The Shep Smith story shows the failure of fact-checking

A media story about the media reveals the media's lack of self-examination

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published May 1, 2014 2:42PM (EDT)
Shep Smith       (AP/Richard Drew)
Shep Smith (AP/Richard Drew)

On Wednesday morning, Gawker writer J.K. Trotter published a piece alleging that "Fox News Shoved Shepard Smith Back Into the Closet" and asking, "Why hasn’t Shepard Smith come out yet?" By Wednesday afternoon, the story had been picked up and repeated ad nauseam throughout the media-on-media vortex of self-absorption. Who cares if the story itself had serious inconsistencies? Aggregate first, ask questions later – if at all!

Smith, generally regarded as the closest thing to a likable, rational-thinking individual in the Fox News stable, is a frequent obsession of Gawker and Trotter, in particular, who's pretty determined to reveal to the world Smith's personal life, regardless of how weird or flat-out harassing he may come off as in the process. Trotter has run several stories focusing on Smith's sexuality in the past few months, while Smith, for his part, remains private about his relationships and orientation.

The latest asks, "Why hasn’t Shepard Smith come out yet?" and cites "multiple sources" who say Smith discussed coming out to Fox News president Roger Ailes but that "Ailes' answer was definitive: Smith could not say he's gay." Furthermore, Gawker claims Smith was "demoted" after executive vice president of programming Bill Shine "flipped out" at a "dramatic" July 4 picnic that Smith allegedly brought a boyfriend to, leading Shine to call a meeting "among high-level executives to discuss a plan of action regarding Smith." Not one of the "insider" sources at Fox is named. My favorite part of the whole thing is when Trotter congratulates his own vigilant "reporting" as the reason Smith attended a Fox gay journalists gala in March. My second favorite part is where Gawker updates the story to note that Shine actually didn't attend said picnic, that Ailes and Smith call the story "100% false and a complete fabrication," and then clarifies the timeline of Smith's contract negotiations to acknowledge they occurred before the controversial picnic.

Yet faster than you can say "update," the story had taken wings Wednesday, with Slate regurgitating, "Fox Allegedly Demoted Shepard Smith Because He Asked to Come Out" and shaking its head that "This doesn't look good for the news network," while New York asked, "Did Fox News Force Shep Smith to Stay Closeted?" The Daily Beast, meanwhile, went all in with a single paragraph saying that "Fox Allegedly Kept Anchor in the Closet."

I know we're all chasing our own tails here. There's infinite competition for eyeballs and, honestly, a limited amount of scandal out there. But it really doesn't take a whole lot of effort to simply ask, hey, does this check out? Is there something in here to question? Anything? Is it good journalism to repeat anonymous rumors about someone "coming out," as if rumors of themselves are sufficient to qualify as news? Hint: The answer to that last one is no.

Fortunately, other sites, skeptical of the Gawker story, were willing to commit a little more reporting to the allegations about Smith and Fox. Politico called the story "full of holes," noting the discrepancies in the timeline and that "Shine oversees primetime and opinion, not news, and thus does not deal with Smith directly" and questioning its depiction of Shine as a "major, major homophobe." It also included Shine's statement that "We have never asked Shep to discuss or not discuss his private life, and the notion of us having an issue with anyone’s sexuality is not only insulting, but pure fiction. We renewed his contract in June 2013 based on this full support as well as his exemplary journalism. He’s the gold standard of this profession and we’re extremely proud to call him the face of our news division." And at the Daily Banter, Chez Pazienza chronicled Gawker's nauseatingly dogged fixation on Smith over the past several months, and shared an email he confirmed was from Smith to his staff saying, "Things you might read today are horseshit. As phony as 24-hour breaking news on The Plane Channel. Stand down."

In a sensational piece for Medium last year, Bobbie Johnson observed the spate of fake viral news stories and the media's eagerness to report them as real and "then have their cake and eat it too: they published the original unverified reports and then published stories calling them into question." Facts, like whether someone was at a picnic or not, can be wrong. Errors in reporting happen. What's troubling is the widespread apparent lack of interest in pausing a moment to do more than repeat what someone else has said, whether it's accurate or not. An indifference to asking for accountability and remembering that these are people's lives and reputations here before repeating, unquestioningly, that they're closeted or major homophobes. Repetition is not journalism. And as Johnson eloquently explains, "If we lose credibility, we lose everything we have built."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Fox News Gawker Lgbt Media Criticism Roger Ailes Shep Smith Shepard Smith