Shepard Smith on his success: ‘I never said no. Not to one assignment’

Shepard Smith on the set of his new CNBC show, "The News with Shepard Smith."

With his new CNBC show, "The News with Shepard Smith," longtime journalist Shepard Smith says he doesn't want to tell anyone how to think. He just wants to report the facts so people can make up their own minds.

"I hope we can deliver the news of the day in context," Smith tells CNBC Make It. "I want people to feel like I didn't waste their time and that maybe they learned something and that I didn't talk down to them or tell them how to think."

It's an appropriate mission for Smith, 56, who says his success in journalism — and in life — has come from always seeking the truth, and working hard. He's even had to learn his own personal truth along the way.

Where it all started

Smith's hunt for the truth started as a kid growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Over breakfast, Smith's parents would get into deep debates about the Vietnam War. "Often they would disagree about what was going on, as much of America did at the time," he says. 

Smith remembers wishing he could go to Vietnam to find out what was really happening so that he could report back to his parents.

Then, after Elvis Presley died in 1977 when Smith was 13, the media swarmed nearby Memphis, Tennessee. "The idea of being able to be somewhere when it was happening and reporting on that live," that sounded cool, Smith says.

Smith headed to University of Mississippi to study journalism but dropped out two credits shy of a degree to take a TV reporter job in Panama City, Florida.

Smith says he never looked back. "I just kept running," he says. 

"I didn't have legs up, aside from White privilege that I recognize," Smith says. "So I worked my a-- off and I tried not to make big mistakes."

'I never said no'

After Panama City, Smith took reporting jobs in Fort Myers, Texas, Miami and Orlando, Florida, before finally landing in New York. After working as a correspondent for Fox affiliate service News Edge, Smith joined Fox News Channel at its inception in 1996.

"In the early going, for the first decade, maybe even two decades, ... I never said no. Never. Not to one assignment. Not to anything," Smith says.

Smith covered major breaking news stories like the death of Princess Diana in 1997, President Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial, the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, to name a few.

Smith says he would work nights and weekends, sometimes for weeks without stopping or while he was sick.

"They would change out crews and they would change out people and I would just keep going because I just didn't want to miss anything," Smith says.

Smith even skipped his stepsister's wedding to cover the McVeigh verdict. "I was the lead correspondent on the story and we didn't have anybody else who had studied it in the way that I had," Smith says.

But Smith says his drive was more than just a quest for success — it also helped him hide from his personal life.

'Nothing to hide' anymore

"I was gay and I hadn't figured it out," says Smith, who divorced his wife, Virginia Donald, in 1993. "I just didn't know how to process all of that." He says that by focusing on work, he didn't have to deal with his sexuality.

But over time, Smith decided to figure out his personal truth, too. He saw a psychologist who helped him accept his sexuality.

In 2017, Smith talked openly about being gay while speaking to students at his alma mater.

He told them he put his sexuality in a box and stowed it away. But "one day I found the box," he said. "Then I cried for a long time."

From that moment, Smith said he had "nothing to hide." 

"I was always as true to me as I knew how to be," Smith told the students. "If I was fibbing to you, it's because I was fibbing to me. … And that sounds like such a load of crap, but it really is my truth. I don't have to ever fib about anything again as long as I live."

'I wanted to get out clean'

Smith spent 23 years as a correspondent and anchor at Fox News Channel, where he anchored "The Fox Report," "Studio B" and "Shepard Smith Reporting."

Then in 2019, Smith abruptly left Fox News. His departure followed repeated criticism of his reporting by President Donald Trump on Twitter and even by fellow Fox News personalities, though Smith has denied that was why he left.

"Even in our currently polarized nation, it's my hope that the facts will win the day, that the truth will always matter," Smith said as he signed off from his final broadcast, surprising both viewers and people he worked with.

"I had known for awhile that I should do it. I had known that I needed something different," Smith says about his departure last October. "I just wanted to get out clean, get out nice and move on. I didn't want to burn bridges with my friends there."

In July, CNBC announced Smith would join the network as chief general news anchor. Smith's new show, "The News with Shepard Smith," premieres Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.

Smith hopes the new nightly hour-long show will be "a full-plate newscast" that offers the news of the day and some perspective, that points out the heroes amid the chaos, and tells some good news, too.

"I want the appetizers and the cocktails and the meal and the dessert and then the coffee," Smith says of the show. "I hope people will come to it. And if they don't, well, we tried" 

Watch "The News with Shepard Smith" on CNBC, Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. ET. 

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