Over the past few days one of two things has happened: J.K. Trotter's latest piece attempting to out Shepard Smith has blown up in his face because it's littered with factual errors or Fox News's viciously effective PR machine has earned its keep for another week by circling the wagons, circulating contradictory information, and shutting down the journalistic traction his story was getting. Either way Trotter and Gawker wind up looking foolish, but obviously the reason why they look foolish here matters from an ethical standpoint. Trotter's obsession with Shep's sexual orientation was always pretty much guaranteed to lead him to trip-up in trying to bring down his quarry, but I'm not sure it really makes a difference one way or the other -- from a practical standpoint -- that he would eventually or that specifically there are serious questions about the details of the story he told on Wednesday.
People within the four walls of Fox News can easily say that programming VP Bill Shine was never actually at the July 4th, 2013 Fox News party that Trotter said he attended -- that he was actually in Charleston, South Carolina with his family -- because it's tough to prove unequivocally one way or the other unless you can get your hands on photos. (And Trotter is now conceding that Shine wasn't at the party.) But there were in fact stories out there about Shep re-upping his contract with Fox News before the July 4th party and the secret "What Are We Gonna Do About Shep's Gayness?" meeting that Trotter claims took place in its wake. This would seem to cast suspicion on Trotter's entire story, unless Fox News's PR arm is so good that it has a bunch of typically no-nonsense media journalists on a leash.
Trotter has now published two separate updates to his original story, "How Fox News Shoved Shepard Smith Back Into the Closet." One features Ailes and Shep's joint statement denying and denouncing the piece; the second attempts to "clarify" the timeline of events reported with regard to Shep's new contract and new assignment (basically what the whole story was about, since Trotter's claim was that Shep was demoted for trying to come out of the closet). Trotter cites a Dylan Byers piece in Politico which took issue with the facts as Trotter had represented them and then says, "We’ve reached out to our sources to further clarify the order of events and will update once we hear back." No further updates since. It goes without saying that "clarify" is the key word here. There are plenty of times in which a reporter or outlet really does need to state a point more clearly and that's when that word isn't misplaced, but anyone who's worked in the news business long enough knows that there are often times that the word "clarification" is simply a less painful way of saying "retraction," since you're not making anything clearer -- other than your conscience -- you're actually changing the meaning of what was said or written. If Trotter's timeline is completely off, it could very well scuttle his entire story.
But that doesn't really matter to Gawker because it was probably never that important that the facts lined up perfectly anyway. What was most important was that the headline grabbed eyeballs and generated traffic and that the claim the story was making got viral traction. By these standards Trotter's story was a smashing success. The problem, of course, is that in the end it may not be true. But again, to Gawker that's an incidental concern. It won't suffer one bit if the piece is complete bullshit, even though it should. In any respectable news organization if a reporter doggedly pursued someone in an attempt to out him for no other reason than that it fulfilled a personal agenda -- and if he got the one story that really might have been a story hopelessly wrong -- he'd be fired. Don't look for that to happen to Trotter, though.
Sure, this isn't an argument that can be set in stone, one requiring a timeline or in-house details from Fox News, but it's still something that has to be considered in all of this: Why would Shepard Smith stay at Fox News if he felt that his personal life was an affront to his bosses to the point where they expected him to keep it away from them and everyone else? This is Shepard Smith we're talking about; he's one of the most respected and, more importantly, valuable properties in television news. He truly could leave Fox News and go anywhere -- and in doing so wind up with his pick of time slots and his choice of salary. He could easily leave cable altogether and go to network and make a fortune (which isn't to say he isn't already making a fortune). Shep isn't a stupid or naive man; he wouldn't stay put where he is if he wasn't getting exactly what he wants, because he could easily find another place to give him exactly what he wants. Is it possible that there are some people at Fox News uncomfortable with all this talk about Shep's sexual orientation? Of course. But that hardly matters. Believe it or not you'd find people like that in any news organization. What matters is that Shepard Smith is precisely where he wants to be at Fox News.
Whether you like that or not, it speaks volumes about the way he's treated there.