Stiffed ‘Fag’ Waiter: Why Media Coverage Matters

Carrabbas

By Bil Browning (Founder and Publisher, The Bilerico Project)

A waiter at a Carrabba’s Grill in Overland Park, Kansas, was stiffed on his tip by anti-gay Christians who complimented his service but also called him a “fag.” The shining examples of brotherly love left a note on the back of their bill.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent. That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. (Homosexual slur) do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours,” the customer wrote. “We hope you will see the tip your (homosexual slur) choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’s love, but none shall be spared for (homosexual slur). May GOD have mercy on you.”

If you watch the local CBS station’s report on the event, you’ll notice that the language is markedly different than the printed version posted online. Reporter Sandra Olivas doesn’t read the contents of the note herself, instead relying on a local pro-gay pastor to tell viewers what was said – complete with the obligatory censorship of the word “fag.” However, she repeats the same language left on the note in her actual reporting.

This is problematic. While she’s obviously shying away from repeating the noxious filth spewed by the holier-than-thou pasta lovers and gives a generally positive report, by casually repeating that the waiter has a “gay lifestyle” and the minister has a “homosexual partner,” she reinforces the very language and underlying prejudices of the couple who left the note.

There is no “gay lifestyle” and there is no need to use clinical language about sexuality to refer to the other man’s spouse. No one would say “the black lifestyle” or “his heterosexual partner.” All of the media style guides tell reporters to avoid both phrases – and there’s a reason why.

Olivas’ reporting emphasizes a divide between straight and LGBT people that is simply unnecessary. That “us versus them” mentality is what fed the hateful Christians’ sense of entitlement and superiority that made them think their behavior was okay. After all, media coverage like this is the real choice.

I wrote to Olivas to express my concerns and she wrote back.

Assuming that Olivas’ intentions were good and this was a simple mistake, I sent her an email this morning.

Sandra,

I wanted to thank you for your story on the gay waiter who got stiffed at Carrabba’s Grill. However, I wanted to point out something that is problematic with your reporting.

As a reporter myself who covers LGBT issues, I wanted to point out that you say he has a gay “lifestyle” and is a “homosexual.” Did you also notice that those are the same words written on the receipt by the customer who wanted to degrade him? You’re simply parroting back what they said only you’re doing it nicer.

There is no “lifestyle.” LGBT people come in many shapes and sizes – we’re not one big monolithic group where everyone gets a membership card and is told how to act and what to do. You’d never say “he happens to lead a black lifestyle.” As well, the term “homosexual” has long ago been jettisoned for it’s focus solely on a sex act. All of the major styleguides – including the AP, NLGJA, GLAAD, New York Times, etc – all say not to use it. “Gay” is sufficient.

I noticed that the offensive language was removed from the print version of the story on your website. Please consider these points for your next on-air report. I know there’s likely not a lot of gay news in Kansas, but please don’t use the same language the hateful bigots did. Surely you’re a step above them.

To my delight, Olivas wrote back, acknowledged her mistake, and promised to do better in the future. This wasn’t one of those wishy-washy “thanks for writing me and I’m going to pretend like you said something while still defending my fault” emails either. Olivas took ownership of her mistake like a professional.

Good morning Mr. Browning,

I appreciate your concern and I will keep this in mind for the future. I know words do matter and I would never want to be insensitive to anyone in my reporting. I agree I should have only said partner and left out the word homosexual. The story was proofread by an editor who missed the error as well. So I have made them aware of this too so it doesn’t happen again as we continue to cover similar stories in the future.

As far as the term “lifestyle” I agree with your point as well. However, I was quoting what the customer actually wrote on the receipt as the reason for not tipping the waiter and maybe that wasn’t clarified to the viewer enough.

Again, I appreciate you sharing your thoughts with me.

Thanks again & have a great day,
Sandra Olivas

As someone who’s watchdogged local TV reporters for years on their word choices, I can honestly say that this is the nicest and most professional email back I think I’ve received. Remember when Indianapolis NBC reporter Steve Jefferson was named the “worst reporter in the nation” for his problematic coverage of the murder of a transgender woman and subsequent rejection of any corrections? The station’s news director eventually intervened, corrected the coverage, and arranged for diversity training for newsroom staff. In this case, the information flowed up to editors instead of being forced on the journalists by management.

Olivas is no Steve Jefferson. She was willing to reflect and use her journalism to reflect its true meaning: to be an impartial, unbiased source of news and information without resorting to sensationalism.

The recent success of the LGBT movement hasn’t been solely accountable to the record number of people coming out. A large part of the advances have come just as simply and of the same magnitude: media coverage that reflects our real lives – our trials and tribulations as well as our triumphs. The truth shall, indeed, set us free.

