Shep Smith has a photo of me on his phone.
On Thursday night around 9 p.m., the Fox News anchor and I stepped out onto East 27th Street, outside the Prince George Ballroom, where the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association was throwing its annual silent auction.
After wishing me a good evening, but before slamming the door of the black SUV that was waiting for him, Smith took out his cell phone and snapped my portrait. I still haven’t quite figured out why.
“He’s not here to make a statement.”
“He’s not here to make a statement,” a prominent CNN anchor told me soon after I arrived. “He’s been invited a million times, and this is the first time he’s accepted their invitation.”
From all appearances, he cut short his trip to Crimea, where he was covering the Russian occupation, in order to attend.
Another guest, who asked not to be named, revealed that Fox News had assigned Smith two minders, one of whom I later identified as top Fox spokeswoman Dana Klinghoffer, who followed Smith along the perimeter of the ballroom to filter people who approached him. A third Fox employee, a producer at Shepard Smith Reporting named Christopher DiLella, paced the room to suss out any potential threats (i.e., reporters).
Smith’s longtime boyfriend, Gio Graziano, was not in attendance.
Nobody else at the event, including other anchors of Smith's stature, had brought along their employer’s P.R. team. Only Fox News seemed to be extremely concerned about guarding Smith’s public appearances.
“Good luck approaching him!” the guest warned.
“It was nice to meet you”
As the night (and my chances of getting a word with Smith) wound down, I stationed myself on a bench outside the ballroom’s exit, in a long hallway leading to the building’s glass entrance.
About ten minutes later, Smith came walking out, at which moment I stood up and, after identifying myself as a reporter for Gawker, asked if he minded answering some of my questions. Smith looked ahead, completely silent. I pressed: “Are you not answering questions?”
Suddenly, from somewhere behind us, a tall man in a black suit—this was Smith’s third minder, Christopher DiLella—ran up and shoved me away from Smith. When I turned around and indicated my confusion, however, he immediately backed away.
“It’s nice to meet you, Keenan,” Smith said when I caught up with him near the building’s first set of glass doors.
“You, too,” I said. “I’m just trying to ask if you’re actually acknowledging that you’re gay.” Smith laughed without opening his mouth. Earlier that night, he walked away from a Washington Blade reporter who asked him a similar question.
“Have a good evening, Keenan,” Smith said as he opened the door to the SUV that was waiting for him. The anchor then withdrew a black iPhone 5, held it up to the space between us, and took my picture.
“Why are you here? Why are you here?”
Back inside, I looked for the event’s organizer, a CNN producer named Javi Morgado, mostly because he hadn’t returned any of my prior emails about the event. He was talking with DiLella—the guy who shoved me away from Smith—and was visibly angry.
“Why are you here? Why are you here? Did you even buy a ticket to this event?” Morgado inveighed as DiLella walked away. “Shep was very upset when he left,” he continued, “because you were accosting him.”
Morgado, whose network recently floated the theory that the missing Malaysian Airlines plane disappeared into a black hole, went on to describe Gawker as “a rag” and said that “I don’t answer emails from people like you.”
After showing him my ticket, which cost $100, Morgado led me out of the ballroom, and on the way alerted a large security guard to my intrusion. “Please make sure this man does not come in again,” he told the guard, who followed the two of us out the door.
At the check-in booth, Morgado refunded my ticket with five $20 bills. To the man and woman who were sitting at the booth, he said: “He accosted a guest while he was leaving. He accosted him.” To me, he added: “I do not want people like you at my event, people like you who accost others.”
Fox News and the N.L.G.J.A.
As I saw myself out, and found a subway headed downtown, the night’s events began to make a bit more sense. Morgado, like pretty much every other guest that night, was hugely supportive, and clearly defensive, of Smith. The anchor received the loudest applause, by a large margin, when hostess Amy Robach of ABC News announced his name. He even agreed to a selfie with Don Lemon, Thomas Roberts, and Ronan Farrow. That’s why Smith’s aggressive minders seemed so out of place. Even among this crowd, Smith, and Fox, felt uncomfortable.
Then again, the N.L.G.J.A.’s support of Smith and Fox isn’t exactly pure. Fox News has repeatedly donated thousands of dollars to the association, and agreed, as in years past, to be a Silver Sponsor of Thursday’s event. In turn, the association has never publicly criticized, or even pondered, Fox News’s frequently absurd coverage of gay people (whom anchor Bill O’Reilly recently accused of corrupting the Girl Scouts with “homosexual overtones”).
And it was Fox’s support that helped pay for Thursday’s glorious event space: A giant Manhattan ballroom gilded in gold and burgundy, where guests bid on prizes like a tour of Morning Joe (Retail Value: Priceless!) while downing bottles of Heineken (a Gold sponsor) and cocktails mixed with Voli vodka (a Diamond sponsor). And while Fox wasn’t the biggest sponsor, it was, being owned by Rupert Murdoch, one of the most powerful, and among the few capable of shaping—or destroying—the association’s own reputation.
Indeed, everything except Smith taking my picture—to show to whom?—seemed to make sense, once you identified the balance of money and influence.
None of this, of course, should detract from the fact that the N.L.G.J.A. throws a great party. Everyone—Shepard Smith especially—seemed to be having a good time.
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[Photos via Getty and Shutterstock]