Gawker published on Wednesday morning an investigative piece alleging that Fox News silenced the efforts of anchor Shepard Smith to come out as a gay man. It looked like the capstone for writer J.K. Trotter’s Shep Smith-sexuality beat, which in late March took him to an event of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association that Smith attended. Last October, Trotter named the young Fox News staffer that Smith was dating.
At the end of the latest report came some very common words in stories that take a dim view of Fox News: The network and its key players, wrote Trotter, “all declined repeated requests for comment.”
Comment from Fox News, however, came in force after the story surfaced. Politico’s Dylan Byers published a post titled “Gawker’s Shep Smith report is full of holes.” The piece housed all the Fox News pushback, which is substantial. The killer: Gawker reported that a top Fox News official — Executive Vice President of Programming Bill Shine — “flipped out” when Smith showed up with his boyfriend at a company picnic held at the Garrison, N.Y., home of Fox News chief Roger Ailes. It turned out that Shine didn’t attend the picnic.
Gawker has acknowledged the discrepancy at the foot of its story: “The sentence has been updated to reflect that Shine negatively reacted after learning that Smith brought his boyfriend to the Independence Day picnic.”
The picnic incident in Trotter’s story was a juicy and tell-tale moment — if only it had been true. Now that it has been debunked, doesn’t the rest of the story sort of collapse around it? No, says Gawker Editor-in-Chief Max Read in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog.
“He doesn’t have to be at the party flipping out,” says Read, who stresses that it’s the alleged reaction of Shine that matters. “It still operates within the realm of the story that [Trotter's] piece is telling.”
Nor did Gawker’s source on the picnic tell Trotter that Shine was at the picnic. As Read tells it, Trotter learned of Shine’s reaction and “erroneously assumed that meant that Shine was physically present, which was not the case.”
Another vulnerability relates to Gawker’s timeline. The story states that Smith approached Ailes about coming out in the summer of 2013 — “during contract negotiations,” says a source for Gawker. Ailes told him no; Fox viewers wouldn’t warm to an openly gay anchor, in Gawker’s version of events. But Smith’s contract renewal was wrapped by June 7, and discussions about that contract reached back to April.
Gawker is diving back into the particulars, says Read, to get more certainty on the timeline: “My guess is that when our source is saying this came up in contract negotiations, he meant it as discussions about Shep’s show.” Last September, Fox News took away Smith’s 7 p.m. show, limiting him to his 3 p.m. slot, but at the same time it named him managing editor and chief news anchor, a move that Gawker termed a “demotion.” “We want to establish as accurately as possible the sequence of events, but we believe we’ve got it probably right,” says Read. “I don’t think it’s wrong.”
As a measure of the Gawker story’s troubles, consider that Media Matters for America, a clearinghouse for anti-Fox News stories, didn’t write up a summary on its Web site. “We looked into it. But because the sources were anonymous and there was no definitive proof, we wanted to see if Fox issued a statement. Once they did, it didn’t seem like there was enough to go on,” notes Jess Levin, spokeswoman for Media Matters.
Along with some reporting problems, the Gawker piece carried a bit of sleaze. It chose a parenthetical to level this allegation: “(Within and outside of Fox, Shine, who is 50 and grew up on Long Island, carries a reputation for insensitivity toward gay people. ‘He’s a major, major homophobe,’ a Fox insider said.)” News organizations from The Washington Post to BuzzFeed forbid the use of anonymous quotes in stories to level personal attacks. “Avoid using anonymous sources for negative quotes,” reads the BuzzFeed guide.
Read & Co. won’t be borrowing the standard anytime soon. “I would be out of a job if I did,” jokes Read. More seriously, the editor notes, “We want to reserve the right to quote an anonymous source saying something we believe to be valuable or true.”
Also on the journo-ethics front, Gawker declined to term its Shine correction a “correction.”
Asked about this apparent correction allergy, Read replied, “Actually this is something I don’t have a strong feeling about. I would not have a problem with saying ‘correction.’ It’s not a point of pride.” So he changed it:
Where Gawker offers anonymous sourcing to advance its piece on Smith, Fox News has responded with on-the-record denials, such as a joint statement from Ailes and Smith: “This story is 100% false and a complete fabrication. As colleagues and close friends at FOX News for 18 years, our relationship has always been rooted in a mutual respect, deep admiration, loyalty, trust, and full support both professionally and personally.”
Smith made a mistake there: joining with the credibility-challenged Ailes in making a statement concerning the truth, that is. The Fox News chief, media types will recall, urged a colleague to lie to federal investigators, and, as Gawker documented, he has his own history of making baseless and deceptive statements.
That’s to say nothing of the techniques that Fox News visits on reporters. As NPR’s David Folkenflik exposed in his 2013 book “Murdoch’s World,” the network planted false information with a reporter, essentially baiting him to publish it. He did. Fox News then released a statement slamming the reporter’s credibility. Declares Read: “The fundamental question for us is: Did Fox News lash out at Smith for trying to publicly come out? All we have from Fox disputing that is lies from a liar.”