Is Shep Smith The Future Of Fox News?
NEW YORK ― It’s 3:00 in the afternoon, and Shepard Smith is in the chair. Fox News viewers are about to be in for an hour of broadcasting that is at once deeply familiar ― Shep has been on the network’s air since it went live 20 years ago ― and also just as strange.
Shep, 52, is not what you’re used to if you go to Fox News for its brand of hard-edged, Republican rabble-rousing or affirmations that your conservative world view is infallibly correct. Today on “Shepard Smith Reporting” will be no different.
With nine producers and editors behind him in a futuristic-looking, state-of-the-art studio built only for Shep ― and let’s just call him Shep for this article, since that’s how he’s known ― he launches Thursday’s show by reporting on the five new sexual assault accusations against GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. He notes that Trump is denying the charges, but then gives critical context: Trump has bragged about committing sexual assault. “Again, he said that,” Shep adds, in case any viewer wants to think he’s editorializing rather than just delivering the news.
After giving some gory details about some of the alleged assaults, he pauses to underline just how far a departure from normal the news is that he’s reporting. “The GOP candidate for president,” he says.
I asked Shep about that moment after the show ended, and he said it was important journalistically to take that extra step. “The juxtaposition of the two things is striking, noteworthy, and, I believe, news. I don’t add feelings about it,” he said, conjuring up this analogy: “This is something you should think about: It’s going to be 4 degrees tonight, and your cat lives outside. You should think about this.”
He paused and added, “Not my cat.”
Shep wants you to bring your cat indoors, but he wants you to do it because you realize, with the help of his reporting, that it’s the right thing to do. Not simply because it’s his strident opinion you should bring that furball in before it freezes to death.
Shep’s approach represents one potential path forward for Fox News ― undeniably conservative, but grounded in reality, observant of American traditions and democratic norms, and partisan only when a standpoint fully aligns with conservative and American values.
Since the forced departure of Roger Ailes ― who has now gone on to advise the spawn of Fox News, the Trump campaign ― Rupert Murdoch’s two sons, James and Lachlan, have taken a bigger role inside the network. If they get their way, some of the knuckle-dragging, opinion-heavy approach to politics may be less welcome at headquarters, clearing the way for journalists like Smith, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly. The brothers are reportedly working hard to woo Kelly, hoping she’ll stay at Fox past the election and help shape the network’s post-Ailes identity.
In a more grounded Fox, Shep would take on a much greater role. In his most recent meeting with Murdoch, he asked where Murdoch felt the center of gravity was going to move post-Ailes, whether toward news or toward the opinion side. “He said, ‘I’m a newsman. I want to be the best news organization in America,’” Shep recalled.
Murdoch, he said, has big plans. “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,” Shep said. “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.”
For Shep, the gulf between the news side and his more outspoken colleagues is immeasurable. “When the opinion people say things and then later we get facts that are different, and I report those, everybody would love for there to be a war going on here,” he said. “But it’s not like that. Everybody’s got a job to do. [Sean] Hannity is trying to get conservatives elected. And he wants you to listen to him and believe what he believes. 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. His is probably easier ― he knows what he thinks and just sticks with it. This stuff changes all the time.”
The news side is on the rise. This Wednesday, Chris Wallace will host a presidential debate in Las Vegas, the network’s first in its 20-year history. Shep will be on hand to help anchor.
Post-Ailes, ratings have surged as the election has heated up, but it’s been bittersweet for many still there. “Obviously, the business side of this place is a roaring success and we’re more successful than we’ve ever been, but there are more important things,” Shep said. He didn’t shy away from talking about the Ailes crisis, but his emotions around it were still palpably raw.
The pain was heightened by the depth of the trust he once had in Ailes. “It’s such a wonderful place, and it’s been home forever. He was very fatherly and mentorish,” he said. “And now I know that there were other things going on here.”
Along with the rampant sexual harassment that brought Ailes down, there were also reports that he used homophobic slurs toward rivals. Though Shep rarely talks about his sexuality, he is regularly, for instance, included in Out Magazine’s Power 50 list.
I asked if Ailes had ever made homophobic remarks when he was around. “No, never. He treated me with respect, just respect,” Shep said. “I wasn’t new in the business when I came here ― I’d been doing reporting for 12 years ― but I wasn’t old in it either, and he gave me every opportunity in the world and he never asked anything of me but that we get it right, try to get it right every day. It was a very warm and loving and comfortable place.”
He said that reports that Ailes had prevented him from coming out publicly several years ago were false. “That’s not true. He was as nice as he could be to me. I loved him like a father,” he said. “I trusted him with my career and with ― I trusted him and trusts were betrayed. People outside this company can’t know [how painful that betrayal was]. This place has its enemies, but inside, it was very personal, and very scarring and horrifying.”
