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It’s Shepard Smith time

With his ratings soaring, the Fox News anchor enjoys his moment - and becomes a lightning rod

(Jennifer Taylor for The Boston Globe)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / July 26, 2009

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NEW YORK - Commercial break. The cameras have stopped rolling on the set of “Studio B,’’ the 3 p.m. newscast on the Fox News Channel. So anchor Shepard Smith turns to the computer embedded in his desk and, as he often likes to do for entertainment, starts reading his e-mails aloud.

The subject of the day’s news is post-election unrest in Iran, and some viewers want to know where Smith stands. “Just like Barack, you are a spineless [expletive], just waiting to see how things play out in Iran before you see what side you’re on,’’ Smith intones in a faux-deep voice. “Pick a lane, man, and grow a backbone!’’

Smith does spout strong opinions throughout the day, but they tend to be directed at LSU - the rival of his alma mater, Ole Miss - or at the Red Sox, eternal foes of his beloved New York Yankees. Trash talk comes with the territory; in the main newsroom at Fox News’s Sixth Avenue headquarters, a fan on his desk bears the brand name “Boston,’’ and underneath it, Smith has scrawled the word “Sucks.’’

But Smith’s on-air role is more complex, and the e-mail speaks to its delicate nature. This is a moment of unmatched prominence for the 45-year-old, who is on track to have his best year ever in the ratings. His two hours of live TV every day - “Studio B’’ and the 7 p.m. “Fox Report’’ - both draw more viewers than their CNN and MSNBC competition combined. (“Fox Report,’’ the network’s flagship newscast, was up 39 percent in June from a year ago, with 1.8 million viewers.) Smith is the most prominent anchor on a network that is poised to see its best ratings year ever, with a 50 percent increase in viewers this past quarter for its primetime lineup of conservative hosts. The Obama administration, it seems, is a very good thing for Fox.

But if his network is the voice of opposition, then Smith is the noted exception, a newsman who sometimes draws serious ire from the Fox News conservative base. Earlier this summer, Smith - already known for challenging right-wing talking points from time to time - referred to a controversial report about right-wing extremist groups and complained about some “frightening’’ anti-Obama e-mails sent to the network. Rush Limbaugh responded by mocking Smith on the radio, and some prominent right-wing bloggers said he should be fired. (Smith seems safe, having signed a contract in 2007 for a reported $7 million per year for just over three years.)

That doesn’t stop the critics from complaining, or challenging Smith’s on-air persona. “What is he? Is he a pundit or is he a newscaster?’’ says Pamela Gellar, the editor of the New York-based conservative website Atlas Shrugged, who pronounces Smith “not my cuppa.’’

Smith describes himself as a newscaster. “All we’re really supposed to do is find out what’s happening and tell people about it. You can make that as complicated as you want, but it’s really not,’’ he says in a recent interview.

Still, Smith does more on the air than deliver straight-up headlines. His newscasts are fast-paced, full of motion, and peppered with asides like “Let me say that again,’’ and “Listen to this.’’ He anchors as if he wants to reach through the TV screen, grab you by the lapels, and give you a little shake.

From time to time, Smith seems also to want to shake his guests - albeit a little more roughly. Hence, the viral moments that spread through YouTube after big news events. During last year’s presidential race, Smith confronted the accidental pundit known as “Joe the Plumber’’ on his contention that a vote for Barack Obama would mean “the death of Israel’’; Smith closed out the segment by shaking his head incredulously and saying, “It just gets frightening sometimes.’’ He called out Ralph Nader for saying Obama might become an “Uncle Tom for the giant corporations,’’ asking Nader coldly, “What was that?’’

Rarely, Smith offers hints of his own views: “We are America! We do not [expletive] torture!’’ he said in April in a rare appearance on “Strategy Room,’’ a streaming webcast on foxnews.com. In the throes of Hurricane Katrina coverage in 2005, Smith, reporting on suffering residents of New Orleans, famously challenged conservative Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had called for some “perspective.’’ Smith shouted, “This is all the perspective you need!’’

But Smith’s own perspective is hard to attach to one ideology. Smith defines it as a truth-ferreting impulse, an urge to underscore or skewer the outrageous, no matter where it comes from.

“As a consumer of news, it sometimes aggravates me when people don’t call BS when it’s obvious. And so I do,’’ he says . “To me, it’s not a bias to say, ‘That’s BS.’ It just is.’’

On the bias
The question of bias, of course, is intertwined with the very existence of Fox News. The nearly 13-year-old network has largely earned its notoriety from its lineup of conservative and iconoclastic talk-show hosts, from Hannity to Bill O’Reilly to the newest addition, Glenn Beck, who appears from 5 to 6 p.m. amid what used to be an afternoon news block.

So when one of Smith’s on-air asides seems to counter the right-wing orthodoxy, people take notice - seldom more so than one afternoon in June. Smith was at the helm of breaking news coverage of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, when he cited a Department of Homeland Security report warning that domestic right-wing extremist groups could be gaining more recruits.

“They were warning us for a reason,’’ Smith said on the air. “Not about something political or social or anything else except they see signs that this sort of thing is bubbling up.’’

Hannity and Beck had mocked that same report on air, saying it was a bald attack on conservatives. So critics from both political sides speculated that Smith was calling out his colleagues. Eric Boehlert, from the left-wing website Media Matters, said Smith’s comments “only led in one direction, and that was Fox News.’’ Gellar, of Atlas Shrugged, said Smith was “scolding us.’’

