speeches to the war.'
"That's right, after 28 months of this disastrous war (June now ranks as the fourth deadliest month for American soldiers) the president has come to the tough conclusion that what the public needs is more lies, more spin, more rationalizations of failed policies and dishonest leadership. In short, better PR.
"Well, I'm sure that will help quell the insurgency, bring Sunnis to the political table, train Iraqi troops faster, and convince other countries to take some of the deadly burden off American troops.
"Note to the White House: giving bad policy a new coat of paint doesn't change the policy. Only changing policy changes the policy. Seems obvious, right? Not to team Bush."
Fred Barnes | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/005/728flpwh.asp says Bush isn't unpopular, he's just . . . ambitious:
"Bush doesn't have the second-term blues, his administration hasn't lost its zeal, and he hasn't been troubled by scandal or the lack of a clear policy agenda. Nor is he suffering solely from his single-minded pursuit of Social Security reform. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the president has taken on a string of big issues -- Iraq, a drastic foreign-policy overhaul, judges, plus Social Security -- with predictable results. These are issues that generate political conflict. They upset settled practice, rile various institutions, stir strong opposition, and keep poll ratings low. For an activist president, lack of popularity is part of the package.
"It's sad but true that our political system, assuming the economy is not in the tank, rewards presidents (and sometimes governors) for doing little. President Clinton benefited from this. His second term was largely unproductive. He balked at Social Security or Medicare reform. The war he fought in the Balkans consisted of bombs dropped from such high altitudes that American warplanes faced minimal risk. He refused to consider sending ground troops. The result: no American casualties. He did nothing to ease the stock-market bubble or deal with the looming recession. He got along with France. . . .
"His best strategy may be to promote his policies more aggressively than ever, ignore falling poll numbers, and hope for the best. Crossing the finish line of his presidency with record low popularity may turn out to be a sign of substantive achievement and lasting reform."
Barnes is right that presidents spend their popularity on tough issues. But it's hard to imagine him being this sympathetic to a Democratic president with sinking poll numbers.
Michael Smith | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/06/14/DI2005061401261.html, the Sunday Times of London reporter who broke the Downing Street Memo story, was asked in a washingtonpost.com discussion whether there was any ambiguity about the money phrase from the document, saying that in the Bush administration, "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." His response:
"This is a real joke. I do not know anyone in the UK who took it to mean anything other than fixed as in fixed a race, fixed an election, fixed the intelligence. If you fix something, you make it the way you want it. The intelligence was fixed and as for the reports that said this was one British official. Pleeeaaassee! This was the head of MI6. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. That translates in clearer terms as the intelligence was being cooked to match what the administration wanted it to say to justify invading Iraq. Fixed means the same here as it does there."
But Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters is likening the Downing Street haul to CBS's National Guard documents because Smith has "admitted that the memos he used are not originals, but retyped copies.
"The eight memos -- all labeled 'secret' or 'confidential' -- were first obtained by British reporter Michael Smith, who has written about them in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times.
"Smith told AP he protected the identity of the source he had obtained the documents from by typing copies of them on plain paper and destroying the originals.
"The AP obtained copies of six of the memos (the other two have circulated widely). A senior British official who reviewed the copies said their content appeared authentic. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of the material. . . .
"Why would a reporter do such a thing? While reporters need to protect their sources, at some point stories based on official documents will require authentication -- and as we have seen with the Killian memos, copies make that impossible."
Of course, no British official has said they were fake.
Is Jon Klein trying to make CNN more like "60 Minutes" (even though it's got 1,440 minutes a day)? Newsweek | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8272375/site/newsweek/ says yes. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, is close to a deal with Time Warner cable to carry a new Fox business channel, says the WSJ.
The NYT's new public editor Byron Calame | http://nytimes.com/2005/06/19/opinion/19public.html?hp has looked at complaints that the paper's story | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/31/national/31planes.html?ex=1119326400&en=dc0db83c863a4fda&ei=5070 on air operations for transporting suspected terrorists compromised security and notes that not even the CIA has objected.