After 24 years at Fox News, Shepard Smith, who came out as an openly gay man in 2017, is anchoring The News with Shepard Smith on CNBC. Now in its 2nd year, the show has shown steady growth, boasting the most affluent and educated audience for a primetime cable news program according to Nielsen Research. The show is grounded in the type of nuts and bolts journalism of what sometimes seems like a bygone era during these highly polarized times. Smith clearly has a reverence for this type of old-school broadcast journalism, having grown up watching respected anchors like Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw.
While prominent anchors at CNN like Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper had come out of the closet some five years before Smith, Smith was the first to do so while anchoring for the ultra conservative network, making him somewhat of a unicorn. Smith’s reputation as a truth teller put him in stark contrast against a rising tide of truth deniers and conspiracy peddlers on Fox’s flashier opinion-driven broadcasts.
Because Smith had been with Fox since its inception, I was excited about the prospect of getting a glimpse behind the veil. Surely someone who was there from the start had some tea to spill. But alas, Shep was not dishing any dirt, despite my best efforts. He likened his departure from Fox News to a divorce. But whereas some divorces are messy, Shep was not interested in slamming his ex. Was he taking the high road or did he come to an agreement with Fox prior to his exit? My requests for further comment went unanswered. For a bit of perspective, Smith looks back on his actual six-year marriage to Virginia Donald [which ended in 1993] in a similar light, saying he was grateful that they made a clean break and respected each other’s privacy.
While I hit a brick wall getting the dish from Shep during his quarter century at Fox, he was more forthcoming when it came to talking up his new show on CNBC.
We’re just trying to come together, to bring a slice of life across the country and around the world every day to focus on the signal and not the noise. There’s so much noise in society now. There are so many competing forces for your attention. There’s so much misinformation and disinformation. We work very hard to avoid that. We just want to stay focused on what matters, maybe something to make you smile, something to talk about on your next Zoom meeting, and not lose sight of the mission. And that is: to seek the truth, find the truth and tell the truth. To be helpful, not harmful. And I’m loving every minute of it.
We talked about Shep’s background, coming from a small town in a churchgoing community.
I grew up in a small town called Holly Springs, Mississippi. Maybe 8000 people. My dad was a cotton merchant and my mom worked for him. We were a lower middle class family on the years when it was good. We had no connection to power or influence and I didn’t know anybody outside the mid-South. I had a childhood full of love and all the complications that are normal in small-town America. I wasn’t big into sports. I played tennis, I ran a little track and stuff like that. I was not a fantastic student, but I was a pretty good journalism student. I eventually got a foundation and landed a job in a small town in the Florida panhandle and just worked hard and got lucky and here I am.
Such is the trademark humility and good humor that came through during our interview, qualities which likely have as much to do with his success as his work ethic and his commitment to upholding the integrity of on-air journalism.
My first memory of wanting to tell stories about things that are happening in the world started at the breakfast table when I was a little kid. Vietnam hangovers and mom thinking one thing and dad thinking another and adult voices raised. Thinking maybe someday I can go cover these things, and then I can come back and tell ‘em and they won’t be at odds. When Elvis’ funeral came through Memphis, it was the first time they ever had a live event of that sort locally. I was awestruck and I knew I wanted to be able to cover things live someday and be a witness to it and tell people about it.
When did you realize you were gay?
In hindsight, I was stupid for not knowing. But I grew up in an environment, like so many people of my age, especially the region I came from, where if you like boys, you’re gonna go to hell. And you’re not gonna have any friends. We were at church on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. So I didn’t really allow those thoughts to be a part of my life. I had many struggles as a result of that over the years. I was married for six and a half years or so. I’m very fortunate that our parting has been such that she leads her life and I lead mine and we leave each other alone. I’m so thankful for her to be in that way.
The marriage ended in 1993, three years before Smith began working at Fox News. Rather than face those demons, Smith buckled down and poured all his energy into his work life.
A producer who is now running another network used to tell me “you have the worst best life ever.” Because I was hiding this big secret, and as a result I couldn’t lead a normal life. I would just work myself to death. I didn’t have a home life. I had a road warrior’s life. So I was just jumping from one news event to the next and I never said no. Eventually I got an anchor job and it’s like, okay I’ve gotta get a life together here and it sort of expanded beyond my inner circle. And then I became more comfortable and told a lot of people.
On coming out professionally, Smith says that once he came to terms with his sexual orientation, he hadn’t thought of himself as “in” at that time.
In reality, I had been out for a long time. I hadn’t come to some microphone or reporter and talked about my gayness. But you know, my friends don’t talk about their straight-ness. Though I know that’s not a fair comparison. I hadn’t avoided it intentionally. And when the question was placed, I guess now I was [officially] out. And okay, I’m out. I’m very gay. I’m not trying to hide anything. I’m so thankful to be a gay man. You know, I wouldn’t have this group of friends that I have. I wouldn’t have the love of my life, my partner Gio. This is the life I want. This is a dream-come-true life. If I weren’t gay, I wouldn’t have it. I’m thrilled to be gay. I feel like we’re special. We’re only like, I don’t know what percentage we are. Maybe we’re 10 percent, but it’s fewer than straight people. That makes us special and I love it.
