Chick-Fil-A and NLGJA: Can a Lesbian Be Objective About Chick-Fil-A’s Problems?

One of the founding principles for NLGJA (and other minority journalism groups) is supporting journalists in the newsroom who are assumed to be biased about LGBT news just because they are LGBT.  It’s a smear that haunts all minority journalists, no matter the evidence to the contrary.  Which brings us to Chicken sandwiches.

More specifically, it brings us to Kim Severson’s front page story on the New York Times about the high-profile problems haunting Chick-Fil A for its Christian ethos and support for efforts that are considered anti-gay. There are talks of protests and boycotts.  Chcik Fil-A officials have been forced to go to social media to defend themselves.  So when an award-winning food writer and Atlanta bureau chief for the NYT writes about the story, we get a great mix of food and politics:

ATLANTA — The Chick-fil-A sandwich — a hand-breaded chicken breast and a couple of pickles squished into a steamy, white buttered bun — is a staple of some Southern diets and a must-have for people who collect regional food experiences the way some people collect baseball cards.New Yorkers have sprinted through the airport here to grab one between flights. College students returning home stop for one even before they say hello to their parents.

But never on Sunday, when the chain is closed.

Nicknamed “Jesus chicken” by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.

“If you’re eating Chick-fil-A, you’re eating anti-gay,” one headline read. The issue spread into Christian media circles, too.

While the story made me hungry for a Chick-Fil-A, it has apparently made conservative commentators fuming mad. Arguing the story was evidence of liberal bias supporting a gay agenda, commentators are smearing Severson because she is a former executive board member of NLGJA and has written about gay issues.
The conservative watchdog Media Research Center started off the complaining by criticizing the story and targeting Severson, saying :

The story brings two Severson strands together: Foodie Severson is also openly gay, supports gay marriage, and has served as vice-president of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association.The Times proves once again it is not overly concerned with the religious sensibilities of Christians with its cavalier reference to “Jesus chicken.”

Recycling the meme, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin also takes a whack at Severson and the story, right down to parroting the wrong name of NLGJA included in MRC’s piece:

Severson, you see, is an openly gay advocate of same-sex marriage equality herself and the former vice-president of the identity politics-mongering National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. In a bitter op-ed on gay marriage
laws not changing quickly enough, she asserted: “I don’t want the crumbs. I want the whole cake.” Severson has voiced complaints about her social and economic status as an unwed lesbian with a partner and child in several media publications.

None of this was disclosed in Severson’s advocacy journalism hit job on Chick-Fil-A. But therein lies the unofficial motto of the Gray Lady: All the ideological conflicts of interest unfit to print.

Both of these columns were highlighted by Bobby Ross at conservative religion media site GetReligion, where Ross focused (in comments) on Severson’s opinion pieces in Newsweek and the New York Times where Severson focused, ironically, on the personal–rather than political–questions about same-sex marriage.

(It’s odd that a GetReligion columnist would abet the “a lesbian can’t be objective” argument given the site’s editor runs a program for Christian college students who want to be journalists and try to counter the argument that conservative Christian reporters can’t be objective about social issues).

She even included a journalism ethics quandry around getting married:

We didn’t get married. My girlfriend believed that as a journalist, she couldn’t be a part of a story she was writing about. (The old journalistic-objectivity excuse–like I haven’t heard that before.) She didn’t buy my argument that straight, married people shouldn’t be able to cover it then, either.

The truth was, we didn’t want to rush it. Isn’t the whole point of getting married to have your brothers make stupid toasts and your mother cry and your friends swear to help keep you together when you’re falling apart–to craft a public sharing of love? Marriage is not about driving to a place where you don’t live or settling for a ceremony that will be recognized only there.

While people have challenged whether Chick-Fil-A is really called “Jesus Chicken,” what’s interesting is that the conservative critics never point to evidence that the story was unfair or unbalanced. Ross concedes “[t]he Times’ 1,300-word report itself seems to give a fair hearing to Chick-fil-A and provides a variety of customer (and non-customer) voices: a lesbian who wonders if loving Chick-fil-A makes you “a bad gay,” a devout Christian dental hygienist who is outspoken in her support of Chick-fil-A, a non-religious Chick-fil-A customer who thinks the outcry seems like overkill and a “Big Gay Ice Cream Truck” operator who wants people to make informed decisions about their food.

The dispute, allegedly, is over whether it deserved to be on the front page and whether the NYT (and Severson) were pushing a gay agenda that attacks Christians.  It has also become a conservative blog talking point on places like Red State.

For NLGJA, the question is whether someone who has written about her personal relationships and personal questions about getting married is barred from covering a dispute that involves same-sex marriage.  The answer, of course, is no. LGBT journalists–even married LGBT journalists–can write about same-sex marriage without it become a political agenda.  LGBT journalists constantly straddle the ethical questions of writing about LGBT issues while also being gay or lesbian or transgender.  Just as a conservative Christian reporter can write objectively about abortion or gay rights and an African American reporter can write objectively about President Obama, so can an LGBT journalist write objectively–as Severson has–about LGBT issues without “furthering an agenda.”

4 Responses

  1. This kind of thing is a real problem for journalists and commentators such as myself who are closely identified with LGBT community media, and it seem to be a particular problem for trans journalists (who are the most visibly Queer group).

    Once we are identified as an LGBT and especially trans, the common assumption seems to be that we are incapable of competently covering anything except topics that directly concern our own community.

    It would be nice to see NLGJA take on this problem more directly. It would seem to be an issue completely within this org’s advocacy wheelhouse and it would be nice to see some folks already working in the industry stand up for those of us who often can’t even get fair consideration for anything other than freelance work directly relating to our own community.

  2. This is the same thing reporters see over and over again. If you point out someones flaws, even if it 100% accurate, people will always try to fight back even if they don’t have justification.
    Severson wrote a great piece. It showed many sides from many areas of the country. Ms. Cline said that business should be allowed to practice business their own way because this is the United States. That was a really interesting point that would make many different people think and came from a devout christian and Chick-fil-A supporter. I don’t see how people could take that as bias reporting.

    Again, Severson did an amazing job writing this piece and people are only attacking her because it’s the unbiased, unwavering truth.

  3. We are talking about a chicken product, made from chickens raised on a ranch that would resemble chicken hell on earth, for people who believe that it should be called Jesus chicken right? Get real people!

  4. [...] 6. Chick-Fil-A and NLGJA: Can a Lesbian Be Objective About Chick-Fil-A’s Problems? [...]

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