This article was originally published on The Bilerico Project.

PC, Language of the Newsroom, and Roland Martin

Jim Romenesko links to an interesting blog by John L. Robinson about the language of the newsroom and suggests that journalists–who make their livings with words–shouldn’t feel constrained by pushing the boundaries of taste and sensitivities in their everyday interactions.

Here’s a flavor of Robinson’s larger point:

I know this makes me sound like one of those nutcases that blames everything bad in society today on the PC culture. Nope, not me. I’m glad that people can’t smoke in the newsroom. I support the limitation of dropping F-bombs. Newsrooms and news coverage has been vastly improved by the gender and racial diversification of the staff. Lowering the sexual tension and chauvistic temperature is a must.

But sometimes people who make their living with colorful, descriptive words can’t help themselves. And the image the reporter evoked fits exactly what happened. Sorta.

I’m sympathetic to Robinson’s larger point.  I love a good joke and have made my share of off-handed, colorful comments at work.  But I also know, as a manager, that what I say does matter to the people around me and the people I supervise.  I can’t and shouldn’t talk at work the way I do with my friends, over drinks.

Robinson used the term “PC”–which, no offense to Robinson, is one of the laziest terms in the world–to describe concern about how comments may be heard by other people and suggested that journalists should be given some leeway in the newsroom since we are asked to “speak truth to power and that they don’t back down when put off.”

The irony, of course, is that fighting against discrimination and inappropriate language is speaking truth to power and refusing to back down.  It was those with power in the newsrooms of old that used salty language and inappropriate behavior to maintain their power.

Ask the earliest women in the newsroom, ask the earliest openly-gay reporters in the newsroom or the first Hispanic or Asian-American or Native American or African American journalists in the newsrooms.  Being willing to speak to power about the offensive things they heard on a day-to-day basis was a battle between those with control and those without it.

All of this, of course, gets back to how we communicate now.  Robinson’s first point was about a Facebook posting.  The recent publicity over tweets by Roland Martin and Jason Whitlock show that banter across a cubicle wall is different from posting to 50,000 followers on Twitter, who then can retweet to 50,000 of their close friends.

It’s not PC to suggest that something you say to a friend across the cubicle wall is going to have a different impact than something you post on Facebook or Twitter, where the comment can live forever without any of the relationship or physicality that goes with interpreting comments.

I’ve acknowledged that I wasn’t that offended by Martin’s comments when I first heard him because I’ve seen him on TV and followed his twitter feed.  I know the way he talks and, in that context, I could see him saying stupid things while trash talking without intending them to be homophobic.

But the people who knew him weren’t his only audience.  The people who watch him on TV weren’t his only audience.  The people he was trash-talking with weren’t his only audience.  And that’s where he, rightfully, got in trouble.

That’s where the language of the newsroom gets complicated.  Yes, we want journalists to use the language well and the nature of newsrooms and workplaces means an off-color comment or inappropriate comment should maybe be tolerated.  I’m very sympathetic to Robinson’s largely point that we shouldn’t feel we are bound by soome totalitarian speech police that stifles creativity and intellect.

But we also have to recognize the people you are joking with aren’t the only audience.  And if you are going to put it on Facebook or Twitter, then it’s a completely different ball game.

NPR Spotlights “The Fa-Word”

Linton Weeks at NPR Digital News recently explored the use of “faggot” as an epithet:

Is the Fa-word the new N-word?

What is the Fa-word, you ask? It’s a six-letter, two-syllable term that starts with the letters fa and rhymes with maggot. It’s not to be confused with the F-word.

In April, basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was fined $100,000 by the NBA for calling a referee the Fa-word. In May, Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls was fined $50,000 by the league for hurling the anti-gay slur at a fan.

These are just recent incidents in a tumultuous timeline…

The Internet has given vent to people who spew forth harsh, hate-filled language. But it has also provided a forum for serious discussion of the causes and effects of weaponic words.

On Facebook, for instance, you can find the issue debated on a page titled: “What is your take on the word ‘faggot’?”

From this one gay man’s perspective, it’s heartwarming to read the supportive comments on that Facebook page.

From a fair and accurate coverage perspective, the article provides this important point:

Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard University’s law school and author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, has given a lot of thought to hate language. “Faggot can be used as viciously or facetiously or ironically or tenderly as nigger,” says Kennedy. “Obviously they have different histories. But they are each verbal symbols and can be deployed or revalued or reinterpreted like any other symbol including the Confederate flag or the swastika.”

He adds, “In a bow to history, I will say that using any of these symbols is presumptively bad. But only presumptively. They can all be put to other uses. Context is all important.”

