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So What Do You Do, Harry Smith, Co-Anchor, The Early Show?

Decades into his broadcast career, Smith prognosticates the future of news and tells us how he keeps content fresh

By Diane Clehane - August 12, 2009
Unlike many of his peers who always knew they were destined for a career in front of the camera, Harry Smith took a little longer to figure things out. "I was in radio for a while and was in my mid-20s when I realized what I really wanted to do was pursue news." Smith was working at a Denver radio station when "somebody asked me to be on the public television station's pledge drive." That changed the course of his broadcasting career: "Someone said, 'He's pretty good on TV.' Several years later, I wound up with a job at the public television station."

While Smith has maintained a presence on radio, it's his decades-long tenure at CBS in varied roles as reporter and anchor that have defined his career. Having filed stories from coast to coast for the network, Smith's also anchored from Baghdad where he did a series of reports on the war in Iraq, was the first network morning anchor on the ground after Hurricane Katrina, and anchored from Sri Lanka following the aftermath of the tsunami in January 2005.

These days, both heads of state and A-list actresses have sat across from Smith for his day job and that suits the early riser (who gets up at 3:45 every morning) just fine --- just don't ask him to interview the reality show star du jour.

Name: Harry Smith
Position: Co-anchor, The Early Show
Resume: Assumed his current position in October 2002; also hosts a daily radio news spot on CBS News Radio Network. Joined CBS News in 1986 as a Dallas-based reporter and became a correspondent for the CBS Evening News the following year. Co-anchored CBS This Morning from 1987-1996. Before coming to CBS, had reporting stints in at Denver's public television station and in radio at KHOW in Denver and WLW Cincinnati in the early '80s.
Birthdate: August 21, 1951
Hometown: Lansing, Illinois
Education: Central College, BA in communications and theater
Marital status: Married to sportscaster Andrea Joyce
First section of the Sunday Times: Op-Ed
Favorite TV show: "I don't have one right now."
Guilty pleasure: "Watching romantic comedies with my wife on Pay-Per-View on Saturday night."
Last book read: "I'm reading the Ted Kennedy book -- Last Lion [The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy]. It is fantastic -- it's all these reporters from the Boston Globe edited by one guy. It's decades and decades of reporting, and because it's a Kennedy, it reads like a novel. It reminds me a little bit of The Fitzgeralds and The Kennedys by Doris Kearns Goodwin -- it just has that kind of page-turning quality. It's really good."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
It's a combination of talent, determination and luck. I think almost everybody says the same thing.

"I started to do all of the stuff at the radio station nobody else wanted to do -- interview the dog catcher and the zoning board director -- and just kept pushing my career in that direction."

Did you always know you wanted to be in news?
No. I messed around at the college radio station, [and] then I got a job after I got out of school as an all-night disc jockey. The general manager of the radio station used to go out and party almost every night, and he would come knocking at the door at two in the morning and want to hang out. One night he came in and said, 'You know, you're never going to make it in this business on the air. You should become a salesman.' I said, 'No, I think I want to stick with this.' (Laughs) I started to do all of the stuff at the radio station nobody else wanted to do -- interview the dog catcher and the zoning board director -- and just kept pushing my career in that direction.

When I was watching the feed from Walter Cronkite's funeral on The Huffington Post, I saw you talking to your colleagues at CBS and the anchors from the other networks, and I was struck by the idea that there seemed to be a line in the sand drawn on that day -- a true end of an era. At a time when newsgathering organizations are imperiled by finances, where do you think we are?
(Sighs) I have kind of a long view. People talk about CBS and the days of 'The Tiffany Network.' There were days when none of the news divisions had to financially justify their existence. They were an act of largesse on the part of these big corporations. But even in the days of the 'Tiffany Network,' all of that was fueled by I Love Lucy episodes and Jackie Gleason. There's always been a fight. Go back to Ed Murrow, who did phony shows with Liberace talking about who he wants to marry. There wasn't anybody who didn't know he was gay. That paid the bills, and they could still out McCarthy. These things have always lived in an uneasy balance. As we got into the late '80s, it got to be: 'You've got to financially justify your existence.' A lot of things changed in what we paid attention to and how much we paid attention to it -- especially in morning television. There were things that we never would do when I started in 1987 that we lead the broadcast with now. It's all about the pressure to make the needle move.

This citizen journalist [movement] online and the growing concern that content is no longer king -- what does that do to the television news business?
My contention is that reporting will always pay. Presence at a story will always pay dividends. I've been at two seminars in the last six months with people talking about the future of news: 'How is the news going to get paid for? Who is going to report the news? Will newspapers exist?' What's interesting is the stuff that's making money on cable right now is opinion. Fox and MSNBC make money. Those guys are making money. I don't think that [is] the future of news per se. I think, at least for the time being, there's got to be room for people who report. I don't know if at some point there's some sort of consolidation where there's a consortium of people, say The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and somebody else got together, and say, 'We're going to have a Web site and we're going to have proprietary [content] and if you want it, you're going to have to pay for it.' Maybe that's the way we can still know that we can still have people on the ground in places where they need to be, like Afghanistan.

