Unlike Donald Trump’s eagerly accommodating attorney general, Bill Barr, Shepard Smith doesn’t believe that New York is a dystopian jurisdiction of “anarchy, violence, and destruction.” That was the claim in last week’s Justice Department memo threatening the cutoff of federal tax dollars to the city.
“You know, man, I walk out in Greenwich Village and we have outdoor restaurants everywhere,” CNBC’s newest star told The Daily Beast, in that familiar booming broadcast voice only slightly inflected by his small-town Mississippi roots, as he got ready for Wednesday night’s debut of The News with Shepard Smith, an hour-long show that replaces the 7 p.m. airing of Shark Tank.
“And I walked by the Red Lion the other night”—the famed Greenwich Village live music venue—“and there was an amazing singer and guitar player in the doorway and they had socially distanced tables set up right on Bleecker Street, and it was fantastic,” Smith went on. “New York was alive, and people were out and about, and they were being right with each other.”
Getting positively rhapsodic, Smith continued: “I live in the Village. How many languages and every kind of people from every place on the planet! I used to walk to the subway station and hear every language—sometimes English—on the way. And all those people from all those places are all doing the same thing. They’re being good to each other by wearing their masks and staying separate. I loved it.”
Without quite saying so, Smith, 56, was firmly and volubly rejecting much of the messaging—whether about immigrants, COVID-19 or the alleged lawlessness of Blue State cities—coming out of the Trump White House these days.
And without mentioning the president’s name, Smith—a mega-donor to the Committee to Protect Journalists (to the tune of $500,000, a check he wrote last November when he emceed the group’s annual fundraising dinner)—also chided Trump for repeatedly mocking MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi at his rallies for getting hit by a rubber bullet (a “beautiful sight,” Trump likes to gloat) as he covered a peaceful demonstration in Minneapolis against George Floyd’s alleged murder by cop.
“Violence should never be glorified or condoned,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “I don’t wish harm on anyone. My colleagues, friends, and family don’t either. Leaders have the power to inspire and influence. That power, used properly, can make us better. I hope we can disagree with civility and respect.”
At Fox News, where he had thrived for nearly a quarter-century, Smith was a rarity—an increasingly severe critic of Trump’s lies, his “crazy… ridiculous throwaway lines,” his campaign’s involvement with Russian operatives, and his attacks on journalists; Trump, of course, returned the favor, deriding “low ratings Shep Smith” (never mind that he consistently crushed his rivals at CNN and MSNBC) as “HOPELESS & CLUELESS!”
Yet when Smith is asked why he quit Fox News last October—a whiplash-inducing turnabout barely 18 months after he signed a lucrative multi-year deal to continue at the right-leaning cable channel—his natural fluency becomes clipped and abrupt, almost as if he’s acting out a Hemingway parody.
“I made the decision to leave. I left. And that’s it,” Smith said about his departure, which—seconds after he announced it on air Oct. 11—astonished such colleagues as Neil Cavuto (“Whoa!…I’m a little stunned and a little heartbroken”), Bret Baier (“Today brought about a little shock for us here”), and John Roberts (“I…suddenly got hit by a subway train. Holy mackerel!”).
On his final newscast, Smith told viewers, “Recently I asked the company to allow me to leave Fox News and begin a new chapter. After requesting that I stay, they obliged.”
Published reports suggested that Smith gave up a $15-million annual salary, significantly more than CNBC is said to be paying him (“I don’t talk about money, because my mama told me that’s not polite,” Smith jokes), because he could no longer abide the conspiracy theories, fanciful claims, and pro-Trump propaganda being pushed by some of his Fox News colleagues, especially primetime hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.
The last straw, according to a friend who is regular contact with Smith, was his on-air dustup with Carlson last September over an insult made against Fox News’ resident judicial analyst, former New Jersey judge Andrew Napolitano, by one of Carlson’s guests. On Smith’s afternoon show, Napolitano had said Trump’s tacit quid pro quo attempt to coerce the president of Ukraine into launching an investigation into Joe Biden, in return for congressionally-mandated military aid, constituted a crime.
That night, Carlson’s guest Joe DiGenova, a rabidly pro-Trump former U.S. attorney, called Napolitano “a fool,” with zero pushback from Carlson.
“Attacking our colleague, who’s here to offer legal assessments, on our air, in our work home, is repugnant,” Smith declared grimly the next day—prompting Carlson that night to invite DiGenova on again and snicker, “Repugnant! Not clear if that was you or me, but someone’s repugnant.”
