Shepard Smith, Fox News
If you think Fox News' Shepard Smith
takes Hurricane Katrina personally, you're right. The smooth-talking anchor is from Holly Springs, Mississippi, and for him, the devastating storm and its aftermath is the natural-disaster equivalent of 9/11. Smith is heading back to the disaster-struck region to lead Fox's weeklong coverage of the first anniversary of Katrina, which Fox is airing under the hopeful title of America's Challenge: Rebuilding the Gulf. When he does his daily shows, Studio B
and The Fox Report
, in New Orleans and Mississippi from Aug. 28 through 31, Smith wants to highlight the pockets of success in the rebuilding effort. But he's also realistic enough to know that for most of the area's residents, life will never be the same. Smith recently talked to the Biz about what it means to go back to New Orleans and Mississippi.
TVGuide.com: There have been all these other big news events: the fighting between Israel and Lebanon, the recently foiled airline terrorist plot, the upcoming five-year anniversary of 9/11. Is it going to be a challenge to get people to focus on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina?
Shepard Smith: I'm not sure that an enormous focus on 365 days later is all that important. I'm always looking for a way to make what's happening there front and center. This happens to be one of those occasions when we can do it.
TVGuide.com: What do you hope to show when you get there?
Smith: My hope is to focus on areas where people have found triumph over tragedy. I think there is a wonderful American story developing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They've pretty quietly put themselves back together and are on the road to what seems like a really spectacular thing.... New Orleans has its own challenges. I hope they're able to progress and come together. Mississippi seems to be further along in the process.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think that is?
Smith: Big cities are often more unwieldy. There are challenges that exist with displaced populations that don't exist to such a degree in south Mississippi. South Mississippi has organized itself in a way that allows for redevelopment. It's two different news events created on the heels of the same storm. The one in Mississippi wiped everything out, so in some ways you have a clean slate. [But] New Orleans [is] still standing. The challenges regarding levees and future flooding still remain. They have a lot of problems there. I love New Orleans; I've been going there since I was a baby, and it's a very special place. Much of what was special about New Orleans went away when the buses left town. I hope they figure out a way to accommodate everyone and still rebuild that city. I don't know how you invite people back with no plan and levees that are not better than before, from what we can ascertain.
TVGuide.com: You were pretty emotional about this story when you were down there covering it a year ago.
Smith: I felt extremely confused. It was the first time I had ever been in a situation where I'm on the ground and I'm hearing from people on every single level that things are getting better, and they weren't. That was the frustration — there were untruths being told. I'm not saying people were lying; I think some of them may have been, and I know at the very minimum they were misinformed. Things were getting worse, not better. That was my frustration. To this day I get e-mails from people saying, "You lost it down there!" Well, I didn't lose it. Those in control lost it. And you can only say it so many times — what you're hearing is not true.
TVGuide.com: How do you think this story has shaped viewers' perception of you?
Smith: I don't know. I think what I learned from comments that I get from viewers is that there is a percentage of the population, and not a tiny one, who sees news coverage and news dissemination through their own political views. Any time that people on one side or the other are being blamed for something, they get their dander up and they blame the messenger. Sometimes this isn't about left or right, or R or D, or jackass or elephant. Sometimes it's just the facts. I look back on what was reported, and I've read a lot of transcripts. I'm comfortable with what was reported and very uncomfortable with what I had to report.
TVGuide.com: Did you think some people took your outrage as a political statement?
Smith: Of course. They always do. There is a certain percentage of the population who always sees the news through their own ideological prism. The more dramatic a story is, the larger degree to which they become angry. I see our role as guardian of the public trust and watchdog of the people. And at times when the people don't have a voice and only we as messengers can hear a voice, we need to deliver their message. The message was not something quiet where residents come up to you and put a hand on your shoulder and say please tell the following story. They were screaming. They were crying. They needed insulin. They needed baby formula. And they were out of their minds. For me to deliver that story in a way [in which] you would deliver stock quotes would have been wrong. There came a time when the people's anger had to be told.... The level of trauma is something most people don't understand.
TVGuide.com: Is it a struggle to give this story as much attention and time as you'd like? The challenge is in the business of keeping people's attention.
Smith: That's never been my challenge. My company has said from the very beginning, "You and your teams know the reality there, and we'll give it the airtime that it needs, period." I'm very thankful for that. The challenge has been, sadly, that it all looks the same. To show town after town — it all looks the same on television. No matter how many times you fly along with a helicopter or drive down the street, there is no way to convey the vastness. There is no way to explain how horrible the largest national disaster in the history of the United States really is. I'm from there. I understand it.... You don't get the kind of attention you'd get if it happened in a media center. This is a region and a culture that needs to be preserved, and it needs the attention of the nation. It needs the attention of all of our leaders, socially, politically and otherwise, and it has not gotten it. I don't think people know to this day what a scar this is to our nation. It's too big for the television screen.
TVGuide.com: What exactly do you mean by that?
Smith: The camera can be as distorting as it is revealing. If you put your camera in a live place where there is devastation, well, you have a great backdrop there and you have a great story there. That's how hurricanes have always been.... You could do 70 live shots, one a mile, and every single thing would look the same. The vastness of it is incomprehensible.
TVGuide.com: Will being there for four days help?
Smith: If we can get one human being to say, "Damn, what can I do?" If we can get one person to call AmeriCorps in south Mississippi, or one person to pick up the phone and say, "Can I sponsor a kid's education?" I feel like it's an important story. We will not have a ratings jump. This is not something that will inspire people to watch. That's not why you do this. You do this because you have an excuse to spend a bunch of money down there and hope you can get somebody's attention. It doesn't get us ratings, but it might help somebody understand a little better. This is bigger than ratings and the news. This is about the loss of a people and the region.