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Man of the People


Shepard Smith looks out for the little guy (and the truth) on his hit Fox News shows

As one of the most trusted anchors in America, Shepard Smith is famous for his ease in connecting with his audience, his pull-no-punches attitude and for delivering the news in a riveting, fast-paced style, sometimes reporting nearly 70 stories an hour. Smith has been with Fox News Channel since its inception in 1996, and during that time he’s covered some of the biggest news stories of our time, including the Columbia shuttle tragedy and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. His extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina turned Smith into an incredibly familiar face to the multitudes of New Orleanians who evacuated to hotels, motels and shelters all over the country and spent their time glued to the TV, awaiting news about home.

Katrina may have been five years ago, but Smith, a native of Holly Springs, Mississippi, hasn’t forgotten about New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast region. Expect to see plenty of attention given to the continued recovery efforts after the BP oil disaster on both his popular shows The Fox Report, the signature evening newscast of Fox News Channel, and Studio B With Shepard Smith, the news/interview program that scores of Americans tune into every afternoon. New Orleans Living caught up with Smith and talked to him about the current state of affairs affecting our lives on the Gulf Coast. But first we had to address his passion for his alma mater, Ole Miss.

Okay, first things first: I know you’re a huge Ole Miss fan, and I wanted to inform you that the biggest nemesis for any Ole Miss fan lives in the New Orleans area; his home and his monster truck are completely tricked out in purple and gold LSU decor. This guy is the Newman to your Jerry!

[Laughs] I think I know the guy you’re talking about! He does his whole house in it, right?

Roof to ground, Shep. And I’m convinced there’s probably an LSU cheerleader tied up in the attic or something …

Ha ha ha! Oh, no, I hope not, Christine. Oh, my God! I would be afraid! [Laughs] I don’t like to admit it, but I do like to visit Baton Rouge—only when we win!

We’ll see about that this fall! Shepard, you spent a lot of time down here in the trenches during Katrina. You reported from that infamous overpass in New Orleans during Katrina, around where people weren’t allowed to cross the bridge. I bet it didn’t even feel like you were in the United States at times.

The first night after the flood, I remember being up there. I knew there were a lot of people out there who were scared and couldn’t figure out what to do, and others who were addicts who couldn’t get a fix, just like in any city anywhere, so all those forces were coming together. We had some burning here and some shots there, and lots of people who didn’t have anything, and it felt very otherworldly to me. We were high and dry at the exit ramp for the Superdome, and we had a lot of fears going through our minds at the time. One of my colleagues and I were sitting there at night, the whole city was dark, and we were trying to figure out what New Orleans was going to be like in five years, and we didn’t have an answer. At the time we feared it was just not going to be able to come back. We feared that they just wouldn’t let it come back, because of the fact that it was below sea level and they realized that the levees wouldn’t hold. And as the night went on, we were thinking maybe they’ll actually spend the money to do it right this time. I guess they spent the money and frankly, they haven’t done it right. And our people are still vulnerable. And if it happens, I hope everyone gets out. I don’t know what to do but wish it otherwise.

Will Fox be doing any five-year retrospective Katrina specials on your shows?

We will, and what I want to do is to remember the people who did great things for each other during that time, because that’s what I always try to take away from these disasters and especially this one, which is kind of ours, and find out what we’ve learned and how much progress we’ve made, and if Katrina’s evil sister comes along at some point, what can she do to New Orleans? I think those are the kinds of things we’re going to explore and of course it’s all wrapped up in tragedy number two here. It’s just hard to believe that our folks have been through so much, and now they’re having to go through so much again with the oil. It brings me to tears if I think about it too much. It’s horribly unfair and cruel to the hardworking, God-fearing folks who have not done wrong. It pains me to no end, and I know it does you too.

It’s excruciating. I know New Orleanians appreciate your continued coverage of the oil gush. Sorry, I can’t even call it a “spill”; it’s been a cataclysmic oil surge. And you can’t underestimate it; who knows if there are three or four or more origins of this gush.

No, you’re right, it’s true, it is a gush. And I wonder what all there is down there too. There’s nothing over the course of this event that would suggest to me that the smartest thing for me to do would be to believe everything they say. It’s just been proved over and over that that’s not the right thing to do here.

There are so many different stories coming out of this one event. Today I saw on Studio B the interesting segment about the scientist discussing all the fish, sharks and aquatic life swimming close to shore, looking for oxygen and safety, trying to bust a move away from the oil.

Yeah, that scares me in the long-term for the wildlife. There are so many of our neighbors’ whose lives are based around the wildlife and the seafood. People need money to put food on the table, and I know they don’t want handouts, they want to do it themselves. I mean, that water is the heart and soul of Louisiana. It’s music and water. It’s from that water that comes the food and that soul that gives New Orleans its special thing. And I’m not sure what is happening exactly, but if all that wildlife is gone and if the marshes do really die off and the land really starts to disappear, my theory is you don’t just lose a lot of people in Louisiana as we did five years ago, and a lot of life from Louisiana as we are now, but you could really physically lose part of the state. It’s just mind-boggling. I try not to get too deep into it, and just stay with what we know at the moment, but the future scares me.

And hopefully people don’t get fatigued with the oil situation in the Gulf. It has been months now, and cap or no cap, the damage has been done for years to come.

