In 1993 NBC hired a veteran TV executive named Roger Ailes to create a new cable channel that would complement its financial-news network CNBC. Ailes had two separate but overlapping careers, as a producer extraordinaire and as a right-wing political consultant. As recounted in a sympathetic new documentary, Ailes was just 28 when he made The Mike Douglas Show a top-rated daytime talker. Then he went to work for Richard Nixon and helped Tricky Dick make a political comeback by masterminding his media campaign in the 1968 presidential race. From then on Ailes had his hand in both television and GOP strategy. In coming to CNBC it’s clear now (though he denied it at the time) that Ailes wanted to build a 24-hour news-talk channel that merged his political and producerly sides.
NBC gave him the green light for a channel of call-in shows called America’s Talking, which I don't even remember watching. Ailes soon realized he was not going to get very far at NBC, with its corporate culture tied deeply to its network news division. So the two parted ways, NBC turned America’s Talking into MSNBC and Ailes walked across Sixth Avenue to News Corp, where Rupert Murdoch let him start Fox News Channel.
As Fox News chronicler Michael Wolff has pointed out, Ailes had a gift for getting the most out of second-tier talent. He gravitated to people with chips on their shoulders — or maybe they gravitated to him. He knew how to use people’s resentment at being slighted, unappreciated, passed over. One of the first people Ailes hired at Fox News was a flat-toned news reporter from Mississippi named David Shepard Smith Jr., whose career had been in local news, bumping along with a number of Florida stations and an affiliate service. By 1999 Ailes had promoted him to anchor, and soon Shep Smith was topping the surveys of most-trusted news anchors.
Smith was just one of many talents whose profiles and paychecks were raised considerably by their associations with Fox News — Sean Hannity, Major Garrett, Greta von Susteren, and of course Bill O’Reilly, a washed-up tabloid anchor whom Ailes reinvented as the second coming of Joe Pyne. Smith covered the hard news of the day, while Hannity and Billo (and I’m being generous here) offered interpretations of the news.
Shep was a conventional newsman in an unconventional format, narrowcasting to a self-identifying patriotic, right-wing audience. His Fox Report was usually the highest-rated show outside of prime time and was almost always a pleasure to watch. He asked good questions, didn’t waste words, and his openers always piqued your interest.
For instance, during an impasse with Russia over the Syrian situation in 2013, Smith opened Fox Report one night in front of the national emblem. “For a clearer understanding of where we stand, consider the Great Seal of these United States,” he said. “It shows an eagle holding a set of olive branches in one talon, and arrows in the other. That’s exactly where we find ourselves tonight — holding out the prospect of a peaceful diplomatic solution while preparing for war.”
Everyone at Fox News got on for a while, because it was understood that Ailes had found a weakness in its competitors that he could exploit to maximum advantage. When there was no breaking news, ratings for CNN and MSNBC sagged, but Fox always found a way to keep America talking, even if it involved pulling something outrageous off the Internet and running with it for 12 hours. When there was breaking news, Fox had excellent coverage, usually led by cool hand Shep.
I got to observe him on a chilly afternoon in suburban Kansas City, where he was broadcasting from a farmers’ market before the 2006 midterms. The faithful began gathering on chairs they’d brought before his Studio B show aired, and afterward they applauded and swarmed him. A mother with young children in tow tried to present him with a gift basket, which he graciously declined. Later, as Smith warmed his hands inside a satellite truck, I observed that Fox was the only cable news channel with a fan base. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” he said. “At least, it is to me.”
But it was fine. This was the big sort, right? You watch your commie-pinko news channel, I’ll watch Fox. Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs found their way to Fox’s business channel (take that, CNBC), Major Garrett went to CBS, but things stayed pretty stable until Donald Trump realized that he could reach his base just by picking up the phone and calling the producer at Fox & Friends. And that's when Fox News had its own internal version of the big sort.
At first the cause seemed to be rampant sexism, starting in the C-suite. Ailes, Bill Shine, and other executives were pushed out. Three high-profile women — Gretchen Carlson, Greta von Susteren, and Megyn Kelly — departed. Billo left under duress. But the #metoo narrative had to be reconsidered in the light of Smith’s surprise announcement last fall that he was leaving Fox before his contract expired. True, it might have been homophobia, since he had come out in 2017 after years of quietly living with his partner. But the reality is that none of these four, all of whom were major stars in the Fox universe, were comfortable with Trumpism, which had begun merging with Fox News culture long before Trump won the White House.
So now Shep is at CNBC, a reliably right-of-center news source for the monetarily inclined. He’ll only do one hour, at 7:00 PM ET, opposite a Lou Dobbs repeat and his old colleague at Fox, Martha MacCallum. In theory he should do much better than either Kelly or von Susteren did — they both signed NBC deals only to find that lamestream audiences didn’t trust them that much. Smith will have a softer landing because, like Major Garrett, he stayed on the straight-and-narrow. But there’s something deeper at work here. Shep Smith knew that Fox News was unusual — “weird,” if you will — but he liked his job, which was to communicate the news of the day in an entertaining way to an audience that, deep down, this Ole Miss graduate understood. Now he’ll be communicating with work-at-home traders and Jim Cramer fans. I suspect they’ll get to like each other, too.
The News with Shepard Smith premieres on CNBC Wednesday, September 30 at 7:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.