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At Fox News, he's the man in the middle

Shepard Smith stands out at the network with his fast-paced, fact-based `Report.'

October 08, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — IT was the day after Bill Clinton lost his temper on "Fox News Sunday," and the video of the red-faced former president wagging his finger at Chris Wallace, accusing him of a "conservative hit job," was running on an almost constant loop on the top-rated cable news network.

One anchor, however, made no mention of the episode.

"I just wanted to stay away from it," said Shepard Smith, the 42-year-old Mississippi native who hosts two daily programs on Fox News Channel. "It's great TV; I'm sure it spiked ratings for a lot of people. But we have hours and hours of political debate going on. I'd rather just deal with the facts."

Partisan quarrels and punditry get little play from Smith, the anchor of "Fox Report w/ Shepard Smith," the kinetic, slickly produced program that serves as the cable channel's evening newscast on the East Coast. (It airs at 4 p.m. in the West.) With an average of 1.3 million viewers, it's one of the top-ranked cable news shows and has beaten the competition for 68 straight months -- longer than any other Fox News program. It's also substantially different from the rest of the channel's lineup.

"Anybody who wants to complain that Fox is just a spin machine and Fox is just a bunch of talking heads -- well, not our hour," Smith said between shows on a recent afternoon, leaning his long frame back in a chair in the network's crowded basement newsroom. "We just try to give you the news: give it to you straight, give it to you quickly."

Smith's philosophy may come as a surprise to those who associate outspoken commentators such as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity with the Fox News brand.

But as the cable channel seeks to burnish its news credentials, Smith -- with his jocular asides and rapid-fire delivery -- is increasingly being spotlighted as the face of the network.

After a year in which he ducked missile fire in Israel and drew plaudits for his reports on the slow rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina, Smith is being promoted in a new marketing campaign that touts the "Fox Report" as "The Best Evening Newscast in America."

Roger Ailes, Fox News' chairman and chief executive, said: "I'm working on preparing the network for the next 10 years, and he's a mainstay. His future is really unlimited."

It wasn't a future that David Shepard Smith envisioned growing up in Holly Springs, Miss., a "sort-of-stuck-in-time place" southeast of Memphis, Tenn., with 7,000 people, only three television channels and no movie theaters.

"I was always yakking and in trouble and the class clown," he said.

The son of a cotton merchant, Smith was "drawn to the microphone" but didn't think much about broadcasting until 1977, when Elvis Presley died. For the first time, the local Memphis station broadcast live, and Smith was transfixed by the fact that he was watching the King's funeral procession in real time.

He enrolled in the broadcast journalism program at the University of Mississippi, but left before graduating when he got a job as a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Panama City, Fla.

Stints at Florida stations in Fort Myers, Orlando and Miami followed, and then Smith -- eager to travel and see more of the country -- reluctantly took a job in Los Angeles for the syndicated program "A Current Affair."

Six months into his two-year contract, the show was canceled "and probably mercifully so," he said. "I was glad to be done with it."

The young reporter got a gig as a correspondent for News Edge, Fox's affiliate service and then suddenly found himself part of a new enterprise in 1996 when he was tapped to be part of News Corp.'s nascent 24-hour cable news channel.

"We didn't really know what we were doing," Smith said. "Anybody who tells you otherwise is fibbing. To me, it was an impossible challenge. I was really using it as a stepping stone to my next job."

But Ailes had other things in mind. Impressed with his facile delivery and unflappable manner during breaking news, he asked the correspondent to take over the 7 p.m. show when then-anchor Paula Zahn moved to a later hour in 1999.

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TAILORED TO FIT

SMITH, who said he never aspired to be an anchor, was worried he'd be bored stuck behind a desk. But he couldn't resist Ailes' offer to let him remake the program completely.

"We threw the format right out the window," Smith said.

Instead of relying on taped pieces and interviews, he and executive producer Jay Wallace developed a program that has come to embody the Fox News formula: fast and flashy, punctuated by dramatic whooshes, rushing camera shots and often dizzying graphics. Each show is crammed with upward of 60 stories, including a whirlwind segment called "Around the World in 80 Seconds" that races through a menu of offbeat stories at breakneck speed.

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