Was it difficult when you were first exploring that aspect of yourself because of your stature as a media personality?
I was a media personality so I don’t really know what it would’ve been like in the absence of this career. But it was not easy. I put a lot of pressures on myself that as it turned out were not real. I was worried about ridiculous things. Like I’m gonna lose my friends, people are gonna think I was not being honest with them or people who I was friends with might have thought I had ulterior motives. You can spin up all kinds of crazy in your head if you let yourself. Especially when you’re not being completely honest with yourself. My problem wasn’t that I was being dishonest with people around me; it was that I was being dishonest with myself so I couldn’t be honest with anybody else. Each step was a struggle. I stood in the mirror and cried I don’t know how many times – wishing to “pray the gay away.” I didn’t understand how to approach it and I didn’t know who to go to. I didn’t have gay friends or gay mentors or anything like that. And then, you know, I was working at a complicated place. And I was concerned. What would the reaction be? And in the end, the reaction was fantastic.
You never got any snide remarks at Fox News?
Never. And I would remember. You don’t forget those things. No, I never got anything like that there.
Having come from Fox News, has it given you some insight into how the liberal conservative divide can be healed? Are you open about where you reside on the political spectrum?
I don’t usually talk about it because I don’t think there’s any upside to it and I also don’t love labels very much. I have a certain way that I conduct myself and a series of values and beliefs that I stick to. But I don’t do politics. I like truth and I usually steer myself toward the truth tellers and away from those that aren’t telling the truth. As long as we have these ecosystems where people live silo’d within those ecosystems and they’re receiving inaccurate information which is affecting their worldview, this isn’t gonna get any better.
Can you tell me a little about your relationship with Gio Graziano? Has it been 9 years now?
It’ll be 10 years next month.
How did you guys meet?
Gio and I met at work. And we came clean about that and started a very healthy relationship. I’m 23 years older than he is. He has four sisters and his mom, and I’m close with all of them. And he with my family. We vacation together, we travel together, we’re family. We like to go to sporting events and we travel with our friends. We have a couple of other couples who we travel with fairly regularly. I go down and see a lot of Ole Miss football, basketball and baseball games. My dad’s 95 and he lives there. Gio and I live in the Village [Greenwich Village] and I don’t know, to me it just seems sort of regular life. But we’re uproariously happy and we have a lot of fun and wonderful friends.
Anderson Cooper recently had his 2nd child. Is that anywhere on your radar?
We have two children. Lira [pronounced LEER-uh] and Lucia [pronounced loo-CHEE-uh]. Lira is almost two. Lucia is five.
I did a double-take, fairly confident I hadn’t read about any children in my research prior to our interview. Shep went on to clarify with a self-satisfied grin at having completely snookered me.
They’re Lagotto Romagnolos [an Italian breed, similar in appearance and temperament to Labradoodles] and they’re both very good girls. They never mess up in their crates. They play nice with others.
What are some of your favorite haunts in Greenwich Village or New York?
We like to go out wherever friends are. You know, we gays, we run in packs sometimes. I like to go to gay places. It’s great to be among your folks when you can, especially the ones that are gay-owned. It’s nice to spend money with people who are trying to get through the pain of the pandemic. We go to a few Hell’s Kitchen restaurants. We love Il Molino which is right around the corner from our place [in Greenwich Village]. What else… Market Table in the West Village. We eat out a lot, you know, we’re New Yorkers.
Now that you and Chris Wallace have left Fox News, do you think there are journalists like yourself who are prepared to hold the line against misinformation in the hard news division at Fox?
You know, I feel like that kind of goes back to the divorce [analogy]. Because that really is how I treat it. I had such good experiences there, I feel like I got to write a first draft of history – as clichéd as it is – and I interviewed kings and I was in an aircraft carrier in a war. I just had the most amazing experiences as a journalist and as a witness to history. And then it ended and I moved on.
There are a lot of places that are trying to figure out how to grind the last bit of blood out of that turnip by appealing to loud and opinionated and divisive rhetoric. That’s not what we do [at CNBC]. And maybe along the way somebody will be flipping around and will find what is a more traditional fact-based newscast. I feel like there’s real value in that or I would’ve retired and gone on to do something else. I hope that people won’t broadly generalize when they see talking heads yelling at each other and think well that’s what the news has devolved into. It hasn’t everywhere. It hasn’t here. And it won’t as long as my name’s on the masthead. I’m not talking about any network in particular. I’m talking about an ecosystem. That’s what it’s sort of devolved into. Pointing fingers at no one in particular, but literally the ecosystem in general. We’ve got an island of news over here. Come for a visit. You can take the ferry, it’s a short ride to truth land.
Last modified: April 15, 2022