Fox's Shep Smith Keeps Opinions To Himself

Fox News Channel promotes itself as fair and balanced, but detractors point to its conservative talkers to argue that the top-rated cable news channel is anything but. Fox News Anchorman Shep Smith says he brings a Central time zone sensibility to the news — and tries to leave his personal beliefs at home.

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The FOX News Channel promotes itself as fair and balanced. Detractors point to its conservative talkers to argue the top-rated cable news channel is anything but. Yet as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, FOX News has an evening cable news anchor who steers away from ideology.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So, I hauled a guy who spends his life tracking television news into our studios for a little game of word association. The second voice you'll hear belongs to Andrew Tyndall, the publisher of Tyndallreport.com.

FOLKENFLIK: I say FOX News. You think...

Mr. ANDREW TYNDALL (Publisher, Tyndallreport.com): Conservative.

FOLKENFLIK: I say Sean Hannity. You think...

Mr. TYNDALL: Activist.

FOLKENFLIK: I say Bill O'Reilly, you think...

Mr. TYNDALL: Argumentative.

FOLKENFLIK: I say Shep Smith. You think...

Mr. TYNDALL: Fun-loving guy.

FOLKENFLIK: The fun-loving guy is the anchor, voice and defining force behind the 7 p.m. "FOX Report." Shepard Smith's show is a study in contrast with the old-school network newscasts, but maybe not in the way that you think.

Mr. SHEPARD SMITH (Anchor, "The FOX Report"): Ours is a largely Central Time audience from Chicago down to Mississippi, and they just want a taste of what today was, an idea about what tomorrow will bring.

FOLKENFLIK: Smith himself is from Mississippi.

Mr. SMITH: Our philosophy has always been that we're not an East Coast, West Coast channel. We're happy to have everybody on the East and West Coast who wants to watch. But I come from the middle of the country, so many of my colleagues do. And we've always sort of felt left out by the big national newscasts.

FOLKENFLIK: He's intense yet self-deprecating on and off the air. And Smith doesn't give off too much of that whole gravitas thing that ABC's Charlie Gibson has going on. Instead, he propels his show with quick-witted, rapid-pattern narration.

Mr. SMITH: Almost like video snacking on YouTube. We want you to sort of news snack with us. And if you - if I'm about to give you a bite of something you don't like, it's not going to last long, and there will be more in a minute. We'd like for you to stay.

FOLKENFLIK: So, you'd hear this recent stripped-down explanation of the credit crunch.

(Soundbite of broadcast "The FOX Report")

Mr. SMITH: If we can't fix the banks, then no money can be borrowed. Essentially no college loans, no mortgages, no...

FOLKENFLIK: He says his viewers don't think the most important stories are always in Washington or, these days, Wall Street. So Smith also serves up lighter fare on, say, Kentucky Fried Chicken's secret recipe, or Kim Jong Il's taste for pricey scotch, along with tabloid-style crime stories.

(Soundbite of broadcast "The FOX Report")

Mr. SMITH: And little Cayley Anthony has never been found. But today, four months after anyone last saw her, her mother, Casey, is charged with murder.

FOLKENFLIK: And he doesn't much like talking points from anyone. In this case, he's questioning U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

(Soundbite of broadcast "The FOX Report")

Mr. SMITH: When Hank Paulson said, you know, the Japanese model was to inject money into the banks, we don't want to do that. Now two weeks later, we're doing that.

FOLKENFLIK: The man is an anomaly. At 7 p.m., he competes against the outspoken liberal Chris Matthews on MSNBC and the equally outspoken populist Lou Dobbs on CNN. FOX News is the most confrontational news outlet on television, but it's paying Smith $8 million a year not to take an explicit point of view.

Mr. SMITH: There are a lot of people on our channel who want you to think like they do. We just want to give you some information to help you think. I don't much care for ideologues within my newscasts. There's plenty of it out there; you don't need any more.

FOLKENFLIK: Smith often interviews pundits on the afternoon show "Studio B," but not on the higher-rated "FOX Report." And on the day I visited the set, Smith knocked down suggestions he once again run incendiary video of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's controversial former pastor. I asked Eric Boehlert, a critic of FOX News who writes a column for the liberal watchdog group Media Matters, what he thought about Smith. Boehlert said he felt Smith was the fairest anchor on FOX. As for Smith, he says he appreciates the role FOX News allows him to play.

Mr. SMITH: Who's better at toeing the Republican line than Sean Hannity? I can't think of anyone right off the top of my head. Sean Hannity doesn't host our news. He's never hosted our news. When we have news, I come on.

FOLKENFLIK: By contrast, MSNBC had Matthews and fellow liberal Keith Olberman anchor some of its political coverage. NBC News executives ultimately had to dump the arrangement. Smith takes pains to make his show different from its cable and network counterparts. He relies on few highly produced stories. Instead, "FOX Report" gets up-to-the moment updates from the network's own reporters. David Rhodes is FOX's vice president for news.

Mr. DAVID RHODES (Vice President of News, FOX News Channel): In a sense, it owes more to local news, which is Shepard's background, than it does to other national programs, with the added dimension that unlike local news, it does not have to be so rigidly formatted. We don't have to take time to do the weather and the traffic and the sports.

FOLKENFLIK: Media analyst Andrew Tyndall sees a different model for Smith's show.

Mr. TYNDALL: "Entertainment Tonight," where you have exactly the same velocity, the 20-second piece of celebrity after celebrity after celebrity with the voiceover. And what he did was take the style of entertainment news and applied it to serious news.

FOLKENFLIK: Shep Smith makes no apologies for that. Why would he? He's having fun, making a lot of money, and leading his version of the newscast of the future. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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