October 20, 2006
Dancing around the closet
Posted by: Chris
Alex Koppelman's newly posted piece in Salon offers a fascinating glimpse at the way the mainstream media dance around questions of sexual orientation, even when they involve newsworthy questions for public figures who are elected officials. He fairly (and generously) quotes me, along with Kevin Naff, my successor at the Blade, for the proposition that the time has come to end the double-standard in how sexual orientation gets reported in the mainstream media.
Mark Leibovich, a reporter with the New York Times, offered Koppelman the classic "MSM" approach. The Times policy manual states a pretty clear rule to follow: "Cite a person's sexual orientation only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader." And yet Leibovich, following an unwritten convention adhered to most mainstream journalists, adds an additional hurdle the press would never countenance in almost any other context involving a public official: It has to be OK with the story subject, too.
"We don't out people," [Leibovich] says. "It has to be relevant to the story. But if there's someone who's openly gay, and it's relevant, then we'll report that."
Asked what he defines as "openly gay," Leibovich answered, "Someone who has introduced themselves as such and basically who considers themselves openly gay. We generally leave the standard up to the person involved."
Similarly reluctant was Peter Wallsten, the Los Angeles Times reporter who was first in the mainstream press to report this month that Kirk Fordham's, Mark Foley's former chief of staff, is gay — two years after Fordham (pictured) had been outed by activists in the Washington Blade:
“I don’t think it was sufficient that it was in the Blade,” Wallsten states. He says he was certain that Fordham would not be troubled by how the paper described him, but won't specify how he knew that. “I had indications that it was not a problem.” He included the information because, he says, it was "important and noteworthy" in the context of the story.
But Wallsten wouldn't have reported the "important and noteworthy" fact that Fordham is gay unless Fordham wouldn't have been troubled by it? Wouldn't elected officials love it if they could select other "important and noteworthy" facts about their lives that are squarely relevant and newsworthy and single-handedly declare them off-limits even to reporters who already know them?
Follow the jump to find out how mainstream journalists justify the cover-up:
Koppelman covers two explanations offered for this single-issue reluctance of journalists to doing their job. The first is a sympathetic one, based on the intensely personal nature of the coming-out process:
Bruce Carroll, an openly gay Republican who runs the conservative blog GayPatriot, says he thinks the decision about being closeted isn't as simple for some people. "Outing is really a long process, and I don't think any one individual's outing process is the same as anyone else's," Carroll says. "One person comes out of the closet and the door shuts immediately, another comes out and back in, in stages … This is such a personal choice that I can't even fathom why anyone would want to force that choice upon them."
Carroll is no doubt right about that. I remember only too well the lengths I went to keeping my "gay life" quiet and separate from my straight life — all while clerking for a GOP-appointed, conservative federal appeals court judge with a solid anti-gay voting record.
The problem is that the Washingtonites were talking about — and this applies to their fellow-travelers in the entertainment biz — aren't in the middle of that coming-out process. They're out to almost everyone in their private lives. Just not to the general public. So it's a bit pathetic to see them trade on the real-life pain of almost every gay person's coming-out process to innoculate themselves against valid, relevant news coverage.
The second explanation, which I think no doubt plays a role, is the confusion between reporting someone's sexual orientation and invading their private sex life. As I wrote about just this week in Mike Rogers' attempted outing of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, the "outing activists" do us all a disservice when they really do invade someone's sex life to "report" on their sexual orientation because there really is an important difference.
That sort of invasive outing, along with the way the mainstream media avoids asking "the question" unless and until the public figure gives a "coming out interview" or finds himself immersed in a seedy sex scandal, then you can forgive the public for having the skewed idea that being gay is about waving banners and/or scandalous sex.
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