I’ve been talking to scientists and government folks, who say five years from now there’s still going to be booms along the Mississippi, Alabama and northwest Florida coasts, and the bays and the marshlands are still going to be a disaster in Louisiana, and we’re still going to have oil washing ashore. It’s really hard to process that. And I think what the media have to do is make sure over the next few years that we learn through experts what transformation the Gulf is making—if in fact it does—so that we can help people understand and figure out a way to try and bring what is natural back to those waters. After all, man messed it up; man has a responsibility to try and fix it. People deserve to have the coast for decades to come. And don’t even think that dollars and cents aren’t going to come into this. You ask anybody who was in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish during Katrina, who kept waiting and waiting and waiting, and they thought, well, money’s not going to be the big issue here, but every one of them knows in the end, it is! And we’ve got health concerns coming as well. I’m told there are days when you can walk around New Orleans and smell something. Well, what is it? What is it doing to us? Who’s getting sick and why? I think The Times-Picayune and lots of the local television stations are doing a great job, and we, as part of the national media, have a responsibility to continue to cover that.

And there are some local politicians doing a great job, too. How ’bout that Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, what a hero for this state! He is busting his chops out on the front lines, sweating to death in his long sleeves, breaking his back trying to bring attention to this emergency. I love the guy!

Oh, Billy, of course! What does the sign say there on I-10, “Billy for President”? He’s unbelievable! He loves his parish, you can tell that for sure. And lots of people have learned something about Louisiana over the last few years; we already knew about music and food, and now I think we’ve learned about resilience and passion. Louisianians are passionate people. As much as I hate to say it, anybody who’s ever been to Death Valley in Baton Rouge on a Saturday night knows it. People might not have known about that passion, but they’ve learned about it in the aftermath of Katrina and here in the aftermath of this oil disaster. If there are a more passionate people in America, I don’t know where they are. I love watching Billy Nungesser; he’s passionate!

Yeah, and he’s certainly not busy taking yachting trips right now.

[Laughs] No, he’s not! If he’s on a yacht, it’s covered in oil! And I think lots of people paid attention thanks to James Carville too. He got some attention in Washington, and I think a lot of Louisianians were appreciative of that. You make some noise and people listen.

And what’s reminiscent of that passion and resilience is the Saints winning the Super Bowl!

Oh, my God! How great was that! I was in Oxford at the time, and I’ve never seen so many fleur-de-lis in Oxford! Man alive, to have that triumph after the bags on the head and all Archie went through, to watch it happen felt mighty good.

Yes, indeed! Do you do any special rituals before Ole Miss games?

Well, you know, my dad and my brother and his family live in Oxford, and I have a home there. I live across the street from where William Faulkner is buried, and on game day, especially against someone who matters like LSU, we’ll go over there with William Faulkner’s favorite bourbon and do a midnight shot on a Friday night to pay homage to gold ol’ Bill Faulkner in hopes that he can bring the Rebels a win against those evil purple shirts and gold britches. Bill hasn’t failed me yet! [Laughs] My office is hotty-totty-ed out with about 50 Ole Miss things in here. You know, LSU fans understand “hating” Ole Miss, and it’s not really hate, but this year we beat LSU in football, men’s basketball twice, women’s basketball twice, swept ’em in baseball in the regular season. And that just makes my life better! If I can stand up and yell, “Purple shirts, gold britches, go to hell, you sons of bitches!” then my life is better! [Laughs]

Did you visit New Orleans often when you were a child?

Oh, yeah! It was probably the first city I visited as a child. We’d come down at least once a year for LSU, Tulane and Saints games, and I’d go down with friends for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. New Orleans is the de facto capital of our part of the South, and if you wanted to have some fun, that’s where you would go. New Orleans is my home! I’m more of a Jazz Fest guy, but I guess that comes with age! [Laughs] But I can’t think of anything better than sitting way back in the back and eating an oyster po’boy and listening to some great music and kicking back with a beer on a blanket with some friends. I mean, that’s just a great day! What is better than New Orleans in the middle of a celebration? It’s one of my favorite places anywhere, I just love it.

Fox News is popular for its pundits, from Bill O’Reilly to Glen Beck, love ’em or hate ’em. Do people often try to pigeonhole you into having an opinion?

Of course! People are most comfortable with labels. “Fox, they’re the conservative ones; MSNBC, they’re the liberal ones.” But I think everyone has a right to an opinion, and it doesn’t bother me one iota if a liberal or a conservative gets an opinion show and they scream at the top of their lungs on it. What’s important to me is that people get the facts so they can form their opinions and that’s my job. Lately it’s been a challenge to separate fact from fiction. And during important events like Katrina and the oil crises, our politics need to be out of the way and we need to focus on the facts are so we can identity problems and solve them. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed the news part of it all. However your politics fit in doesn’t interest me. And I have the most supportive bosses here that I could dream of. They really do want you to tell it straight. I never understand when a company hires you and then tries to change you; that’s not what they do at Fox, and I think that’s part of the key to their success. It’s a perfect job for me. And really the news is about people and what they’re going through. And from Plaquemines to St. Bernard to the Lower Ninth, the stories of the people are what matter. I look forward to visiting those people five years later.