10.30.09

Fox News' Man of Reason

Shepard Smith has developed a tendency to make headlines—as he did this week by calling out a biased report about the NJ governor’s race. Lloyd Grove talks to media analysts from both sides of the aisle who explain why Fox News’ top anchor is the ultimate antidote to Obama’s war on the right-leaning channel.

President Obama is stretched thin prosecuting three wars at once. Not only is he battling violent insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s also fighting the ruling regime at the Fox News Channel, where former Republican media strategist Roger Ailes—the journalistic equivalent of Mullah Omar—is commanding warlords Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity in an epic struggle for hearts and minds.

But then there’s Shepard Smith, Fox News’ resident contrarian.

Far from toeing the company line, Smith occasionally defends Obama and other Democrats, mocks and argues with his right-wing colleagues, and otherwise has positioned himself among anti-Fox liberals as a lone voice of reason behind enemy lines—the Fox News personality who truly is fair and balanced.

“When people criticize Fox, [Roger] Ailes can point to Shep as someone who is fair and balanced. The critics might be right 85 percent of the time, but Shep is the other 15 percent.”

Smith’s departures from the conservative media orthodoxy are legion—famously shouting his opposition to the use of torture on suspected terrorists, hotly defending the mainstream media  against charges that they were in the tank for Obama, and severely scolding Joe the Plumber for claiming that Obama’s victory would mean “the death of Israel.” This week he played the iconoclast again, apologizing on the air Tuesday when correspondent Shannon Bream filed a report on the New Jersey governor’s race that featured a live interview with Republican challenger Chris Christie but nothing from Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine.

“When will you be interviewing Jon Corzine?” Smith demanded sternly.

"We have in multiple requests,” Bream answered meekly, “and when it comes in, we'll let you know."

Smith wasn’t satisfied—and he let viewers know it. “Wow. I didn't know that was about to happen. My apologies for the lack of balance there. If I'd had control, it wouldn't have happened.” The incident was celebrated on the Huffington Post among other progressive pit stops in the blogosphere.

“I think basically Shep is the only one who has any real connection with traditional journalism over there,” says Fox News critic Eric Boehlert, an analyst for the liberal media-monitoring organization, Media Matters. “He still thinks about fairness and accuracy… He sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Watch Shep’s Famous Outburts

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But the 45-year-old Smith is no marginal player on Roger Ailes’ A-Team. He is Fox’s lead news anchor, reportedly embarking on the third year of a three-year contract paying him a superstar salary of at least $7 million annually for presiding over two highly rated hour-long weekday programs, Studio B with Shepard Smith at 3 p.m. and The Fox Report at 7 p.m. He’s also a large and active presence on Fox’s radio and online operations.

“Shep Smith has made news more than once by contradicting the party line,” says independent media critic Andrew Tyndall, who runs the respected online newscast analysis The Tyndall Report. “Fox News is very into message discipline, which became famous with the release of their internal talking points from [senior vice president and Ailes lieutenant John Moody]... Actually Shep is an advantage for Ailes, in the same way as the Fox News White House correspondent, Major Garrett. When people criticize Fox, Ailes can point to Shep as someone who is fair and balanced. The critics might be right 85 percent of the time, but Shep is the other 15 percent.”

Both Tyndall and Boston University journalism professor Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent and self-identified conservative, see Smith’s broadcast sensibility as driven less by ideology than by tabloid values. Smith, the son of a Mississippi cotton merchant and college dropout from Ole Miss, cut his teeth on local television news (where he developed a fondness for car chases) and the sometimes seamy syndicated show A Current Affair.

“Ailes’ idea was ‘let’s get rid of the sanctimonious and pompous delivery of traditional broadcast journalism and talk with a populist voice,’” Tyndall says. “Shep has always presented himself as a different type of newscaster, from the way he booms out his words with obviously great relish, the way he uses sarcasm and slang, the way he uses nicknames for people. He’s actually speaking in the vernacular rather than traditional broadcast English.”

Zelnick says: “Smith’s broadcasts have a tabloid feel and you will see a far greater number of murders, reports about missing blondes and missing children, dogs getting sucked up into flooded rivers—more of that than on other Fox shows.” (For the record, it’s difficult to imagine that there are any missing blondes at Fox News.) “When I say ‘tabloid,’ I’m not being critical,” Zelnick says, “I’m describing a genre of journalism—and they do it pretty well at Fox.”

Media analyst Tim Graham of the Virginia-based Media Research Center—the conservative counterpart to Media Matters—says he pays little attention to Smith’s broadcasts because of a dearth of ideological content. “I don’t watch a lot of Shep because his show seems generally an assortment of the lighter things and not a traditional newscast like, say, Bret Baier, who always has a roundtable at the end.” Graham, however, does take issue with Smith’s complaint about the lack of a Corzine interview. “If the reporter says we’re trying to get Corzine and he won’t do an interview, does that mean you’re not supposed to put Christie on until you get the word from Corzine?” Graham asks. “That seems like a good way to keep them both off the air.”

Fox News officials declined to make Smith available or comment for this story and White House communications director Anita Dunn—the general in Obama’s war on the network—didn’t respond to phone messages and emails. But in an interview with Esquire magazine earlier this year, Smith defended Fox News and trumpeted his independence.

"I think we do a pretty good job of labeling it for the viewer, but we are under intense scrutiny because of our opinion shows,” Smith said. “Are there people who want the news done a certain way? You bet there are, and some are in this building. But they don't affect what I do. The inner pressure and outer pressure that everyone thinks exists doesn't. When I hear people say that Fox News is right wing, I know that's not true, because I'm the one doing the news.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.