Andres Kudacki for TIME

Shep Smith Has the Hardest Job on Fox News

March 15, 2018

In a Manhattan Fox News studio on a recent Tuesday in February, Shepard Smith sits ready to begin taping his 3 p.m. newscast. He’s spent the preceding hour typing out edits to his script with slightly hunched posture, raising his eyebrows at his keyboard and reading his monologue to himself to test its accuracy and its cadence. The computers behind him—clad in giant white shells, they look like robots from the Star Wars universe—are each manned by researchers. Several of them are scanning their email and news sites, one is looking at @realdonaldtrump on Twitter. And Smith, wired with an earpiece to the control room, is periodically issuing commands—to those researchers, to the producers who call his desk phone, to the air around him. “We need to get a statement from Israeli police,” he says, looking to bulk up a wire report about Benjamin Netanyahu. “That’ll give the Jerusalem bureau something to do.”

Shepard Smith at Fox News' offices in New York, Thursday, March 1, 2018.
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When the countdown to Smith’s hour of airtime arrives at 2:59, it’s just a number. Smith silently sits at his anchor chair, watching White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders field questions from reporters in what’s become a near-daily occurrence: his show is getting pre-empted by the most popular political drama in America. He scrolls through his phone, then leans forward on his elbows ready for Sanders to wrap. When she does, he kicks off his show a few minutes late with discussion of the “brand-new timeline” Sanders offered for the scandal of the day. Much of his script now useless, Smith does the work of writing and editing as he speaks.

The president has scrambled the day-to-day lives of everyone in the news business, not least of which those at the network with which Donald Trump begins every morning. As Fox has tacked further to the right in its opinion programming, Smith’s role has at times seemed like a challenge. Being the old-fashioned anchorman and reporter at a network known for new-fashioned provocation and opinion may be the hardest job at Fox News, and one Smith mused about walking away from over the course of two interviews this winter. On March 15, the network announced Smith would stay and that he had signed a multiyear contract renewal. Which means Smith is going to have many more chances to tell viewers what they don’t want to hear.

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“I can remember a time,” the 54-year-old anchor says after taping has wrapped at 4 p.m., “when we would do a rundown in the morning and, probably, that’s what would happen.” Those around him are feeling the Trump era as well. “I’m tired,” says Kim Rosenberg, the network’s vice-president of news and Smith’s producer and friend. “The news cycle goes through many evolutions during the day. Trump will tweet or they’ll add a news conference or the White House briefing will be pushed back three times, and the news cycle changes.”

Now, his show is often eaten into by the White House’s televised press briefings. “Even now, it still boggles my mind that the next time Sarah Huckabee Sanders is on, over a year into a presidency, that it is something that all three networks will take live,” says Jay Wallace, the network’s president of news since 2017 and Smith’s former executive producer. “That’s unheard-of.” Having hustled in his early career and established his bona fides as an anchor after that, Smith would seem to be at a point where he could enjoy the status, visibility, and routine schedule a marquee anchor enjoys. Instead, Sanders, and her boss, have created a climate of uncertainty that’s forced Smith to improvise.

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Smith, a Mississippi native who retains the lilt and the flattened sentence endings of rural hometown Holly Springs, began his career as a local news-affiliate reporter in Florida. He joined Fox News at its founding in 1996 and eventually came to have both daytime and evening broadcasts. In 1999, he launched The Fox Report, the network’s flagship newscast and its version of what the broadcast networks do at 6:30 p.m. Smith became Fox’s closest analogue to the classic voice-of-God newsman. In 2013, the evening show was cancelled. “There used to be a thought that, hey, we need a nightly newscast later in the day,” says Wallace. “Those patterns have changed, just with the way we consume media.” Now Fox’s night-time slate is dominated by opinion—the fire-breathing sort practiced by Tucker Carlson at eight, Sean Hannity at nine, and Laura Ingraham at ten.

Their coexistence with Smith is increasingly uneasy. In November 2017, Smith briskly and effectively debunked the “Uranium One” conspiracy theory, a particular bugbear of Hannity’s. Reporting live on the air in the hours after the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Smith read a list of schools that had endured fatal gun violence since Columbine. And this month, Smith said on-air that the president, who’d called for raising the age limit for buying firearms, had caved under political pressure: “The president told the kids at Parkland, ‘I’ll go strong on this, I’ll work on this age thing,’” Smith said. “And then he met with the NRA.” Smith’s treatment of these stories—and how that treatment differs from his opinion-host colleagues’—hasn’t gone unnoticed. Hannity, who wove the Uranium One scandal into his ongoing saga of Hillary Clinton’s mendacity, has called Smith “so anti-Trump.”

