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.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program.