At first glance, Fox News chief news anchor Shepard Smith and his employer share an odd relationship.
The broadcaster is an openly gay man at a network that regularly espouses Christian conservative values. He reports the news — quite well, by most accounts — instead of shouting rhetoric as per his colleague Sean Hannity. Smith has a long history of angering many viewers when he dismantles pet conspiracy theories, and he openly criticizes the network. During a single speech last year he called Fox both “the craziest conservative network on Earth” and “the freaky place where I’m working right now.”
Nonetheless, Fox News re-signed Smith to a new multiyear contract, the network said on Thursday. It did not specify how many years. He also gave an interview to Time, in which he suggested one of his main reasons for staying was concern about how Fox might replace him.
“I wonder, if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place in this place that is most watched, most listened, most viewed, most trusted?” he told Time. “I don’t know.”
Despite the fact that Smith is becoming known as a critic of some Fox commentary, the news release announcing his contract carried no hint of discontent.
“Shepard Smith is an exemplary journalist whose skill in anchoring breaking news is unrivaled. His powerful storytelling on both television and digital platforms has elevated our entire news gathering process,” Fox News chief executive Rupert Murdoch said in the announcement.
Smith, 54, grew up in the small town of Holly Springs, Miss., and studied journalism at the University of Mississippi’s Meek School of Journalism and New Media, where he was quickly pegged as a rising star.
The late Jim Pratt, who taught broadcast journalism at Ole Miss, “immediately identified Shep as this young guy who would have a great future,” Meek School Dean Will Norton Jr. told the Clarion-Ledger.
But Smith never graduated. He left for an internship in Florida during his junior year and decided to stay there and not return to school, according to the newspaper.
When Norton found out, he said, “my immediate response was, ‘Well, he’ll never amount to anything.’ ”
Smith has been with the network since it was founded in 1996 — and he staunchly defends its news coverage.
“I am incredibly proud to be part of a group of journalists who helped build the FOX news division from scratch 22 years ago and extremely thankful for the opportunity to continue to lead our breaking news coverage for years to come,” he said in a news release. “Our team’s commitment to delivering facts to our loyal viewers in context and with perspective, without fear or favor, is unwavering.”
But he’s not blind to the image of Fox as biased, a reputation he claims is earned not through its handling of the news but through its commentators, such as Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and, until recently, Bill O’Reilly.
“People who maybe aren’t with us all the time who aren’t regular watchers, maybe there is some sort of confusion about what’s opinion and what’s news, but I think our audience understands the difference and comes to us when they need us,” Smith told Time magazine in its current edition.
“I get it, that some of our opinion programming is there strictly to be entertaining. I get that,” he told the magazine. “I don’t work there. I wouldn’t work there. I don’t want to sit around and yell at each other and talk about your philosophy and my philosophy. That sounds horrible to me.”
Smith has been beating this particular drum for years, both defending and complaining about the network.
“Everybody’s got a job to do,” he told HuffPost in October 2016, as he again defended the network’s news coverage.
“Hannity is trying to get conservatives elected. And he wants you to listen to him and believe what he believes,” Smith continued. “And I’m disseminating facts. It’s really apples and teaspoons. What we do is so different. He’s an entertaining guy who has an audience that he serves, and I deliver the news.”
Hannity’s job “is probably easier ― he knows what he thinks and just sticks with it,” Smith added. “This stuff changes all the time.”
That hasn’t stopped the network’s viewers from pushing against the anchor. As The Post’s Paul Farhi wrote, “Smith’s persistent fact-mongering has made him persona non grata among some parts of the Fox News faithful.”
That extends to his colleagues, whom Smith has angered in the past, such as when he debunked the belief by some on his own network that there was “a link between donations to the Clinton Foundation and the approval of a deal by the State Department and the Obama administration allowing a Russian company to purchase a Canada-based mining group with operations in the United States,” as The Post’s Fred Barbash wrote.
Nevertheless, Smith persists.
Part of the reason might come from Murdoch’s reported push for more news programming at the network. Smith told the HuffPost in 2016 that when Murdoch took over the network, he said: ” ‘I’m a newsman. I want to be the best news organization in America.’ ”
“He wants to hire a lot more journalists, he wants to build us a massive new newsroom, he wants to make more commitments to places like this [studio], to hire reporters to work on beats, just enlarge our news-gathering,” Smith added. “When the biggest boss, who controls everything, comes and says, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ that’s the greatest news I’ve heard in years. And he didn’t mention one thing about our opinion side.”
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