'Getting to the Truth' in Iraq Coverage
When the war in Iraq started on March 19, Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith calmly took his post, leading the six-year old channel into its first major war. Since then, he has anchored three daily newscasts and tried to keep up with a fast-moving war story.
Smith shared his take on the war, news coverage and patriotism with Broadcasting & Cable's Allison Romano. What follows is an edited transcript:
At this point in the war, is 24 hours of coverage overload?
As 24-hour news channels, it's our responsibility to be there when people want us, not to make them work under our schedule. This is not just a nighttime bombing campaign or just nighttime advancing. This war is happening all the time. If we're up and live, we do a better job staying on top.
Has there been a point in the war coverage that you recall as particularly difficult to report?
On April 1, when we had word of hostage rescue, there was a sense of euphoria in the newsroom: We have something good to report. But, at the same time, we also knew there was a darker side to that story, and we couldn't talk about it yet. We knew there were a lot of dead Americans in that hospital. But we didn't know if the families had been notified and what all the details were yet.
Was that a self-imposed embargo or one imposed by the Pentagon?
That was entirely self-imposed. We knew the reality there. We knew there were dead Americans. That means there is a process under way, that somewhere the military is notifying families; they can't hear that from us. None of that is Pentagon-imposed. The Pentagon doesn't tell us when to report news. You wait on death.
Are you satisfied with the flow of information from the Pentagon? The embeds provide great first-hand looks, but are you getting the big picture?
We haven't been able to get our hands around the big picture. It hasn't been accessible. But I don't think personally that's because of the Pentagon. This thing is happening 6,000 miles away in the middle of the desert.
Some people who analyze TV and analyze war have decided there are facts we're not getting by Pentagon design. I do not believe that. Why would they not tell us what's going on? The theory is they don't want bad info out; they want only good information out. I think what they want is right information out. You can deal with information as long as you're sure of the facts. I don't think we're always sure on a real-time basis.
Your critics have said Fox has gone easy on the administration. How do you respond?
Do you think the patriotism belongs in news coverage? Is a flag pin or a logo acceptable?
I don't think there is ever a time when patriotism is a bad thing. Ever. I don't care what sort of mistakes this country makes, I will defend it. But, like we've said so often at our organization because it's true, we were Americans before we were journalists. I think I can be American and still report factually.
If someone suggests that I can't be objective in my reporting because I'm an American, is that like suggesting I can't be objective in covering racial issues because I'm white or I can't be objective covering issues between the Jews and Palestinians because I am Christian? Who I am and where I come from and what my background is doesn't effect whether I can be objective.
How are your embeds faring? Is this the experience they signed up for?
They are very tired and very hot, but, without exception, they have been involved in the most rewarding experience of their lifetimes. I talk to [Fox embedded reporters] Rick Leventhal and Greg Kelly. These are friends of mine, pool-playing buddies of mine, and they say their lives are changed. They are inspired in ways I haven't been.
What was your reaction to the firestorm surrounding Peter Arnett and Geraldo Rivera last week?
One of those situations is an editorial situation; one is a technical situation. That's how it seems to me. Peter Arnett's statements speak for themselves. Anyone who has watched Geraldo's coverage through this war knows the last thing Geraldo Rivera would do is aide and comfort the enemy. He didn't do that.
What do you think of the coverage so far?
It's been pretty fair. I think some tough questions have been asked, fair questions asked. Anybody who says we were in line with the Pentagon or Centcom weren't watching our coverage.
Rick Leventhal was one of the ones reporting the supply lines have broken down, we're low on food and water. That's a little piece of news, a little slice of news. Was it important? Yes, it was important enough that they knew they had to reinforce those supply lines.
This was a three- or four-hour story that [created] headlines and enormous questions about the war plan being flawed. I was dumbfounded. Yes, that's a story. But the bigger story is that every tiny thing that has gone wrong has been fixed expeditiously.
But doesn't that illuminate a potentially larger war story?
There are certain people who look at this thing [as] where can I get 'em, where can I find they are screwing up, how can I get them on the front page. That's not the way to approach a news story, not any more than saying 'We're Americans so we're going to pretend this isn't happening.' There is somewhere in the middle. I think Fox has found that place.