The Son of Flubber

This is a story about that guy Shepard Smith-so let’s cut the polite chitchat and go straight to the you-know-what .

On Nov. 4, Mr. Smith, the Fox News Channel’s bombastic baby anchor, was in the final quarter of his rollicking 7 p.m. nightly newscast, The Fox Report with Shepard Smith , when he began reading a story about Jennifer Lopez’s new song, “Jenny from the Block,” a song that Mr. Smith reported was “about how she’s still a neighborhood gal at heart.”

“But folks from that street in New York, the Bronx section,” Mr. Smith continued, “sound more likely to give her a curb job than a block party.”

The thing was, Mr. Smith didn’t say “block party.”

He said “blow job.”

He said: “But folks from that street in New York, the Bronx section, sound more likely to give her a curb job than a blow job.”

He then tried to correct himself. “Or bl -block party.”

Whoops.

“I was in shock,” said Mr. Smith’s producer, Jay Wallace.

“Seven years and he stumbled over one word,” said Mr. Smith’s boss, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes.

Mr. Ailes laughed. That, he said, “was a good one to stumble over.”

Over the next week, plenty more people laughed. Mr. Smith’s on-air gaffe became a mini media phenomenon, albeit a strange, slow-moving one. Because he said “blow job,” it didn’t really get a lot of play in daily newspapers. But Howard Stern ( surprise) went nuts with the audio clip, playing it repeatedly on his radio show. A video of Mr. Smith’s flub began circulating wildly on the Internet, complete with the anchor’s on-air apology a few seconds later: “Sorry about that slip-up there. I have no idea how that happened. But it won’t happen again.”

“It’s become a bit of pop culture,” Mr. Wallace said. “I have received that e-mail from 50 or 60 people.”

But Mr. Smith wasn’t getting much of a kick out of everyone else’s enjoyment. The 38-year-old Mississippi-born anchor had spent nearly two decades of his life building a career, schlepping for local-news backwaters until he’d finally achieved some measure of legit triumph-like practically everything else on the network, The Fox Report ‘s ratings have exploded over the past couple of years-but with two monosyllabic words he felt it instantly slipping through his fingers.

“Life’s darkest moment,” Mr. Smith said.

It was a Friday evening, and Mr. Smith was relaxing with a Heineken and a Marlboro Light at the Four Seasons bar on East 57th. “It was life’s darkest career moment.”

Up until then, it had been going so well for Mr. Smith. He was one of Mr. Ailes’ loyal legion of Fabulous Nobodies-seven years ago, he’d been rescued from the sinking set of A Current Affair and brought to the Little Cable Channel That Could. Fox was nothing then, a joke. Mr. Ailes, the former G.O.P. operative and CNBC chief, used to ramble into his newsroom and tell his troops that they were going to “revolutionize television news.” Mr. Smith and his underpaid colleagues would roll their eyes, but the boss was just crazy enough to believe in it.

The boss was not wrong. Using a frantic cocktail of news and AM-radio-style conservative opinion under a savvy “Fair and Balanced” rubric, Fox grew and grew and turned itself into the greatest television story of the decade. It lapped MSNBC and left CNN in second place. Former network pariahs like Bill O’Reilly have become celebrities. Roger Ailes got bigger than Roger Daltrey. And Shepard Smith, a guy who started in Panama City, Fla., in 1987 for $7.50 an hour and was afraid to move to New York City, now gets bigger ratings than Larry King.

“That guy standing at the end of that hall, he was dead-on,” Mr. Smith said of Mr. Ailes. “It wasn’t a mindless pep talk. He really believed it. He was the only one. And he was right.”

Mr. Smith had become a believer, too. This guy was from Holly Springs, Miss., and for years his “ultimate goal” was to be “a reporter in Nashville, Tenn., at WSNV and live in the suburbs with 1.5 cars and 2.5 children.” He’d toiled in Panama City and Fort Myers and Orlando and then joined the controversial but highly successful blood-n-guts “Carnival of Carnage” at Miami’s WSVN. After that he skipped to L.A., where an on-its-last-legs A Current Affair claimed to be undergoing an alleged newsier renovation. The show went off the air in six months.

“I was on the beach,” Mr. Smith said.

Then Fox called. “You heard it so many times, that Rupert Murdoch wants to start a news channel-that rumor had been around since Fluff was a kitten,” Mr. Smith said. “But then they acted like it might work, and I figured, ‘O.K., maybe nobody is watching, but industry people are going to be watching, and if the news channel doesn’t work and you do good work, you’ll get a job somewhere.’”

