When Shepard Smith returns to the anchor chair on Wednesday, he’ll be occupying one of his former time slots, 7 PM on weekdays, but in a very different environment, CNBC.
“There’s plenty of places for opinion, for telling you how to think, and I have nothing bad to say about any of them,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s just not what I want to do. What I want to do is this, and it just matched so perfectly.”
It’s been almost a year since Smith surprised many in the news business, and many of his colleagues, when he abruptly announced his departure at the end of his 3 PM newscast on Fox News, where he had spent 23 years since its launch.
It was no secret of the tensions between Smith and some on the opinion side of the network.
Some of the disagreements spilled out into the open, and the breaking point seemed to come when one of Tucker Carlson’s guests attacked Fox News judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, and Carlson did not challenge the comments. On air, Smith called the Carlson guest’s attack “repugnant.” The next night, Carlson directly criticized Smith.
Several weeks later, Smith announced that he had asked the network to release him from his contract.
“Even in our currently polarized nation, it is my hope that the facts will win the day, and that the truth will always matter, that journalism and journalists will always thrive,” Smith said in his final newscast, having moved from the evening hour in 2013.
Smith doesn’t dive into details about his departure that day. Instead, he said, “I just decided that I needed a new challenge. I mean, I made friends for a lifetime there. And I helped write a first draft of history there. I traveled around the world and to neighborhoods across the country, and I leaned a lot about life and myself and reporting.”
But he said that “people leave jobs all the time. I made a decision to move on to something different. I’ve moved on.”
Under the terms of his departure agreement with Fox News, Smith could not immediately jump into reporting for another network. In the interim, speculation quickly centered on where he would land, whether it be a cable news rival or a broadcast network spot.
Asked if he considered exiting the business altogether, he said, “Yes, I certainly did. When I first left old co, I went with my partner and we went to see family. We went to sporting events. We took a trip to North Africa. And while we were there, COVID hit, and we knew it was coming. We had stocked the freezers and ready to go hunker down. We were not fools. We saw it coming.”
He said that by the second week in March, during the lockdown, “I thought a lot about where we had come from, where we were going, what my place is, and what I really want to do. Do I feel I still have something to contribute? Would I still feel excited to get up every morning, begin reading as the sun comes up and finish it all the way after the sun has gone down? I came to the conclusion that I did, and I did largely because this place was offering me the challenge that I was looking for.”
Smith said that he interviewed with all the networks but it was the “conversations with CNBC that best match what I want.” His show will largely use the correspondents of CNBC and their facilities and also rely on NBC News, NBC stations, Telemundo and Sky News.
“If Stewart Ramsay is on scene somewhere in Europe, we have access to Stewart Ramsey or anyone else at Sky News,” he said. “It just felt like the best group of journalists with volume and coverage everywhere and the mission of just seeking the truth, finding the truth and telling the truth.”
When Cesar Conde was tapped in May to lead the newly formed NBCUniversal News Group, he was given oversight not just of NBC News and MSNBC, but CNBC, which had been under a separate silo led by Mark Hoffman. That is changing. “It’s all under one umbrella where we are able to use the resources of the whole company,” Smith said.
In other words, as much as the show will avoid opinion, it won’t avoid calling out the truth. During his tenure at Fox News, Smith often drew headlines when he diverged from the pro-Trump party line of the network’s nighttime opinion hosts.
“When any politician or leader tells us one thing, and the science or our eyes tell us something else, then to point out the difference between those two things is altogether right and proper,” Smith said. “On the pandemic, we trust the science and we go with the recommendations of the experts. And if others, with other ideas, come along with statements, then we have an obligation to set the record straight as we know it.”
He added, “Specifically, we want to cut through the noise. Sometimes, there are two sides. But more often, one side says it is a car. And one side says it is an umbrella. And only one is right. And the other one doesn’t deserve our attention.”
The newscast marks a departure for the network, particularly in the evening hours, where they had been running primarily realty TV programming like Shark Tank and Jay Leno’s Garage.
Although CNBC is starting new, Bill Hague, executive vice president at research and consultancy firm Magid Associates, said that the network is debuting the show at an opportune time amid the pandemic: “This is an absolutely awesome time to be launching a show like his. The reason I say that is is sampling and news consumption is up.” The broadcast evening newscasts have seen a viewer uptick, while audiences are looking for information on COVID-19 and the election.
He said that because Smith was an independent voice at his previous employer boosts his credibility with consumers.
“He’s a known, promotable, authentic newsman,” he said. “What we have found in our research is that the desire for authenticity is at an all-time high.”
Also giving Smith high marks was analyst Andrew Tyndall of The Tyndall Report, who said via email that it was possible that Smith could appeal to the same audiences that watch the broadcast networks’ evening news.
But he also said that Smith can diverge from the fare on the cable news channels, heavy into politics, by offering “coverage of all sorts of beats that they hardly touch on, especially (being CNBC) global economics and finance.”
He also said that the boost to CNBC is in reputation as a news network.
“The addition of news programming with a bona fide star can do nothing except improve the network’s reputation past trading hours,” Tyndall said. “In that sense Smith represents a plus. But the bar he has to jump over to improve things is set ridiculously low. And even if he crosses that hurdle, the returns to CNBC in revenue is unlikely to cover the expense of assembling a star power vehicle in the first place.”
Smith outlined the way he believes the newscast will diverge from other networks by identifying four “buckets” for coverage: the information age, social justice, income inequality and climate.
“We will report on those matters. We will report with clarity, and we will make sure to have our own drill down on as many stories as we can,” he said. “We will make sure that disinformation does not get into our newscast.” One of their segments will be called Shiny Object, which will be “that thing that somebody, a politician on the left or the right, some leader or educator, is holding up as a ‘look over here.’”
“Social justice is real. Black lives do matter, and that is not political. I don’t come to that conclusion as a right winger or a left winger. I come to that as a citizen who is paying attention,” he said.
Income inequality, he said, “is now and forever has been a problem. How we deal with income equality is a matter for others, but it exists, it’s growing, the gap between the haves and the have nots is growing. It’s creating challenges across every aspect of our lives.”
He said that it is “indisputable that fossil fuels cause climate change.”
“We know this from the science, and to make it political is just something I don’t understand,” he said. “But neither the left or the right has ownership of the fact our climate is changing and we are partly responsible for it.”
Smith, 56, who grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi, mentioned his own experience growing up in a south still in the throes of segregation. He recalled going to the movie theater with water fountains for “colored” and “white,” and the separation of white and Black children on the main floor and the balcony. The theater burned down.
“I was really fortunate that my parents helped me along, helped me understand as a very young boy, 6, 7, 8 years old,” he said. “But I remember that movie theater burning down and why my parents said it did, and they were right. And we have to learn to get along.”
He added, “I’ve seen a lot of injustice in life. I mean, who of us hasn’t? And I want to report on those injustices and find commonality, and while reporting on social justice, inspire. There’s always a hero amid the carnage. There’s always a silver lining on every cloud or every disaster, and I want to find those things.”
What the newscast won’t have, Smith said, are panels of pundits and spinmeisters.
He reiterated, “We’re not here to tell you how to think.”