Shep said he advocated strongly for leading the coverage of the crisis rather than shying away from it, and he was one of the few, if not the only, Fox anchors to report on it.
“It’s not over,” he added. “This was a real shock to the system, and it upended a lot of things that we thought we knew. We were wounded and horrified and very emotional, and we realize that as leaders we need to come in and face up to what we’ve learned … We have to make sure there aren’t young victims wandering around here who need us. We have to get appropriate counselors in here. We have to make sure legally everybody’s protected and have to make a commitment to be the most transparent, open and welcoming organization of our kind in the world, and I’m determined to be a part of the team that makes it happen.”
As Fox works through its internal trauma, there have been a few outward stumbles. In early October, Fox News ambush specialist Jesse Watters aired a segment on New York’s Chinatown, a package widely panned as the most racist thing to be put up by a network in a long time ― at least since the last Trump rally. Watters later claimed his endless string of ethnic stereotypes was an attempt at humor, but the piece itself contained little evidence of that. Under pressure, he apologized ― if in Trumpian fashion ― tweeting, “I regret if anyone found offense.”
The embarrassing few days highlighted Fox News’ dilemma going forward. It boasts a roster of serious journalists committed to the news, but also a lineup of loudmouths who pull in a different direction. (To be fair, I used to appear frequently on Hannity’s radio show, and find Fox’s opinion programs wildly entertaining, if often deeply offensive. But I understand why they rate.)
The last time Watters had been in the news was for his part in a post-White House Correspondents’ Dinner fight with me. There has been a noticeable thawing of relations between Fox and the rest of the media in the post-Ailes era. That Fox invited HuffPost inside its headquarters at all is a sign that the thawing is real. That it invited the same reporter who tangled with Watters speaks to the dizzying possibility that Fox News has looked into the abyss it has helped create and recoiled.
“Maybe you’ll see Jesse in the hallway,” Shep joked as we left his studio.
For Murdoch, it was all fun and games until the GOP lost an eye. Partway through the Republican primary, Gabe Sherman has reported, Murdoch called Ailes with a simple directive: Enough. You’ve had your fun with The Donald, but it’s gone too far. It’s time to end it.
Ailes gave it the college try, with Kelly and other Fox personalities throwing every conservative orthodoxy in Trump’s face at the next televised debate. Kelly also went hard at Trump over his treatment of women. Trump fired back at Kelly, launching a feud that left Fox bruised and Trump still surging. None of Trump’s many breaks with the party line ― on war, entitlement spending, eminent domain, even Planned Parenthood ― slowed his rise. Fox’s Frankenstein monster had escaped the lab.
Shep said there have been a lot of conversations around Fox News headquarters to figure out what went wrong this election cycle, and what Fox’s role in it has been.
“Mostly, those conversations are about this electorate that espouses these views, and curiosity about how that happened,” Shep said. “Not the run-of-the mill left and right stuff that we’re all accustomed to. We’re gonna ban a religion, we’re gonna kill an opponent, or jail an opponent, women and Muslims? Those thoughts are just very foreign to me, and as a journalist, I’m just very interested in when it was that this shift happened.”
Part of the blame, he said, belongs on the shoulders of politicians and also commentators ― including those at Fox News ― who set expectations unreasonably high for grassroots Republicans.
“There’s something else happening here, there’s an entire right-conservative electorate that feels like it’s been betrayed over time, that its candidates would say they’re going to do something and then wouldn’t do it,” he said. “But all the while, we were reporting that they knew better. Obamacare, they were gonna block it, they voted 55 times to stop it, and every time, we reported this is not going to happen. But they felt betrayed.”
History, he said, won’t look kindly on any of us. “The long look of history is going to be necessary, and I don’t think it will reflect well on this time, on our work collectively as an industry, or on the voters’ ability to decipher what it is they’re hearing and seeing,” he said. “I don’t see evidence that [Trump] produced this. These feelings have been in the nation for a while, that’s clear. A lot of it seems to be tied to the election of the first black president, and I’m very interested to see where this is gonna go, and who’s gonna lead them going forward.”
We’re gonna ban a religion, we’re gonna kill an opponent, or jail an opponent, women and Muslims? Those thoughts are just very foreign to me, and as a journalist, I’m just very interested in when it was that this shift happened.
A native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, Shep left the Ole Miss campus in 1987 two credits shy of graduating and began his television journalism career in Florida. He’s still a rabid football fan, and said he understands why Trump supporters have been frustrated with Fox News lately.