He started covering the O.J. Simpson trial for Fox. Pretty soon he was in New York and tossed out on the road constantly; he spent so much time out of the city on assignment that when he came home to the Upper East Side, his doorman used to ask him for photo ID. He covered the Montana Freemen and Columbine and enough hurricanes to make Dan Rather drool.

Still, he was convinced that Fox was unhappy and wanted to fire him. He begged them to let him anchor a little, just like Albert Brooks did in Broadcast News . They let him, and he did better than Mr. Brooks’ sweaty Aaron Altman. Mr. Smith found himself doing more anchoring. But he considered himself a reporter first, and he missed the Chase like crazy.

“I was jonesing to be at every big story,” he said. Sitting behind a desk, he said, “was killing me.”

He grew to like it, though. “I realized when a story breaks, it really breaks in the studio-it’s about anchors sitting there ad-libbing until correspondents can get there,” he said. Mr. Smith’s stature grew as he assumed bigger roles in bigger stories-the wild 2000 election, 9/11. He was a media witness to Timothy McVeigh’s execution.

As Mr. Smith became more comfortable as an anchor, his style developed. Though he also anchors a 3 to 4 p.m. newscast, The Fox Report with Shepard Smith is his prize baby. Mr. Smith presides over a high-octane mix of news video and correspondent reports like Vince McMahon at a Main Event. His jack-o’-lantern eyebrows arch and dip, his voice rises and falls with dramatic flair. He may be delivering news from Baghdad, but he might as well be introducing Superfly Snuka.

Aside from headlines, The Fox Report shares little in common with traditional evening newscasts. It’s louder and faster-and especially during the “G Report,” a blitz of softer entertainment and oddity news, it’s Brokaw on Ecstasy. It handles the heavy news adeptly but harbors no illusions of delivering serious analysis; it’s bright, shiny, instant-gratification information. This may have something to do with the fact that it’s assembled by a young crew. The senior producer, Mr. Wallace, is 30 years old. The rest of the staff look like they’ve stepped off the set of Last Call with Carson Daly .

“I want it to seem like a train that’s about to come off the rails, but doesn’t come off the rails,” Mr. Wallace said.

“We don’t waste people’s time,” Mr. Smith said.

It is also something of an anomaly at Fox, in that the show is relatively apolitical. Mr. Smith said it was important for The Fox Report to hew to the “Fair and Balanced” mantra-and it’s never going to be confused with the BBC-but he didn’t want it to be thick with opinion. While Fox mouths like Mr. O’Reilly and Sean Hannity ride to fame and fortune, Mr. Smith said he was content to keep people guessing about his personal politics. He said he takes crap from the left and the right. He said he voted “sometimes.”

Mr. Smith said his dream would be to produce an 11 p.m. half-hour national newscast similar to The Fox Report on Fox’s broadcast network.

Mr. Hannity thinks Mr. Smith can “do whatever he wants to do.” Mr. Ailes said he is happy with The Fox Report and Mr. Smith. He called Mr. Smith “one of the best newsmen” he’d ever seen.

“He is the epitome of the Fox News Channel talent,” Mr. Ailes said. “He is sort of in the new generation of news people-he has got that kind of excitement and edge that I think makes a difference. He’s exactly what we want at the Fox News Channel.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Smith expressed bushels of gratitude toward his fearless leader, who he claimed “pulls no punches.” As an example, he mentioned Mr. Ailes’ controversial dig last year at Paula Zahn, who the Fox chairman zinged when she acrimoniously left the network, saying he could have put a “dead raccoon” on the air and gotten similar ratings in her time slot.

“‘Dead raccoon’ was brilliant ,” Mr. Smith said.

“I would step in front of a bus for Roger Ailes,” Mr. Smith said. “He has changed my life. He did that to a nobody who came from a local station in Nowhereville. I’m not part of his big political power structure; I’m not one of his Washington favorites that he put in a big job. I am just some kid off the freakin’ streets who he said, ‘O.K., maybe he can do it.’ Roger just gets it, and he requires you get it and trust him.”

Fox News was about loyalty , Mr. Smith said. And in the wake of his own public flogging, Mr. Smith mounted a vigorous defense of Mr. Ailes, who was recently criticized for sending a post-9/11 strategy memo to President George W. Bush. In a Nov. 21 editorial, The New York Times wrote that “Mr. Ailes’s action seems especially hypocritical for someone who has spent years trumpeting the fairness of Fox and the partisanship of just about everybody else in the news business.”

