The AP Blows a Chaplains, DADT Story

Last week, we wrote about how to cover the “chaplains fear ending DADT” stories. The Associate Press  has offered a story which is, sadly, an example of how not to do it.

The AP starts with a six-week old letter from retired chaplains (and the Alliance Defense Fund) offering the letter as a hook to the larger story.  The problem is that they don’t explain how old the letter is until the 9th paragraph of the story, suggesting until than that the letter is actually new.  The operative part of the word “news” is “new” and this letter isn’t.

After setting up a parade of horribles, they quote from the letter and one of the signers, offer a single quote from a critic of the letter and a refusal by offiicials.  After quoting numerous people who have concerns, quoting more of the six-week old letter and Pentagon officials saying there is no real problem, we don’t get another critic of the argument until the 28th paragraph.   Balanced, this story isn’t.

A more serious concern is that the story mirrors a column by conservative columnist Terry Mattingly, using many of the same sources, organizational structure, and hypotheticals.  Mattingly’s co-blogger at conservative media watchdog site GetReligion said “[c]onsider yourself flattered, tmatt.  Source by source, it’s almost the same story.”

He’s right.  And that’s a problem.  The AP shouldn’t be modeling stories off of columns written by columnists, conservative or liberal.  Mattingly wasn’t interested in balance and can get away with scary hypotheticals because he’s a columnist, but the AP should know better. Mattingly has a specific agenda, but the AP isn’t supposed to have one.

Again, this is a story that can be told in a balanced, forthright manner.  Featuring skeptics of the six-week old letter higher up in the story would be a start.  Quoting a church/state or military law expert sooner than the 30th paragraph would be another.

Dealing with those Wikileaker Sexuality and Gender Questions

Among the many layers of interesting stories inside the Wikileak controversy involving classified DoD documents is the questions about Bradley Manning himself. Specifically, speculation on Boing Boing that Manning was transgender and the much wider speculation that Manning may be gay.  The Boston Phoenix does a nice job of laying out the controversy.

The American mainstream media has carefully tip-toed around the question of Manning’s sexuality — although blogs including BOING BOING have for at least a month openly asked whether the transcript of Manning’s IM chats (the ones that got him arrested by the army on suspicion of delivering tens of thousands of secret documents to WikiLeaks) indicate that Manning is transgendered. The same Boing Boing post questions whether Manning’s sexuality led to his downfall, via his trust of the Boston native and famous hacker in whom Manning confided, and who later turned Manning in to the Feds:

“Did Manning, in isolation and distress while stationed in Iraq, reach out to Adrian Lamo in part because Manning believed Lamo —whom the internet-searchable public record shows has been an active member of the LGBT community—would be empathetic to a fellow geek going through a gender identity crisis?”

In June, Gawker — citing the GLBT links on Manning’s Facebook profile — asked pretty much the same question: “Was WikiLeaker Bradley Manning betrayed by his queer identity?”

The Daily Mail’s article was ostensibly about the suffering of Manning’s English mother — who was questioned by FBI agents over the weekend — but the Mail also took the opportunity to run a big photo of Manning being embraced by Tyler Watkins, one of Manning’s openly-gay Boston friends who has reportedly been questioned by the Army in recent weeks. Watkins, a Boston University student and former marketing intern at EDGE who was quoted in Wired magazine’s original scoop, is now politely declining all media inquiries. His blog — “Swish Army” — identifies him as a “queer army wife”: “It wasn’t until I join the ranks of all the other gay military spouses that I really ever understood how unjust our country’s policies towards the queer community in the military,” he writes. “Not only am I fed up with DADT but I’m sick and tired of the Obama administration’s failure to serve and uphold the rights of ALL citizens of the US.”

As always, the question is whether his sexual orientation or gender identity matter beyond curiosity. On balance, understanding Manning’s motivation seems to be relevant and if he was feeling distraught, angry, or looking for revenge, than it matters. But the evidence is far from conclusive and appears to wild speculation, for now. That hasn’t stopped conservatives from pouncing on the speculation relying on the Daily Telegraph reporting in the UK.

Is the fact that anti-gay forces are going to use the information about Manning’s alleged sexual orientation or gender identity reason enough not to report it?  How should the media deal with the rumors?

What if They Held a DADT Trial and No One Came?

Did you know there is a major trial going on near Los Angeles dealing with the legality of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?  Did you know some of the top experts on DADT have testified?

If you don’t know, it’s likely because–as veteran LGBT journalist Karen Ocamb points out–the trial is largely being ignored by the large LGBT organizations and the press, with the exception of Ocamb and The Advocate.

Where was GetEqual? They can buy several very expensive tickets to a Barbara Boxer fundraiser to yell at Obama about DADT – but can’t show up with signs outside and buttons inside to demonstrate to the judge, the DOJ and the military representative that this trial matters to LGBTs and should matter to the public?

And where were members of Log Cabin Republican and DADT repeal supporters from Southern California? Surely more LCRs should feel more invested in their own case.

And what about supporters of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) and Servicemembers United who speak for the hundreds of military personnel, active or veterans, who serve in the numerous military bases around Southern California?  They could have at least sat in the gallery and glared at the DOJ when those young attorneys made snide objections.

Where were Equality California’s progressive get-out-the-vote volunteers who worked extra hard to help pro-marriage equality Assemblymember Mary Salas, (D-Chula Vista) in her primary contest against conservative Juan Vargas for that 40th Senate District? Surely, the people who volunteer for a pro-gay politician understand the importance of defeating the federal government in court on this issue of full equality. And what about marriage equality canvassers who might also want to advocate for LGBT servicemembers and their families? Hundreds of people drove to nearby San Bernardino from Los Angeles and San Diego for a sweltering, long, contentious post-Prop 8 meeting in the summer of 2008 – where were they?