Asked about the controversy, Smith got agitated the way he sometimes does on-air, his baseline persona - Southern, good-humored, gentlemanly - morphing into righteous indignation. He denied, vehemently, that he had been referring to his colleagues.

“People want to turn us against ourselves,’’ he said, his volume rising. “But that’s not how it is. That’s certainly not what I was talking about. . . . To equate anyone in our network with that sort of thing is not even worthy of comment. That’s stupid.’’

It was a fast flash of energy, the type that can make Smith electrifying onscreen. Like the fictional Howard Beale, the mad-as-hell anchor in the 1976 film “Network,’’ he’s a newsman merged with an entertainer. And Smith’s takedowns make for great TV - especially when he’s defending Fox. On “Studio B’’ one day during the presidential race, liberal commentator Naomi Wolf casually told Smith that “for the first time in a long time, people feel we don’t have to hold our nose’’ in the voting booth. When Smith asked if she had held her nose for Bill Clinton or John Kerry, Wolf said sarcastically, “OK, this is why I love Fox News.’’

Smith went ballistic. “You said it! I didn’t say it!’’ he shouted. The tirade went on, and ended with the warning, “Don’t you ‘Fox’ on me, ever!’’

Smith is one of many Fox News journalists who stress a separation between the news and opinion sides: “editorial’’ and “programming,’’ respectively, in the network’s in-house par-lance. But while Smith had his moment with Hannity and has been known to mock Beck on the air, relations are clearly cordial. O’Reilly, who sits in the office next to Smith’s, says his colleague represents the Fox News tradition of “vibrant debate in the hallways.’’

“He’s an independent Southern guy who brings a sensibility of populism to the presentation,’’ O’Reilly says by phone. “He has a very consistent view of life. When he went to Katrina, he was horrified. And he let the audience know he was horrified instead of standing there like a robot.’’

‘For the space between’
Fox journalists also define themselves in opposition to other networks, saying they offer different angles or perspectives.

“We think of ourselves as being a news channel for the space between New York City and Los Angeles,’’ says Jay Wallace, Smith’s longtime producer, who is now the network’s vice president of editorial.

Smith, raised the son of a cotton merchant in Holly Springs, Miss., matches that profile. Not only does he live for Ole Miss, but also he had no childhood ambitions to leave the South. “I wanted to work at WSMV in Nashville with a wife, a kid, a dog and a half, and a car and a half,’’ Smith says.

In fact, he is now divorced, with a place in Greenwich Village, a house in the Hamptons, and a third home in Oxford, Miss., where he returns nearly every weekend during college football season. He worked as a local reporter in Florida before joining Fox News at its inception as a field reporter.

At Fox, Smith quickly gained notice for his ease on the air and his ability to vamp on live TV. Before long, he was filling in on midday anchor slots. And just over 10 years ago, he pitched the idea for an evening news program that was different from the traditional, staid network newscast.

“He always wanted a rat-a-tat type newscast,’’ Wallace says. “He wanted something that reflected how his brain operates. He gets bored easily, and so you need to engage him.’’

Hence, the short-segmented “Fox Report,’’ which plays out on a set designed specifically for high-definition TV. During each commercial break, Smith changes physical locations: standing on a long Lucite desk, sitting in a chair, standing on the floor. Behind him is a 12-by-12-foot cube (described within Fox, jokingly, as some kind of mythic entity) which displays video over Smith’s shoulder, from wherever he happens to be.

The set does seem a manifestation of Smith, who has an uncanny knack for high-speed multitasking. On one recent night, he kept a monitor tuned to the Yankee game on a cart beside his desk. After Smith introduced a correspondent’s report, he’d turn to the game, mouthing frustration and joy, pantomiming the motion of a batter. When the cameras came back on him, he would lob a question without a moment’s pause.

“The guy’s almost got a stopwatch in his head,’’ says Michael Clemente, a veteran ABC producer who recently joined Fox as senior vice president of editorial. Clemente says ABC eyed Smith as a talent for years.

But Smith seems tailor-made for cable, which pioneered the news crawl and the exploding graphic, says Bob Zelnick, the former ABC reporter who now teaches journalism at Boston University.

“I don’t think his role is ideological balance,’’ Zelnick says. “It’s the look and sound and feel and substance of a tabloid newsman. This is not meant as criticism of him. . . . There has to be a role for this kind of show.’’

And Smith does seem to be enjoying his time in the whirlwind. He breezes through the Fox News headquarters cheerfully ribbing his colleagues and guests, ordering people to root against LSU, asking a guy on the radio staff to “tell me something good!’’ (The guy replies that he hears Smith is well-paid for his job. Smith tells him not to believe everything he reads.)

Zelnick says Smith’s penchant for mid-broadcast commentary reminds him, in a strange way, of the old days of TV news, when broadcasters like Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley, and even Walter Cronkite occasionally peppered the news with commentary.

Smith says he never tried to emulate another newscaster’s style. And he points to the support he’s received from Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who put him in his anchor seat.

“Roger used to say, ‘I like the way you’re very real out in the field when covering stories, and I want you to try to do that when you’re in the building anchoring,’ ’’ Smith says. “I don’t think I really knew what he meant by that.’’

So, he says, he kept doing what he did. And the viral moments followed.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.viewerdiscretion.net

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