Gripping his beer in the Four Seasons, Mr. Smith said the Times editorial made him “incensed.”

“Who do you know who was thinking and acting in a politically correct sort of right business sense after 9/11?” Mr. Smith asked. ” None of us were. We were expressing our feelings. Grown men were crying on the streets. And Roger Ailes sent a letter to the President of the United States hoping maybe he could help in some way. He didn’t do that as someone who got Presidents elected. He did it as a father . And I know he did, because I know the man. And I thought it was pathetic and ridiculous that The New York Times did it on their Op-Ed page-that spoke volumes about The New York Times and spoke nothing about Roger Ailes.”

Told of his young charge’s comments, Mr. Ailes seemed pleased, but said he didn’t want Mr. Smith to jump in front of a bus for him.

“Unless I was in front of the bus and he was saving me, and then I’d be very much in favor of it,” he said. “There would probably be a bonus in it for him.”

As for Mr. Smith’s comments about his letter to President Bush, Mr. Ailes didn’t want to get into the specifics, but said: “Somebody asked me if I felt bad about getting asked to resign by The New York Times , and I said, ‘No, that was the high point of my professional career.’”

The Times editorial didn’t actually call on Mr. Ailes to resign, but you get the idea. He wasn’t exactly quaking in his loafers.

After all, Fox had succeeded on its own terms and now could exist almost as its own independent state (Goldfinger’s lair comes to mind). Such a state provided good insulation amid flaps over questionable letters to the President and unfortunate uses of the phrase “blow job.” Fox had already stood by Mr. Smith during a 2000 incident amid the Florida election chaos, in which he was arrested and charged with aggravated battery, for allegedly using his car to hit a female reporter who was trying to hold a parking space; the case was settled and the charge was dropped.

Still, Mr. Smith remained a bit tweaked out by the J. Lo mess. He explained how it happened.

It had been the day before Election Day; there was tons of news. Mr. Smith said that he was focused on the major events and never read any of the entertainment copy coming his way at the end of the hour.

“I read it cold,” Mr. Smith said of the script. “I had not seen it before.”

Then he said the two words heard ’round the world. His eyes, he said, tripped on the “job” in “curb job,” and must have caught the b-l-o in “block.”

Voila! Blow job.

“I felt the blood go to my toes,” he said. “It was awful.”

Mr. Smith apologized on the air, and in a minute the newscast was over. The first thing Mr. Smith did when he got off the air was to call Fox News senior vice president John Moody. Then he called his agent, who called another Fox News executive, Kevin McGee. The Fox brass was a little chagrined, but reassured him he wouldn’t be canned.

“I looked at the tape, and I felt it was an honest stumble and we’d handle it,” Mr. Ailes said. “I said, ‘Look, if anyone raises hell about this, call me and I’ll get in front of the bullet on this.’ I think he did exactly what he should do: He apologized and kept moving.”

Of course, by then the word was out about Mr. Smith’s howler.

“Howard Stern was calling every day, radio stations all over the country and it’s all over the Internet, and the publicity department’s going, ‘Would you go on Howard Stern?’” Mr. Smith said. “I’m like, ‘No-where does that conversation lead?’ I made an awful mistake. I would never go on Howard Stern and talk about what was, for me, a really awful thing. I had to call my mother and apologize to her. My mom is 72. I talked about a sex act on television totally by accident .”

And even though the humor extended to the Fox News newsroom, Mr. Wallace said Mr. Smith took it pretty hard. “I think he was definitely shaken up by it,” he said.

The potential had always been there. By his own admission, Mr. Smith is not the world’s greatest teleprompter reader. “I stumble all the time,” he said. Mr. Wallace said the guys in the control room sometimes see the copy and make predictions on whether Mr. Smith will be able to wrap his tongue around particular passages. “We laugh about it,” Mr. Wallace said. “He’s a great sport about it.”

Considering it’s live television, and how much time Mr. Smith spends on air, Mr. Hannity said he thought the ridiculing went a little too far.

“I actually think it’s been unfair,” he said.

Then again, he did say blow job .

It will follow Mr. Smith for life. But it was nearly three weeks after it happened and the controversy was dying down, almost dead. He was a nobody who became a somebody, and though he wasn’t likely to become a nobody again, he wouldn’t mind a little less attention. Mr. Smith was happy to be on TV, happy to be on Fox, and beginning to smile again. Plus “my mom was not mad, as it turned out.”

“I think people just sort of understood,” Shepard Smith said. ” Jennifer Lopez . It’s not like she’s unsexy.”