Before Shepard Smith became the chief news anchor and managing editor of Fox News Channel’s Breaking News Division, where he just re-signed a multi-year contract, he was an Ole Miss student.
Smith attended Ole Miss in the 1980s before leaving for an internship in Florida and never returning to finish his degree. Although he has lived in New York City for years, he still considers Oxford and Ole Miss his home.
Smith was last in Oxford around three weeks ago for a baseball series and to visit his dad. He said he will hopefully be back for LSU weekend next month.
“I have lived around there for my entire life, and Ole Miss is always where I wanted to be,” Smith told The Daily Mississippian in a phone interview. “I don’t think it’s by chance that we have so many fantastic journalists and literary figures and poets and musicians who come out of our place. It’s a wonderful liberal arts education with so much to offer, just so much to offer.”
Smith said his time at the university prepared him for the first steps of his career because students were taught a little bit of everything, from editing and writing to directing, anchoring and reporting.
“You came out of there with a sort of broad understanding of what the industry was, and it really, I thought, put me in the position to get that first job and get started in the industry,” Smith said. “When I was there, and I know it’s still the case, you had to get in and do the job of a journalist.”
Involvement in student media
By the end of his career at Ole Miss, Smith was more than familiar with student media. He said he did a little bit of sports reporting for The Daily Mississippian and started off working in the radio section his freshman year before joining the staff at the campus television station, which was called News12 at the time, as a reporter and anchor.
“I learned to direct and edit there,” Smith said. “Everything that you have to do to be in television news, we were doing on a small scale in a learning way in Farley Hall back in the day. It was invaluable.”
Smith quoted lines from a poem that alumnus Frank E. Everett Jr. wrote about Ole Miss in the early 1970s.
“What is it that they say? ‘The university is respected, but Ole Miss is loved. There are many universities, but there is only one Ole Miss.’ I carry that with me,” Smith said. “My front-porch, Southern upbringing is very much a part of who I am today.”
Smith said he wouldn’t have been able to live out the incredible experience of writing the first draft of history over the past 30 years without all that he learned and experienced at Ole Miss.
“A lot of people just go to a school and get an education and move on,” Smith said. “That’s not what happens at Ole Miss. It’s part of our lives. It’s part of the fabric of our being. I’m never happier than a fall day in the Grove or a spring day at Swayze.”
Advice to aspiring journalists
Smith said the best lesson journalism students can learn is to listen.
“I think that’s something that’s instilled in us, particularly in Mississippi, maybe better than other places,” Smith said. “It’s been my experience, at least, that we have a tradition of listening to our elders and learning from previous generations.”
He also said that life in the public eye, while rewarding, can also be complicated in many ways.
“Don’t get into this business to get rich and famous,” Smith said. “You may want the former. You probably don’t want the latter, whether you know it or not.”
Great leaders and extraordinary opportunities at Ole Miss are what Smith said he owes his success to. While here, he learned to listen, write, study and have empathy for other people’s situations.
“Everytime you report on something someone is doing, someone’s life is affected by that,” Smith said. “Someone is hearing that report. It’s related to the people on which you’re focusing. It’s important to remember that we’re talking about people and individuals’ lives and situations, not just about concepts.”
After leaving Ole Miss in the late ‘80s, Smith worked for the NBC station in Panama City, Florida, before moving to Los Angeles to work as a correspondent for a Fox News affiliate. Around 20 years ago, Smith was told he could move from Los Angeles to New York or find a job somewhere else, so he moved to New York.
“The media capital of the world is New York,” Smith said. “I never really thought about living here. New York was – as it might be to some Mississippians today – back then in the ‘80s, it was this big scary city to me.”
Smith said that as he moved from city to city and became more accustomed to urban life, he realized he could be happy in a city.
He joined Fox News as it launched in 1996 and has since covered stories all over the world, including the 1999 Columbine school shooting, Hurricane Katrina, Princess Diana’s death and more.
Smith said some of the stories he is most proud of in his career happened in his early days of reporting.
“I really enjoyed that local reporting, gumshoe reporting, that I did for 12 years or more,” Smith said. “I miss it in many ways. I like being a part of local reporting and local community. There’s rich reward in that.”
Smith recalled a memorable story he covered in an Orlando retirement community around 25 years ago. A group of men had been driving around in trucks offering free inspections of people’s’ roofs. Afterwards, they would intimidate the elderly people a bit and tell them the roof needed $2,000 of work, and they would write a check.
“Of course, it was a scam,” Smith said. “So we were able to catch them and track them down. Those sorts of people helping people stories are fun.”
Fox News is a conservative-leaning media company, and Smith often faces criticism from viewers for what they consider to be conflicting viewpoints between themselves and Smith.
“What we try to do is find out what’s happening, get it right, report the truth, and then if people have opinions about that one way or the other, then they’re certainly entitled to those, but I don’t concern myself with that,” Smith said.
Smith believes it’s a difference in perspective that affects the way people react to a story.
“Sometimes, based on your worldview, you’ll see an accurate report and it’ll anger you,” Smith said. “And sometimes, based on your worldview, you’ll see an accurate report and it’ll please you. Whether you are pleased or angered is not really my primary focus.”
He said it’s not a popularity contest. The job Smith and his team are faced with is delivering news in a fair way so that people can make their own decisions for their own lives.
“Other people come to the table to tell you what they think about things,” Smith said. “I’m supposed to come to the table and tell you how things are, and that’s what we work hard to do every day.”
Smith said he is proud of all that Ole Miss has accomplished and of the opportunity that the university gives students to make Mississippi a better place.
“It’s just vital, the work that’s done at Ole Miss,” Smith said. “We cannot find ourselves in the position of leadership in the state, if we want to be, without the educational experience that comes from the flagship university of our state.”
Smith said Ole Miss is growing at a record rate and successes in the classroom are unparalleled in our university’s history.
“Anything that you need to prepare yourself for life, you can find at Ole Miss, I’m confident,” Smith said. “I know you can, because I was there and I experienced it. And I know Ole Miss has only gotten bigger and better since I was there.”