“I’m a big Ole Miss fan and when we lose to LSU, I’m very mad at the commentators because they talk about how horrible my team is and how my team can’t win anything. And then when we beat LSU, [I] love the commentators. And that’s exactly what’s happening here. We’re reporting on what Trump has done and said and the accusations against him, and if that makes people who support him mad, I understand that.”
That doesn’t mean he’s going to change his approach. “The minute we start worrying that one group of viewers or another group of viewers is upset by our facts, so maybe we should alter them to make them more palatable, that’s the moment we are derelict in duty,” he said.
Shep worked his way through several local network affiliates in Florida before heading to Los Angeles. He said he was covering the O.J. Simpson trial for Fox affiliates when Ailes, who was in the process of setting up the new network, happened to be watching. That liveshot was pure Shep ― straight, simple and to the point in a way that manages to be unique.
“I reported that there really wasn’t much going on in the trial that day, and so I just gave some background news and I told the producers I didn’t need much time. And when it was over, he called and said, ‘That was a great liveshot, you were honest about there was nothing going on. I want you to be part of my team, so my guys are gonna give you a call. I wanna get you out to New York so we can look you over.’”
Shep joined Fox News prior to the network’s launch in October 1996. He was apprehensive. “I had lived in Miami and Los Angeles, but New York was a real mess then, and I was kind of scared to come here. But I moved out and fell in love with it,” he said. “I really became a New Yorker on 9/11 and lived in the Village for the past 15 years, and I’m in.”
Since joining Fox, Shep has been a go-to anchor on major, unfolding news stories like President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina ― for which he was lauded for passionate dispatches as the levees broke. “Smith opened some eyes with his work in the face of a powerful and blustery force,” AP television reporter David Bauder wrote at the time.
Shep was the top-rated anchor during two hours, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., before Fox moved him off the evening newscast three years ago as part of a series of changes that brought Megyn Kelly to primetime. “Roger said that viewing patterns were changing, and we needed to be prepared for the next,” Shep said. “It’s just not how people get their news anymore, and he felt like that time slot needed to evolve.”
For some of the heavyweights on the opinion side, serving a newscast at 7:00, rather than red meat, diluted the message. There was some desire by some to keep the opinion going [throughout the evening] and I’m not sure the Fox Report fit into that very well,” he said diplomatically.
He thinks Ailes may have been right. “Recent history tells us [primetime audiences] would like to hear people say what they think. They’re used to being in a bubble, they’re online during the day in social groups and they’re hearing their opinion being bolstered, and when it gets to facts that are in contrast with their views, they often don’t wanna hear that.”
While continuing afternoon anchor duties, Shep was also tasked with creating and leading a new breaking news division.
Softening the blow of the move, Fox built Shep his own gorgeous, news-oriented studio, which he said cost as much as $8 million. (A Fox spokeswoman said the figure was closer to $30 million all in.)
Over the years, Shep has continued to rankle the Fox News faithful by bucking some of the network’s top opinion-mongers and stating incontrovertible facts some others in conservative media refused to accept. He’s acknowledged that humans contribute to the planet’s warming, that President Barack Obama was born in the United States and that the LGBT community deserves an equal place in society.
“How long do you think it’ll be until you catch up with the rest of the country and realize everybody’s okay?” Shep quizzed gay marriage opponent Rick Santorum.
Days before the 2008 election, he grilled Samuel J. Wurzelbacher (aka “Joe the Plumber”) as the fleetingly famous political figure claimed electing Obama means “death to Israel.” The New York Times editorial page, an unlikely venue for praising Fox News personalities, did just that in its piece on Shep’s interview, titled “Shepard the Anchor.”
“It is the reporting of this news organization that Barack Obama is a citizen and he is not a Muslim,” Shep said in 2009. And yet, Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy handed Trump airtime on their shows in 2011 to promote the birther lie as he flirted with running for president.
Shep has long cultivated a reputation as a straight-shooter, which can put him crossways when the more outspoken anchors at the network have gone crooked. In 2009, in a moment that resonated across the political spectrum, he pounded the table and declared, “We! Are! America! I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps, we do not fucking torture!”
It was classic Shep: simple, straightforward and objectively in line with American values as they’d long been professed. But for all its simplicity, that message was deeply controversial because the Bush administration was, in fact, torturing people. He refused to allow it to pass without calling it by its name.
Shep was explicit about that thesis during the 2012 campaign. “We’re journalists. We observe,” he said. “And that’s what I’m doing, I’m observing that Mitt Romney is wearing mom jeans.” No fact-checker could have disagreed.
