Public Ignores Complaints About Shep Smith News Blackout

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Nov 2, 2013

A Gawker item that outed a media celebrity has inspired one of those cycles of accusations and counter-accusations unique to media that cover media, which appears to be of interest only to other members of the media.

True, this is another story about the stories about the lack of stories about Gawker's original story. But, setting aside the media's endless infatuation with itself, the accusations, counter-accusations and counter-counter-accusations, do bring some interesting questions.

Gawker's J.K. Trotter inadvertently started the conversation by burying the real juice well into a recounting of Fox anchor Shep Smith's run-in with a waitress at Bathrub Gin, a straight bar in Chelsea, Manhattan's best-known gayborhood.

Smith was in the bar with a youngish male eye candy, who according to Gawker is the Fox celebrity's "boyfriend." This is supported by presumably the waitress and someone identified only as a "source," who adds that the two men are regulars, often holding hands on each other's laps under the table.

This story would never pass the smell test at an old media company. For starters, it relies on the testimony of one source, an interested party, for details about the incident. It quotes word-for-word, without question, a conversation that took place six months ago.

Nor does Trotter bother to mention under what circumstances the waitress left her job "several months later." Like maybe, the day before she gave the interview?

Whether this happened or not is conjecture on Gawker's part but it is consistent with many incidents involving celebrities and service workers in New York City. Was Trotter just using the words of an embittered employee to create a story?

After Gawker's story flew under the radar, something odd happened: David Carr, the influential media columnist for The New York Times, gave it a much livelier second wind a few days later. That's when the story became the story about the story.

Some were angered by Carr's central argument: that the reason why Gawker's story lacked legs is because of a sea change in the public's attitude about homosexuality. In short, no one cares if someone is gay. By tacitly linking Smith's sexuality with a hissy fit, Carr alleges that Gawker was using this six-month-old incident, heard in hearsay, to slyly out Smith. The wider implication is that, by reducing homosexuality to a "tee-hee-titter-titter level," Gawker has gone from being outrageous to just out of date. Hounding Smith's drinking buddy, Carr adds, reduces it to merely sleazy.

Michelangelo Signorile, the originator of outing in the '90s, counters that Carr is the being anachronistic. The media continues to relish the affairs of straight celebrities while complaining that two man playing handsies should remain private.

To buttress his argument, Signorile cites Times' coverage of the straight affairs and other salacious details in the lives of "news anchors, sports stars and politicians."

I would surmise that when they have, they did so as part of reporting on a larger story. Does an unsubstantiated complaint about a fleeting moment in a crowded bar rank on the same level of news as the world's most famous and successful golfer's sudden retirement after he nearly killed his wife and bashed in his car? Or an ambitious congressman's resignation after he lied about reports that he sexted women who believed that he was interested in their minds? If anything, The Times continues to be known as prudish compared to other newspapers.

Nor does Signorile help his argument by comparing the Gawker story to Kim Kardashian's pregnancy or an alleged affair by husband Kanye West. These aren't people who fight to keep their private life private, they're media whores who see their lives as a real-life "Truman Show," a reality show where the cameras never shut down.

I was editing The New York Blade in 2005 when we ran an account by Kevin Naff, then as now the editor of The Washington Blade. In so many words, Naff said Smith had hit on him in a New York bar. A thorough Google search didn't reveal one citation of this in any of coverage about the Gawker story, probably because Naff's story was never digitally archived.

Several have recently pointed out that Smith's sexuality has long been an open secret and when he finally does officially emerge from the closet, it will be treated the same as CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's less-than-earth-shattering admission of what everyone already knew.

Out magazine placed Smith on its annual list of the most powerful gay personalities. Like Cooper, rumors kept swirling around him from every direction (although Cooper was never married to a woman, as Smith has been). He was one of the subjects of the 2009 documentary "Outrage." "Smith’s sexual orientation," Signorile notes, "has been reported on and discussed ad nauseam."

Of course, when a well-known personality actually does say he or she is gay, there will always be those who are surprised. It can even be someone like my late friend Beverli, a proudly self-proclaimed fag hag who threw me for a loop when, after casually mentioning seeing Sam Champion at some Circuit party or other, asked me, "He’s gay?"

That said, even the fire-breathing members of Freerepublic, the most popular members site of the Tea Party’s farthest-right outliers, have long been writing homophobic schoolyard putdowns about Smith. As one commenter wrote on Oct. 25, "He has been out for years."

Not quite, but Smith, along with the news network’s latest star Megyn Kelly, has been nudging Fox News toward a favorable stance on LGBT issues. Longtime followers of the mindset of the man who dreamed up Fox News, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, know that he -- and his on-the-ground lieutenant, Roger Ailes -- have no stake in LGBT issues.

In private, they both are actually quiet supporters. Ailes was even quoted in a biography talking about meeting every year with representatives of the National Gay & Lesbian Journalists Association. The whole Gawker brouhaha has resulted in at least one or two mentions of Fox News’ longtime and deep-pocketed support of NGLJA. At the fund-raising events I’ve attended, the number of Fox employees dwarfed any other media company, and Fox always takes tables at the group’s dinners.

Americablog’s John Aravosis argues that Fox may be soft-peddling its homophobia, but he refers to Media Matters’ insistence that a culture of ingrained on-air homophobia surfaces from time to time.

"Fox isn’t just a news organization," he writes. "Fox is the propaganda organ of the Republican party, a party that is still officially, and aggressively, anti-gay."

More precisely, Fox is the mouthpiece for the corporatist big business country-club Republicans currently involved in a deliciously nasty civil war with the Tea Party. Maybe, just maybe, being a star anchor and trying to nudge coverage in a different direction while everyone behind the scenes knows you’re gay, makes you noble and brave for the crowd on MSNBC.

Only Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern has mentioned Barney Frank’s rule for outing someone: "If a closeted person actively strives to repress gay rights, it’s open season for outers."

Not so Signorile, who believes that "we’re not going to get any further on LGBT visibility and equality if we keep coddling people of privilege and treating the reporting of public figures’ sexual orientation as if it were a revelation of terrible information that could psychologically damage them forever." Not only did Carr never say that, neither he nor anyone else -- Signorile included -- believes that the media is protecting Smith from a nervous breakdown.

Signorile, along with others, is right to accuse Carr of achieving exactly what he doesn’t like: Widespread coverage of the Gawker outing. What’s really weird is that, only three days after Carr’s piece, The Times ran yet another article that covered the exact same ground. Maybe The Times just really, really, really wanted to make sure that the public continued to ignore this story.

Whatever The Times’ motivation, Signorile’s and especially Aravosis’ responses trouble me a lot more. Aravosis’ main foe is those whom he accuses of living in a "post-gay world." Except that "post-gay" is a term that had a brief vogue sometime in the ’90s and hasn’t been used since.

Setting up a straw man and then knocking him down isn’t an effective argument. Openly gay soldiers, clergy, politicians, actors, CEOs, TV anchors ... if anything, we’re living in a much gayer world, where our partners, neighborhoods, kids, resorts and watering holes are no longer kept secret but celebrated.

Being aware of the continued challenges faced by those not living in urban centers or liberal areas and realizing that we still have a long way to go doesn’t mitigate achievements that would have been dismissed as a pipe dream 20 years ago. For Aravosis, Smith’s being gay is, at the very least, interesting.

I guess that pretty well defines the divide between him and myself. I don’t find it any more interesting than David Barton, James Franco, Dennis Rodman or a bunch of other celebrities who set gaydar meter off but are said to be straight.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


Add New Comment

Comments on Facebook