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Smith says he’s unbothered by the divergence between his reporting and Fox’s opinion slate. “We serve different masters. We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want. If it’s their opinion. I don’t really watch a lot of opinion programming. I’m busy.” He laughs, enigmatic punctuation that may indicate he’d been trying for a bon mot, or might just be a Mississippi-nice way of indicating he’s said what he’s going to say, bless my heart.

But Smith isn’t kidding when he says he’s busy. He has his hour and leads the unit of 17 staffers that breaks into coverage when major news occurs. He’s the person Fox News viewers see during a hurricane, or a school shooting. “I’ve been telling people about what’s happening for a long, long, long time,” Smith says. He takes a long and considered pause. “I know that when something big happens, people turn to us. I think people always will. People who maybe aren’t with us all the time who aren’t regular watchers, maybe there is some sort of confusion about what’s opinion and what’s news, but I think our audience understands the difference and comes to us when they need us.”

Unlike some portion of the audience that reflexively switches on Fox News, Smith is disengaged by politics. “I get it,” he says, “that some of our opinion programming is there strictly to be entertaining. I get that. I don’t work there. I wouldn’t work there. I don’t want to sit around and yell at each other and talk about your philosophy and my philosophy. That sounds horrible to me.” He cites his values growing up: “You don’t talk about your money, you don’t talk about your politics, and you don’t talk about your sex. Right now, everyone wants to talk about those things, and I’m not one of them. Not going to do it.”

This becomes clear in our first meeting when I broach his personal life; Smith, who’d been dogged by rumors for much of his career, publicly acknowledged he is gay in 2017. “I think that’s the part you like,” he shoots back when I ask if his boyfriend of six years works in the news business. Some of the honey drips away from his drawl. “I don’t mind talking about it. It’s just, you know, that’s just my personal life. And I’m not hiding anything. I have a longtime boyfriend and we’re as happy as we can be and we live a very normal life and go to dinner and go to games and see his family and see my family. It’s great for us. But I can’t imagine anyone else finding it interesting.”

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Smith isn’t the only anchor to profess a desire to avoid becoming the story, but his commitment to facts over feeling makes him an unusual fit for an era defined by news personalities. His opinion colleagues, geared to thrive in contentious times, fit the tenor of the moment more naturally. That he’s, to some portion of the Fox audience, become despised for telling them what they don’t want to hear is a frustrating part of the job. “It depends on what you’re looking for,” he says. “Are you looking for news and information so that you can make decisions about your life and your family? Or are you looking for your worldview to be confirmed? For that second kind of viewer, when the facts fly in the face of your worldview, that can be unsettling. Sometimes, then, they don’t like me. And there are other times when the facts work beautifully with their worldview. Then, they’re very happy.”

From its earliest days, Fox News has dazzled with its commitment to showmanship, from glimmering studios to vervy transitions between stories to well-put-together anchors (a role the trim, tan and neatly groomed Smith fits into tidily). Wallace sees the network’s main competition as the entertainment industry. “People may turn on the network and get pissed at whoever’s on, but the storytelling that we have and the way that we break stories down is so important and compelling, they don’t leave,” he says. “And when they do leave, they’re probably going to turn on Netflix.”

What doesn’t show onscreen is just how much has changed since 2016. The late Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes was forced to resign in July of that year for an alleged pattern of sexual assault in the workplace. (He died in 2017.) Smith describes that period as “the hardest time in my professional life. We were in Cleveland at the [Republican] Convention as our professional world was collapsing around us. We had become the news.” The newsroom where researchers, reporters, and digital staff work was recently renovated with substantial input from 21st Century Fox and Fox News Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Completed only weeks before I visit, the revamp created an open office. The clear sightlines, with busy young reporters tapping away under various illuminated screens, is a powerful reminder of just what came before. Fox and other TV outlets were closed-door environments in which secrets could fester.

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Fox News has been forced to grapple with systemic changes outside its doors, too. The network, which long prized a reputation earned in the Clinton era as a brash insurgent, is now the primary newsfeed for the President. Smith doesn’t know or profess to care if Trump watches his reporting. “I have no idea. I hope not, I hope he’s busy. The president says he doesn’t have much time for television, I’ve heard him say that.” Don’t we know Trump watches Fox’s morning opinion broadcast? “I know that he watches Fox & Friends in the morning, because he often tweets about it. But those aren’t the things I concern myself with. I try to find out what’s happening, as opposed to just listening to what they’re saying.” Smith also shuts out the ascendant voices that have recently outflanked Fox’s opinion journalists on the right: Does he read the website Breitbart or listen to provocateur Alex Jones? “Nope,” he says.