Now, with just weeks to go before the next presidential election, Trump sticks mostly to sympathetic Fox News hosts like Bill O’Reilly, Hannity and the “Fox & Friends” crew. He can be confident that he won’t be seriously challenged on those shows or face questions he’s not in the mood to answer. In the week after ending his birther crusade, Trump gave two hours of interviews on Fox News and Fox Business, and the topic never came up.
Shep likely would’ve asked. He recently reminded viewers that Trump questioned the legitimacy of the first black president for years and called him out for a pseudo press conference in which no reporters were allowed to ask him about finally abandoning birtherism.
But Trump’s not sitting down with Shep.
“I would like to have some time with him,” Shep said of Trump. “For me, at least, it would be interesting to go through the things he’s said and the things he’s done and try to get an explanation. But you know, people more experienced than I have tried, and this is one of those cycles where in some cases, as hard as the facts are to get, once you get them, they don’t seem to matter.”
Shep said he told Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks recently that the candidate was welcome on set, but not by phone. “We’ll get back to you,” he said he was told. He’s not holding his breath.
Everyday we want be absolutely fair and absolutely balanced. That phrase has not been bastardized for me,” he said. “Fair and balanced means I have to provide two sides to the story of ‘we won’t allow a religion in the country.’ There’s no balance to that. That’s just against everything that the nation was founded on.”
Last week, Shep dubbed Trump “almost fascist.” I asked Shep why he added the qualifier. “Eh, that takes the edge off it, because you don’t want to offend people. But it was Mussolini who jailed the opposition and that’s never happened in American history,” he said, adding that his team searched exhaustively through history for any other example of a candidate threatening to jail a major-party opponent and came up empty.
“It sort of is almost fascism defined,” Shep said. “I don’t like putting labels on things, and sometimes it’s just so obvious that it just comes out. I hope he was joking about that. In America, we don’t torture, and we don’t jail our political opponents.” (Getting away from major-party candidates, President Woodrow Wilson did actually jail Socialist Party nominee Eugene Debs, who won 1 million votes from prison in 1920 and was pardoned by the winner, Warren G. Harding.)
Shep said that he finds it “really weird” when his statements of basic facts go viral. “We don’t torture, this is America. We don’t torture. That that got traction is really weird. We have signed conventions all over the world, we don’t torture. And that you’re going to redefine torture for convenience sake is irrelevant,” he said.
He then turned to another viral example. “And then, there is no Ebola spreading across America. We do not have an Ebola epidemic, and yet, that got traction because certain factions were trying to convince the world that we had widespread panic.”
By hyping nonexistent epidemics for political purposes, Shep said, partisans are putting lives at risk, because people won’t trust the government when a true threat comes.
I hope [Trump] was joking about that. In America, we don’t torture, and we don’t jail our political opponents.
Shep is beloved by many for his improvisational style, which yields gem after gem ― particularly on slow news days. Take, for instance, the time he insisted the show stay with a helicopter that was filming two bears in a dumpster. The bears were eventually chased off by a neighborhood dog, and Shep dissolved into pure ecstasy.
“They wouldn’t let us do bears anymore,” he said of the fallout. “Somebody thought that bear died on the trampoline fall and got mad, and so we weren’t able to do bears any more.”
But in the post-Ailes era, changes are afoot. “The bears are back now,” he said.
Even in high-intensity situations, Shep’s trademark delivery can break through. Ahead of Hurricane Matthew, he created another viral moment. Having covered Hurricane Katrina after growing up in the South, Shep’s fear for the public during a hurricane is understandable. That potential destruction must have been going through his mind when he paused, stared directly at the camera, and told viewers failing to heed the warnings, “And your kids die, too.”
Over at The Drudge Report, site founder Matt Drudge was, at that very moment, suggesting the hurricane warnings were a government plot to drive up fear about climate change. Drudge sets the tone and agenda for many of the shows on Fox News (and, to some degree, elsewhere in the media), but Shep said he wasn’t aware of his Matthew denial campaign ― and was a bit embarrassed for me that I was. “You follow Matt Drudge, for the record,” he noted.
For years, Fox News and Drudge have followed each other closely. But if Fox News banks toward its news division, and Drudge veers further into Alex Jones territory, the shape of conservative media could look much different by the 2020 election cycle. Asked if he could see himself somewhere other than Fox, Shep acknowledged the possibility.
“It’s business. Over time, you make business decisions every few years when contracts come up,” he said. “I love it here. I know what happens here. I know that they’re gonna let us do the news every day, and this is a good place to be now. It obviously wasn’t always. But it’s a good place to be now.”
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