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Originally published Monday, September 26, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Coverage of Katrina bolsters standing of Fox's Shepard Smith

Much like a youthful Dan Rather made a name for himself with stellar coverage of a Gulf Coast hurricane two generations ago, Fox News Channel's...

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — Much like a youthful Dan Rather made a name for himself with stellar coverage of a Gulf Coast hurricane two generations ago, Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith opened some eyes with his work in the face of a powerful and blustery force.

An already tired and incredulous Smith appeared with Geraldo Rivera on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" show Sept. 2, four days after Hurricane Katrina had blown past New Orleans to leave misery behind.

Co-host Sean Hannity opened his show with images of the National Guard arriving in New Orleans, bringing hope and authority to a lawless town.

Smith's reporting from a New Orleans highway overpass clogged with the sick and dying was far different.

He talked of people at the overpass who believed they were getting the government's help but hadn't, and were suffering as a result. They weren't even allowed to cross a nearby bridge from New Orleans to Gretna.

"Over there, there's hope," Smith said. "Over there, there's electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from there to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It's a fact."

"All right, Shep," Hannity said. "I want to get some perspective here, because earlier today ... "

Smith interrupted him.

"That is perspective!" he said. "That is all the perspective you need!"

It was an electric, much replayed moment.

Critics of President Bush and the administration's response to the hurricane seized upon it as an example of cold reality splashed in the face of one of the president's biggest fans.

"I'm very frustrated that people are dying in front of me and it's not stopping and I don't know when it's going to stop," said Smith, recalling the moment in an interview in his office. "I would love to be able to say it's all going to be fixed tomorrow, but I couldn't say it."

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The sheer unbelievability of what was happening didn't immediately sink in with many Americans, including talk-show hosts in distant studios, he said.

"There was a disconnect in the early days of this story, with people going 'Oh, my God, these reporters are out of their minds, talking about bodies all over the place, fires burning in the distance and a Third World feeling.' You weren't in touch with the facts yet, how it was. Sometimes things are just so big and awful that you just can't believe it at all."

His passionate reporting won critical praise, helped renew interest in his nightly newscast and earned him his first visit to David Letterman's couch. Letterman's people called even before Smith's memorable exchange with Hannity.

Fox's chief anchor will increase his profile even more with a nightly radio newscast that begins airing today on more than 260 Fox affiliates.

"What he did down in New Orleans was really an extraordinary accomplishment, which goes way beyond what we would expect a news anchor to do," said Paul Levinson, chairman of Fordham University's communications and media-studies department. "He not only reported what was going on, he did not allow other people to minimize or mischaracterize what was happening."

For Smith, it was an important step in establishing a reputation for independence — something many reporters take for granted.

Rightly or wrongly, journalists at Fox run the risk of being associated with an opinion lineup that leans right, said Charlotte Grimes, a professor at Syracuse University. Even Smith's "Late Show" appearance on Labor Day seemed a little like a test. Letterman prodded Smith about whether the Bush administration was to blame for the Katrina response; Smith said it wasn't his job to lay specific blame.

"He separated himself from the competition and what is seen as Fox's political conservatism and pro-administration policy and called them as he saw them as a journalist," Grimes said. "That has to help raise your credibility as a journalist. It gives you respect."

Smith said he hoped people recognized that Fox's news division is just that, a news division.

"I didn't get into this to be an advocacy journalist," he said. "I think our job is to tell people what's going on and let them make their decisions on how to react to things based on the facts and just the facts. It's a very difficult world we live in, in this business, to just stick to the facts, and I try very hard to do that."

Smith, 41, a Mississippi native with a long background in local news before joining Fox at its beginning, was hardly invisible before Katrina.

"The Fox Report," which he anchors in the evening, has led the cable-news channels in the ratings since February 2001. Before Katrina, he averaged 1.4 million viewers a night. Since Katrina, he's been bringing in more than 2.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

With Fox News chief Roger Ailes expanding his authority to the Fox-owned local stations, there's talk the Fox broadcast network might want to begin a nightly newscast. Smith would be the obvious choice to anchor.

"It would be so cool," he said, "and if they wanted me to do it, I certainly wouldn't turn them down."

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