The story of how Shepard “Shep” Smith got his break at Fox News explains much of his subsequent career, both its longevity and its controversy.
A young reporter working for an affiliate station in Los Angeles, Smith was covering the OJ Simpson trial. But even this epoch-making legal soap opera had its lag times. In reporting these Smith was, as ever, honest.
“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,” he told the Huffington Post in 2016.
Roger Ailes, Fox News’s ill-famed founder, was still in the process of setting up his team when he stumbled upon Smith’s live broadcast. “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.’”
Telling it like it is has always been part of Smith’s repertoire. But more recently, he’s become Fox’s dedicated correspondent for saying why it isn’t.
This week, a clip of Smith debunking the Honduran migrant “human caravan” went viral. “Tomorrow is one week before the midterm election, which is what all of this is about,” he orated, from his weekly afternoon show, Shepard Smith Reporting. “There is no invasion. No one is coming to get you. There’s nothing at all to worry about.” Smith went on to inform his viewers that there are over 2,000 miles between Mexico’s southern border and the US. And that a similar previous incident had resulted in only 14 arrests: “We’re America. We can handle it.”
This was galling to the station’s loyal fans. Accustomed to a hyper-partisan diet of Tucker Carlson at eight, Sean Hannity at nine and Laura Ingraham at 10 Smith feels like an anachronism. One aggrieved viewer tweeted: “Excuse me, Fox News. If I want more of Shep Smith, I’ll tune into CNN.”
Increasingly, Smith has been waging a one-man crusade against the flotsam of conspiracy that attaches itself to the Trump project. Take his recent chummy interview with a correspondent from the New York Times, in which he calmly plotted out the holes in Trump’s “great businessman” narrative, climaxing in the revelation that Trump “had lost over 0m”.
Even colleagues have found themselves at the sharp end of his fact-based reporting. In November of last year, he had a spat with Sean Hannity over the “Uranium One” conspiracy, in which Hannity attempted to tie an Obama-era sale of a uranium mining company to donations to the Clinton Foundation.
Just this week, he weighed in on the Pittsburgh shootings with an appeal for unity (“When the rhetoric gets loud, the crazies come out”) that sounded to fellow anchor Chris Wallace like an attempt to pin the blame on Trump.
Born in rural Mississippi, Smith’s accent and manners still betray some of that stiff-backed old south formality. He is so old media that he leaves his show’s Twitter account to his production team. He still supports his university football squad, Ole Miss, and is a resolutely un-flamboyant gay man, who only officially came out last year.
Liberal interpretations tend to assume that Fox executives have placed Shepard in the middle of the schedules in order to create a backbone of “real news” around which they can stitch the infotainment: an Emmanuel Goldstein of internal opposition. The station certainly has a lively tradition of putting up low quality liberal avatars, ready to be knocked out of the park by a Bill O’Reilly or a Tucker Carlson. But perhaps the more prosaic answer is that Smith is too much of a station stalwart to be downsized. He has, after all, 22 years of loyal service, until 2013 anchoring their version of a nightly news bulletin, The Fox Report.
In recent years though, Smith has become more open about his displeasure at the rest of the network. During the 2016 election he called Fox News “both ‘the craziest conservative network on Earth’ and ‘the freaky place where I’m working right now’. Shortly after he voiced doubts to interviewers over how long he would be able to continue at the channel into the future but in March 2018, he signed up for another three years. He spoke to Time magazine about his decision, saying: “I wonder, if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place.”
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