Back when Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson were hosting The Early Show, there was so much heat on them to gain ground in the ratings, and was much made of their perennially third place finish behind Today and Good Morning America. You don't hear much about that anymore in relation to the show. How would you describe the vibe at the show regarding that now?
I've been doing this so long, I've stopped paying attention. I use this as an opportunity to report as much as I can. We had a great run through the election with a basket full of exclusives with [Barack] Obama and [John] McCain. We were out there in Iowa. We were at campaign events with Mike Huckabee when there were eight people there. This is still a really great job in that regard.

"There were things that we never would do when I started in 1987 that we lead the broadcast with now. It's all about the pressure to make the needle move."

The past few years in television news has been this extraordinary period for hard news, and the coverage has reflected that, but on the flip side exists its polar opposite, where the fluff is more superfluous than ever. Do you agree? How did the yin-yang get so extreme?
We're in one of those cycles right now. We actually had a day last week when we didn't have a Michael Jackson story. I made note of it in the editorial meeting. But that whole thing has been part and parcel of this for a good 10 years.

And of course there's the whole genre of reality show Z-listers that have become a staple of the guest roster. Do you ever find yourself thinking, 'Why the hell am I talking to this person?'
(Laughs) Sometimes I recuse myself. I'll just gently suggest that maybe somebody else should do that segment. I will not give you names.

You have done your fair share of celebrity interviews and you seem like a movie buff. Who would you say are the most interesting celebrities out there at the moment?
Meryl Streep is going to be on this week, and I love the fact that Meryl Streep is still such a terrific interview. It's all about her talent. Here she is now with this string of summertime movies that have made a lot of money -- The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia and this new one, Julie & Julia. It wasn't that many years ago when we would sit and have conversations about the fact that there weren't many good roles [for women]. It's interesting how these cycles change and demographics shift. Here she is doing great work, and people are more than happy to pay good money to go see it.

You got some grief for giving Jennifer Aniston a bow tie when she came on the show after that infamous GQ cover.
The thing that's interesting about her is that she's this mega star because of Friends. That was a giant show and a big part of the culture for a long time. She's part of the fabric of American life, and she shows up in GQ with a just a tie on, and just because I'm superficial and like cheap, physical humor, I thought it would be funny to offer her a bow tie. It was just a cheap joke -- what can I say? (Laughs)

It wasn't too long ago when the unwritten rule was when promoting a film, an actor appeared exclusively on one morning show. Now they seem to make the rounds talking about the same thing in every interview. How do you keep it fresh?
The producer who produces a lot of the movie stuff is a guy who has worked for us for a long time named Scott Stern. The conversation we have about once a year is, 'You've got to commit.' They may be doing their 14th or 47th interview about a given thing, but it's still our first, and maybe it's the first for our audience. You still read through all the magazine stuff and look through all of the movies that they made and look for those little pieces of things to connect to. I've got a funny one: I did this interview with Amanda Peet. Somewhere, some time ago, she said she fell in love with the movie Tootsie and had memorized every line. So we're in the middle of this interview and I ask her about Toostie and I said, "The best scene was" and we started to do the lines back and forth. She was just ecstatic. By the end of the interview she said, 'No one has understood me like you.' I think the thing is, as long as you do it, make your commitment and do your due diligence, and [you] find the thing that makes it fresh.

You have been the constant amid quite a few staffing configurations and permutations at The Early Show. What's the secret to your longevity?
(Laughs) I'm not sure I know the answer to that.

What do you consider your greatest success?
I'm pretty sure I've reported from every single state in the country. It's interesting: the stories you actually write and file -- I can remember almost every single one of them. You can ask me what was on television this morning, and [I] might not know.

What are you most proud of?
I so love reporting and I love being in the field, so I'd say I'm most proud of my reporting. I treat this job as a reporter's job. This morning I was up at 3:45, and I was in here by 4:15. I've read all the Web sites and all the papers.

What sites do you look at?
I go to Google News because there's a wide variety of stuff. I look at the Reuters and BBC Web sites. I'll look at newspaper Web sites from around the country: the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times. I want to get a feel for more than just what's happening here. Sometimes as you're going through those things, it will trigger you off to someplace else and the next thing you know, you're reading The Guardian. That's one of the great things about this time: You can reach a long way at any time of the day and get a feel for a lot of things. The Daily Beast is great. I like The Beast a lot.

And what would be your biggest disappointment?
(Long pause, then laughs) Hmm. I don't know. I'll have to think about that one.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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