But many of the viewers he’s trying to reach do. And they’re not shy about their disapproval when Smith calls out a fiction. On my second visit to Smith’s studio, he alludes to this feedback: “Wait ‘til you see your reader email after this piece.” He leaves his show’s Twitter account to his team, but says he is aware of how strongly voiced the critiques are.

Despite being the cable-news ratings leader, Fox News’ audience is also old. The median Fox News viewer in 2017 was 65 overall, the same as MSNBC, and 66 in primetime, the highest of all cable news networks. “I think that our audience skews conservative. We learn about our audience through research and data,” says Smith. A 2014 study by Pew Research Center indicated Fox News was the most-trusted news source for “consistently conservative” viewers, edging out the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report.

Smith’s generally straight-news broadcast doesn’t frequently upset those viewers’ senses of self. But breaking news has a way of shaking up established agendas. The day after my first visit was the day of the school shooting in Parkland, Fl. News of the incident broke as Smith was preparing to go to air. Once again, the pace of events scrambled a plan that was already pretty seat-of-pants. Smith took to the air for three hours, during which he listed the shootings and asked, “Why can’t they put the best and the brightest together to research it and figure it out and help us stop it? [We’re] failing our children.”

The question resonated in part because Smith was, at that moment, the voice most widely heard. Perpetually ahead in the ratings, he was being watched by 3.3 million viewers in the 5 p.m. hour, compared to just under 1.6 million watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Smith’s critics, he says, told him that reading the list of schools was “ political. You’re making this political.” Smith denies the charge: “I guess, I know, that there are people who come at everything in a political way. I don’t. I’ve never really liked politics. I’ve always said that I thought politics in America was weird and creepy, and lacked a connection to reality.”

On our first meeting, Smith had been energized: “It’s more challenging,” he says of reporting during the Trump presidency, “and more challenging is more fun.” On our second, he seemed depleted. Bringing up walking away from the news desk was less an idle threat and more of a contingency plan for coping with a different America. Describing the response he’s received lately, Smith says “if we start making changes, if ratings go down or viewers scream too much and we make changes to accommodate, we are in extreme dereliction of duty. I cannot do it. I will not do it. I’ll quit. I’ll stop doing it completely.”

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He’s decided to stay in some part because the times are so precarious. In his telling, before he signed his new contract, he was nervous about what would come on Fox’s air after he left. “To stop doing it would be bad because I think that there is a need for it and I know the degree to which we care about it and focus on it and we want it to be as perfect as it can be. And I wonder, if I stopped delivering the facts, what would go in its place in this place that is most watched, most listened, most viewed, most trusted? I don’t know.”

On Smith’s primetime show, he used to do light stories from time to time. Wallace, the head of Fox News, noted that Smith is a weather obsessive: “We were somewhere in L.A. and he told me some weird fact that there are 19 weather zones within two blocks in West Hollywood, and I was like, why do you know that worthless knowledge?” Asked to name one of Smith’s favorite stories, his executive producer Jon Glenn recalls the 2015 incident in which two llamas ran through suburban Phoenix. “I know we’re all going through this whole long journey of politics,” Glenn says, “but look, there are some freaking llamas running down the street in Arizona!”

Smith remembers this fondly too. “We would try to be entertaining with them, because I always felt like you should get some dessert with the meal. That seems like an eternity ago.” The people tuning into Fox and writing him emails and tweets don’t want dessert in the form of a cute story. More and more, they seem to crave red meat, an appetite that much on Fox News’ air has helped to nurture. But Smith can’t brook shifting his reporting. “I think we have to make the wall between news and opinion as high and as thick and as impenetrable as possible. And I try to do that. And if I were doing this, there would be a lot more fact-based reporting, but it’s available for people who want it. I don’t know how badly they want it.”

Now the pressures are greater, and the landscape is bleaker. Smith may still be seeing things he’d never expected, but they all tend to be on one beat. “I miss doing that thing I used to do but I like this thing I’m doing now,” he says. “I just wish everyone weren’t so angry about it all. I wish that we could have lighter moments and not always be on guard with each other.” Even as he signs on for years to come, a solution seems to Smith far away. “We’re not living normal lives,” he says. “We’re ingesting a lot more than I think is healthy.” Which means? “This isn’t going to just go away,” he says. “It’s going to get worse.”