For Smith, debate would be a homecoming

FNC anchor is an Ole Miss alum, owns house in Oxford

NEW YORK -- For Shepard Smith, covering the presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., will be like going home. That's because it is.

Not only did the Fox News Channel anchor grow up about 40 miles north in Holly Springs, Miss., but his family lives in and around Oxford and within the past year bought a house in Oxford.

"I live less than a mile from the place where we'll be doing the debate," Smith said earlier this week. That is, of course, whether the debate will be held. As of Thursday, it wasn't clear on whether it would go on as scheduled.

All those Mississippi connections give Smith an advantage in everything from knowing all the best places to go in and around Oxford -- he's been advising friends inside and outside Fox informally -- as well as realizing the importance that the national attention that the state will receive on its image. Smith said that it's a new area long removed from the stain of segregation that made headlines in the 1960s.

"There have never been this many journalists in the state of Mississippi, ever. Why would there be 3,000 journalists in Mississippi?" Smith said this week in an interview in his New York office. "There weren't that many journalists for Hurricane Katrina and the entering of James Meredith combined." Meredith was the first black student at the University of Mississippi, whose entrance to Ole Miss was opposed by the state's governor and required President Kennedy to send troops in to secure.

Smith went to Ole Miss, often attends the football games and delivered the commencement address there last June. He'll also be back Oct. 3 when he becomes a member of the Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Fame. thinks that outsiders will be surprised how things have changed. Now, there's a statue to Meredith in a prominent place at the school, a diverse student population and both a student body president and alumni association president who are African Americans.

"It's a shining example of how you can triumph over the tragedy that was race relations and specifically Ole Miss," he said.

But that's not the only reason to go. Nobel-prize winning author William Faulkner was from Oxford, and his legacy lives on there. There's one of the best small bookstores in the country, Square Books. And there are plenty of great places to eat, said Smith.

"They don't know what old Oxford has to offer. But they will know," Smith said. "It's a cultural mecca in a region where people wouldn't expect such a thing."

 Assuming the debate goes on as scheduled, Smith will be too busy to really enjoy any of the local sights. He's going to anchor the coverage of the debate on the Fox Broadcasting Network, which includes the 90-minute debate as well as up to an hour of analysis afterward. That's in addition to his regular two shows, "Studio B" and "The Fox Report," which he does on Fox News. And he's also going to pitch in on The Strategy Room, the network's online channel where there are no commercials and there's always the chance to run long.

Smith has been at the network since the beginning. He debuted "The Fox Report" in September 1999 and has remained on top in the ratings since October 2001 even though CNN, MSNBC, Headline News and CNBC have aired a total of 34 programs in that time slot against Fox News. He averages 2.3 million viewers, higher than both CNN and MSNBC combined.