Fox News' Shepard Smith Remembers Being on the Bridge in New Orleans After Katrina
Today's cuppa: Gevalia Signature Crema coffee
On Friday, Oct. 7, Fox News Channel celebrated its 15th anniversary on basic cable, having launched in 1996.
One of the journalists who's been there since the very beginning is Shepard Smith, anchor of two news hours every weekday -- the afternoon "Studio B With Shepard Smith" and the early evening "The Fox Report" (or midday and late afternoon, if you're in Los Angeles, where I am).
The photo above shows Smith in 2005, surveying the damage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the flooding from the broken levee.
What sticks in my memory about Smith at that time is him standing on a bridge in the shattered city, on "a Friday night, five, six days after the storm hit," as Geraldo Rivera says near the beginning of the lengthy clip below, part of a look back at Katrina coverage from FNC's "Geraldo at Large."
Smith and Rivera spoke on "Hannity & Colmes" that night, reporting what they were seeing and hearing on the bridge.
Their frustration is evident (with, unsurprisingly, a little more passionate emoting from Rivera) that people were not being allowed to cross the bridge out of New Orleans to the town of Gretna. Hannity was getting reports from government sources, which Smith, based on his firsthand observations, challenged.
Pointing toward Gretna, Smith described the situation, saying a checkpoint had been set up on the bridge, preventing people from walking out to get help,
"Over there, there's hope," he said. "Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there's food and water. But you cannot go from there to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact."
"All right, Shep, I want to get some perspective here, because earlier today..." began Hannity.
Smith interrupted Hannity -- host, at that time with Alan Colmes, of one of the cablenet's top-rated primetime commentary shows -- with the firm statement, "That is perspective! That is all the perspective you need!"
At that very moment, watching my TV in Los Angeles, I thought, "Whoa, Shep just scolded one of the network's cash cows!"
And as you can see in this AP story from 2005, I wasn't the only one who noticed.
I recently talked with Smith for a feature story that will appear later this month, focusing mostly on his philosophy of news reporting and his distinctive style. But I also had to ask him about the event that defined Shepard Smith in my mind.
"I have a great deal of respect for Sean Hannity," says Smith. "He's an amazing businessman; he's the nicest guy. He's a great father. Whatever your preconceived notions about Sean Hannity, he's just a guy from Long Island."
But, he was not on the bridge, and Smith was.
"That is the difference," says Smith. "He didn't have a way to be there. Just as I was being spun by politicians, he was being spun by politicians. Among the first lessons I teach new journalists that come into our unit is, if you didn't see it or smell it or hear it, then you have to attribute it. But if you did see it, smell hit and hear it, then you can report it, because you're a reporter.
"That day, I was seeing it and smelling it and hearing it, and Sean wasn't. So I had a real advantage over him, because my senses were all engaged. I know that Sean thought he was getting straight information from people -- I thought I was, too, until I realized everybody was lying.
"But I was watching what was happening, and he wasn't. I had a level of frustration that comes with seeing people die around you, that's hard always to get past. I'm not one who wants to be an advocacy journalist, far from it. I'm not here to advocate; I'm here to report.
"But there are times in the course of human events that you're around things that, sometimes you have to cross a line. I don't think I've done it many times I don't anticipate I'll ever do it again. I hope I don't.
"But when people are dying around you, and people say they are coming to help them, and they're not. Then, more people are dying, old women and little children, you have a duty as a human being to make all the noise you can try to, to stop the dying from happening."
After all, even though Smith and Rivera were in the middle of what was happening, they didn't really know how it was reverberating in the outside world.
"I wasn't aware," says Smith, "sitting on a bridge in a collapsed city, that this had become an enormous political debate. We didn't have televisions. We didn't have electricity. We had one satellite phone that was our communications source.
"I wasn't able to watch all the political machinations that had turned this into some kind of a political sideshow. I didn't realize it had happened, so I was just stunned to hear him speaking that way.
"At some point after that, I realized, 'Oh, this has become a political fight.' Well, I chose to plant the flag around those who were dead and dying, and politics didn't belong in it. I was embarrassed that politics became involved in it. It was a very sad chapter in our lives."
OK, to be honest, there was one other moment that defines Shep Smith for me -- his brief appearance in one of my favorite disaster movies, 1997's "Volcano."
Smith played himself, reporting on an entirely fictitious calamity this time -- an eruption of deadly lava near the Beverly Center shopping mall in L.A.
I asked him about it by email, and here's what he wrote:
"That was a Fox movie. I was working in Los Angeles at the time, and they asked me to play a reporter. Seemed easy enough. It was the largest 'burn,' they told us, ever at a movie set -- La Brea Tar Pits.
"We shot overnight, 11p-5a. Then I went to work in Santa Monica. 2 days of shooting. No sleep. My 70 words were cut to 6 in edit. They were very annoyed that I couldn't memorize all the words exactly. And they wanted me to 'act more like a reporter.' 'Be more serious.' It was exhausting. Paid well!"
(Yeah, no, this "Volcano" music video doesn't show Smith. I just like it.)