Smith was born in Kilmacolm, Scotland. He was educated at The Choate School (now Choate Rosemary Hall) in Wallingford, Connecticut and at Williams College, where he was a brother of Alpha Delta Phi. After graduating from Williams College (where he earned a B.A. in American history and literature) he did graduate work as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University.
He was a reporter for the New York Times from 1962 to 1988. During his career with The New York Times, he covered stories such as the Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights struggle, the Vietnam war, and the Cold War from both Moscow and Washington. In 1971, Smith worked as chief diplomatic correspondent. Smith has worked for PBS since 1989 where he created 26 prime-time specials. His work focused on topics such as terrorism, Wall Street, Soviet perestroika, Wal-Mart, Enron, tax evasion, educational reform, health care, the environment, and Washington's power game. He appeared on television and radio news programs.
In 1971, as the Times chief diplomatic correspondent, Smith was a member of the team which produced the Pentagon Papers series; and in 1974, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe.
The former Times Washington Bureau Chief has gone on to publish five books and produced more than 50 hours of long-form documentary television. His most recent book, Who Stole the American Dream?, which came out in September 2012, landed on The New York Times national bestseller's list, while remaining a best seller in a number of cities.
Another highly successful book of his was The Russians, based on his years as The New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief from 1971-74, which smashed the charts as a No. 1 American best-seller. It has since been translated into 16 languages and has been widely used in university and college courses. That book was followed by yet another national best-seller, The Power Game: How Washington Works, an influential political masterpiece considered a bible for newly elected members of Congress and their staffs, which also became bedside reading for President Clinton.
For PBS since 1989, Smith has created 26 prime-time specials and mini-series on such hotly debated and much discussed topics as terrorism, Wall Street, Soviet perestroika, Wal-Mart, Enron, tax evasion, educational reform, health care and Washington's power game. Two of his Frontline programs, The Wall Street Fix and Can You Afford to Retire? won Emmys, while two others, Critical Condition and Tax Me If You Can, were nominated.
On two occasions, Smith either won or shared the Columbia-Dupont Gold Baton, or grand prize, for best public affairs program on U.S. television for Inside Gorbachev's USSR in 1990, and for Inside the Terror Network in 2002, an investigation of the Al Qaeda pilots who carried out the 9/11 attack and how the U.S. failed to stop them. In addition to the George Polk, George Peabody and Sidney Hillman awards for reporting excellence, his programs have won two national public service awards.
In 1971, he was a member of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its work on the Pentagon Papers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1974 for stories from Russia and Eastern Europe.
Smith has also won many television awards. His Frontline shows, The Wall Street Fix and Can You Afford to Retire? won Emmies and two other awards and his Frontline shows, Critical Condition and Tax Me If You Can were nominated. He has won or shared the Columbia-Dupont Gold Baton for the year's best public affairs program on U.S. television twice. He has also won the George Polk, George Peabody and Hillman awards for his excellence in reporting along with two national public service awards.
Smith has been a Nieman Fellow.