NEW YORK – His time reporting in front of a camera isn’t the first thing Shepard Smith thinks about when he recalls Hurricane Katrina. Instead, he thinks about sitting on a darkened highway overpass with a colleague one night, surrounded by the homeless and the desperate.
A radio station played Fats Domino’s “Walkin’ to New Orleans,” and the two men lost it.
“We had one of those breakdown moments that you rarely have on these sort of things because you have to keep yourself together,” the Fox News Channel anchor says on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy. “In the middle of the night, when you didn’t have work responsibilities, we just sort of let ourselves go and cried about it a little bit.”
Anger, more than sadness, characterized the work of many TV journalists then. For Smith, it was an assignment that helped carve a reputation: He minced no words describing government incompetence in the days after the disaster, even if what he said wasn’t what some of Fox’s opinionated personalities wanted to hear.
In the days following Katrina, Smith walked among people suffering from a lack of food, water and medical care, while officials assured journalists that help was either there or on the way. His eyes, ears and nose told him differently. He’d never been spun by officials quite to that extent.
“The human instinct is to turn up the volume,” he said. The lasting affect of the story is to make Smith more skeptical of authority figures in times of crisis.
Less lasting is the idea, popular post-Katrina, that the experience would make television journalists more emotive and less dispassionate when out on stories.
“The emotions, the activism that sort of sprung was natural and for the time, reflectively, I think it was probably right,” he said. “But I don’t think it belongs in our daily reporting lives. Those were extraordinary times and they brought about extraordinary emotions. I’m careful to control my emotions. It wasn’t possible at that time.”
Michael Clemente, now Fox’s senior vice president for news, worked for ABC News then. He watched Smith and could see what the experience meant to him.
“You can’t be a reporter and go there and witness that and not have it change you in some way,” said Clemente, adding that a defining characteristic of Smith’s work is a curiosity and energy about stories that hasn’t been shoved aside by cynicism.
Smith followed Katrina where the story led him, even as it embarrassed a Republican administration.
Earlier this summer, radio host Rush Limbaugh said Smith had “caved” by holding off on airing damaging video of Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod when it first surfaced on a conservative website. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly aired it, with O’Reilly later apologizing when the clip proved misleading. Last year, Limbaugh accused Smith of “whining and moaning” when after a shooting at the Holocaust Museum, he reported on offensive right-wing e-mails he had seen.
“I’m not in the political world,” Smith said. “I don’t do that. All I ever wanted to do, back when I first got a job in Panama City, Fla., was to chase ambulances around and find out what’s going on and tell people about it. That’s still what I like to do: find out what’s up and tell people about it.”
Smith is not returning to New Orleans for the Aug. 29 anniversary of when the storm came ashore, although he’ll speak of his experiences at Thursday’s opening of a Newseum exhibit in Washington. Work wouldn’t allow him the time to complete the follow-up stories he finds necessary in New Orleans, he said.
“I didn’t want to parachute in the way anchors sometimes do. I don’t think it helps anybody,” said Smith, who added that he wasn’t criticizing the TV talents such as NBC’s Brian Williams, ABC’s Robin Roberts and Bob Woodruff, CBS’ Harry Smith and CNN’s Anderson Cooper who will be back in the Gulf Coast this week.
The 46-year-old Mississippi native was last in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl earlier this year.
“I was impressed,” he said. “I just remember it with gunshots and fires and dead people all over the place. It was hard to imagine it becoming a real city again and it is. Not all of it is back — I’m not trying to sugarcoat anything — but a lot of the soul that I thought would be damaged hasn’t been.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s evening newscast has dominated its time slot for more than eight years, beating rivals CNN, MSNBC, HLN and CNBC combined in viewers, the Nielsen Co. said.
His current deal with Fox expires next year; he wouldn’t talk about his contract.
Clemente doubts Smith would go anywhere else. “He’s a part of the fabric of the whole place,” Clemente said.
David Bauder/The Associated Press