Smith, his friend said, was frustrated and angry that Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and news president Jay Wallace, Smith’s longtime former producer, did nothing to put a stop to the sort of unseemly internecine public feuding that Fox News founder Roger Ailes would never have permitted—accelerating his decision.
Asked about that, Smith didn’t contradict it but was the soul of tact and diplomacy. “I was there for 23 years,” he said, “and my goal was always the same—to seek the truth, find the truth and tell the truth and then have some fun doing it. We gotta have a little fun in life and we have to find the kinds of people who make everything that’s terrible better—heroes in the chaos because I cover a lot of chaos.
“And while I was there, I made friends for life. I was fortunate to be able to do the first draft of history, and I decided I wanted a change. And I made it. And one of the things that’s constant in my life is I have to make a lot of decisions. We all do. It’s part of my life at work. I’m one of the people who makes decisions, and when I make one, that’s it. Because there’s too many more to be made.”
Smith’s departure came more than three years after the disgraced Ailes resigned amid sexual-misconduct allegations and two years after his May 2017 death. “I loved him,” Smith told viewers in an emotional tribute to his late mentor and cheerleader—a man, he acknowledged, with “well-documented flaws.”
Nearly four years later, Smith said tersely: “I think Roger wanted news. And he wanted me to do the news. And I did it. And I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad I moved on to a new challenge.”
Smith said the CNBC program—which will draw upon the journalistic resources of NBC News, a division of the company Trump persists in calling “Concast”—will be different from what he was doing at Fox, where the news reports were frequently punctuated by punditry.
“We’re gonna do a newscast,” he said. “We’re gonna seek the truth and find the truth and tell the truth, in context and with perspective. We’re gonna have experts and we’re gonna have newsmakers. But we’re gonna have no pundits and no opinion.”
Smith elaborated: “I think everything goes into about six buckets these days. I think there’s politics and there’s COVID and, beyond that, there’s the information age and all the changes, there’s social justice and how we have to have it, there’s income inequality and how it will kill us if we let it, and there’s climate change that we better pay attention to or we’ll wake up one day and say this period was a cakewalk. About everything in life goes in those buckets and that’s what we’re gonna be focusing on.”
Although Smith acknowledges that politics, namely the future of the Senate and Biden versus Trump, are likely to dominate his newscast for a good long while—“’ Tis the season”—“it’s not my favorite thing,” he said. “There’s a lot of agendas there. I like people’s stories. I like to cover things that affect people’s day to day lives. Like now. Everything about life has changed one way or another, and I think documenting how we live in this new normal that changes all the time is important and interesting.”
Smith also indicated that he’ll be doing the sort of fact-checking, political and otherwise, that distinguished his work at Fox News.
“I’m worried about disinformation most,” he said. “I’m worried about deep fakes and I’m worried about people who live in an information hole that’s actually a dis-information hole…It’s fairly new in the arc of things. It’s brand new. And we have to learn how to call out misinformation and disinformation because it’s injurious to society. So that’s one thing we’re gonna do.”
He added a cautionary note against “the shiny object. So many people—business leaders, CEOs, politicians—they throw up a shiny object to try to distract you from what’s going on. We’re gonna call that out—maybe not every single day, but some days I think there will be more than one shiny object. We should not be distracted.”
Smith, who prefers to keep his private life private, has been increasingly open in recent years that he’s a gay man in a longtime committed relationship with 33-year-old Giovanni “Gio” Graziano, a former Fox News and Fox Business Network producer who these days is managing their mutual finances among other pursuits, such as academics and caring for their four-year-old Italian water dog, a truffle-sniffing Lagotto Romagnolo named Lucia.
When asked on Friday about the impending Supreme Court nomination of former Antonin Scalia clerk Amy Coney Barrett and its potential impact on recently adjudicated LGBTQ rights such as marriage—and whether a 6 to 3 conservative majority on the court might threaten those rights—Smith sounds like he’s either unconcerned or putting on a brave face.
“We weren’t granted rights! We already had them!” he boomed. “They were there from the Constitution. And that’s a done deal. In America, people don’t take away rights. That’s not what America is. That’s not what America does. America doesn’t take away rights. America makes sure that everyone gets to exercise their rights that are inalienable and are endowed by the Creator. That’s what America does. I’ve not met anyone at any level, anywhere, who wants to take the rights away that was granted to me by the Constitution. I’ve not met the person who wants to do that. That’s not gonna happen.”
Smith burst out laughing when asked if he and Gio might consider availing themselves of the right to get married.
“I don’t know that we need the government involved in our relationship,” he said with a chuckle. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I don’t know. I don’t know anything. I’m enormously happy, and I hope nothing changes.”