The use of the word “faggot” in the media is a constant subject on this blog (and undoubtedly will continue to be into the foreseeable future).

For the sake of clarity, we use it in context. For all of its negative qualities, we do our best to avoid using it otherwise. Is that policy working? Let us know!

NLGJA Stylebook: “Queen”

NLGJA’s Stylebook Supplement on LGBT Terminology is intended to complement the prose stylebooks of individual publications, as well as the Associated Press stylebook, the leading stylebook in U.S. newsrooms.

It reflects the association’s mission of inclusive coverage of LGBT people and includes entries on words and phrases that have become common. The Stylebook Supplement was translated into Spanish in 2005.

Periodically, we’ll be spotlighting some of the major entries.

Here’s our “queen” entry:

queen: Originally a pejorative term  for an effeminate gay man but often used acceptably as slang among LGBT people. Offensive when used as an epithet. Use only if there is a compelling reason.

We look forward to your comments!

UPDATED: Vanity Fair’s ‘Fun and Faggy’ Editor F–’s Up

Glee is pretty gay.  OK, it is REALLY gay.  Vanity Fair is pretty gay.  OK, Vanity Fair is REALLY gay.

So, when Vanity Fair’s resident gay homosexual “fun and faggy” writer Brett Berk drops the f-bomb in a a “Gay Guide to Glee” review on the VF website where he says:

Nice singing. But how can having girls in the audience make these cartwheeling, foam-party fags straight-sexy?

there is going to be some upset people. is it ok because Berk is gay himself?  The over 300 commenters on the story seem divided.

I am so insulted by all the comments “just because you’re gay doesn’t give you the right to use the term fag”. Excuse me, yes it does. Many of us have reclaimed the terms “fag”, “dyke”, “queer” and reappropriated them into our everyday language. It’s oppressive of you to tell I can NOT use those words. I’m not asking you use the terms or even like them, but rather to accept that they exist as an empowering term to some to some of us in the gay community.

. . .

Bett Berk is a disgusting example of being a gay male and has reversed all the progress Ryan Murphy has accomplished with an influential series such as Glee. The show inspires viewers and it reflects very poorly on Vanity fair that it recruits a so-called ‘writer’ edit that to ‘wanker’ in publishing such a disgusting word and allowing Brett Berk to be so casual when throwing around words burdened with hate? Shame on you for being such an ignorant, vile man lacking in morals or principle I hope the youth of America learn from your stupidity.

. . .

The article is titled “The Gay Guide to Glee”. It’s written from a gay man’s perspective so I’d assume he used gay-speak in what he’s writing. Would it be less offense if he wrote in PC-sort -of-way? Would it better that he censor his “gayness” and not use the term “fag” and replace it with “homosexual”? Maybe he should eliminate the faggy-tone and cattiness he’s writing in. Many of you are essentially asking him to “straighten up” his writing. Way to go for being a straight allies.

. . .

I find it amazing that with such a wide marketing span, no doubt including gay men, that you’d even have the audacity to use a term such as ‘fag’ in an article. Not only does it show a complete lack of sensitivity, but as well as a lack of tact and common sense. When addressing an issue such as homosexuality, you need to have enough common sense to know this will spread and be brought to the public when using slander that’s offensive and hurtful. I hope whoever wrote this article not only gets reprimanded but possibly fired.

So is the fact that Berk is gay and the column is labeled as gay mean Berk is off-the-hook for dropping the f-bomb? If the writer had been straight man (or a straight woman) with a big gay fan base, would it have been okay? Are we just to sensitive about it all?

My personal take? Berks was being a little too cute for his own good. While VF definitely has a gay sensibility, you can’t write as if your audience is the tea dance crowd at Fire Island or happy hour in Chelsea. That’s true whether your vehicle is a gay publication or blog or a “gay friendly” one like VF. While the argument that gays should reclaim worlds like “fag,” I’m just not sure reclaiming it in the pages of VF is all that heroic.

UPDATE: Late last evening, Berk changed his post and Twitter profile to eliminate the terms “fags” anf “faggy.”  Read about it at my post for Mediaite.

UPDATE II: Vanity Fair has now responded to the controversy:

With so many genuine homophobes stirring up trouble these days, the gay community doesn’t need any agita from an ally like vanityfair.com, so we are eager to set the record straight about the use of the word “fags” in Brett Berk’s latest “Gay Guide to Glee” column. Brett, who has repeatedly referred to himself as VF.com’s “fun and faggy editor” (a title the editors have declined to endorse), writes from a humorous and explicitly gay perspective, and his invocation of this complicated word was meant to critique the notion that the gay characters of Glee should feel obliged to “play straight” on stage. That said, we recognize that the column caused genuine offense to many readers, and we apologize unreservedly to them.