The U.S. District Court in San Francisco made special arrangements for the expected over-flow crowd during the federal challenge to Prop 8 earlier this year. So the U.S. District Court in Riverside, expecting similar huge crowds, made similar arrangements. But the overflow room sat air conditioned-cold and empty, save for Log Cabin Republicans communications manager Charles Moran, who was fielding media calls and emails.  Yes, the American Foundation for Equal Rights had a built-in media generator with attorney Ted Olson. But LCR’s lead attorney Dan White of White & Case is also a straight Republican who has taken the case pro bono because – like Olson – he considers LGBT equality to be one of the most profound civil rights issues of our time.

Trial coverage is tedious and expensive, and this trial lacks the excitement (and San Francisco location) of the Prop 8 trial. It’s also fair to say national LGBT organizations can’t raise money off the back of DADT, except to have photogenic activists walk across the stage in uniform.

But where are the bloggers (largely attached to activist groups) who swarmed all over the Prop 8 trial? Why the lack of attention?

Good questions all.

Palm Center Unhappy With Press Coverage of DADT

The Palm Center, which does research on gays in the military, has issued a statement criticizing the press coverage of the aftermath of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell votes in Congress. Specifically, the Palm Center says that the New York Times is creating controversy over the implementation that doesn’t exist but instead is spin from pro-DADT forces.

Press stories have been saying that questions linger about whether there will be separate housing for gay troops, whether some units will continue to ban open gays, and whether chaplains and others with religious opposition to homosexuality will be forced out of the military. “These questions are completely off the table,” said Belkin. “Despite the backing of separate housing from the Marine Commandant, there is simply no serious proposal to build different quarters for gay people. Remember, lifting the ban allows gay people to identify themselves, but does not compel them to do so, and that’s what would be required if gays were to be forced into separate quarters. This is not a thorny question–it’s a red herring.” Some questions about whether same-sex partners would be offered housing and visitation rights, Belkin said, are yet to be determined. “But these are not implementation challenges; they are policy questions, and they don’t affect implementation.”

Belkin also disputed the notion that “don’t ask, don’t tell” gave “protections” to gay people, a point made by a lesbian soldier in the Times story. “Some gay service members have said the current policy makes it easier to conceal their identity because they’re not asked if they’re gay,” he said. “But the history and the data tell a different story, which is that both discharges and harassment went up under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and that a majority of troops already believe there are gays in their units. Any feeling of being protected by the gay ban is a false sense of security.”

It’s not clear what specifically bothered the Palm Center, but here’s a passage dealing with the issues discussed in the critique.

Some homosexuals in the military say they are worried about how that process will work and whether they will be treated differently if they publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Some raised concerns about being harassed, assigned to separate barracks or shunned by colleagues who had been friendly before.

“In an idyllic world, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and saying ‘Everyone here is welcome’ is great,” said a 29-year-old lesbian in the Army National Guard, who asked that her name be withheld because she could still be discharged under the rule.

“But the policy actually allowed for a lot of protections,” the soldier said. “Getting rid of it completely without modifying it is kind of worrisome. The number of incidents against gays in the military is going to increase.”

Indeed, both opponents and supporters of the ban say a host of thorny practical questions will face the Pentagon if Congress gives final approval to legislation allowing the repeal of the ban, which could happen this summer.

Will openly gay service members be placed in separate housing, as the commandant of the Marine Corps has advocated? What benefits, if any, will partners or spouses of homosexual service members be accorded? Will all military units be required to treat homosexuals the same? And what training will heterosexual officers and enlisted troops receive to prepare them to serve with openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?

“The reality is, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ doesn’t ensure that all lesbian and gay service members will be equal on that day,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “There will continue to be challenges to make full equality for gays and lesbians in the armed forces a reality.”

Does the Sarvis quote contradict the message the Palm Center is trying to argue? Is the Palm Center disagreeing with the quotes from service-members, who have expressed concerns?

It wouldn’t be the first time that the coalition advocating against DADT has disagreed on tactics and message, but the journalism question is whether it is wrong for the NYT and other media to raise concerns about implementation even though the Palm Center says its own research disagrees there is a problem? If advocates supporting DADT raise concerns, how is the media supposed to handle those arguments?

Here’s how the Palm Center describes the lack of dispute:

But Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm Center, says this is a “false debate” taken up too readily by even mainstream journalists. “There is zero evidence that the transition will be difficult,” he said. “In fact, research across the board shows that implementation of openly gay service is a non-event and that the only thing that could make it bumpy is the suggestion by leaders that there’s cause for alarm.” Belkin pointed to research by the Government Accountability Office, the RAND Corporation, and the Palm Center showing that just two variables are relevant in ensuring a smooth transition: signals of confidence by leadership and a clear, single standard of behavior that applies to everyone. He also said that, unlike ending racial segregation, lifting “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not require massive change, such as the movement of personnel or newly integrating units, since gays are already integrated into units throughout the force, and polls show that many of them already serve openly.

Journalists shouldn’t create controversies that don’t exist, but I’m not sure that’s what the NYT was doing here. After a lot of anti-DADT news and editorial coverage, this seemed like a story that was worthwhile telling. It was supported by quotes from people on all sides and responded to the conversation that is taking place, even if it’s a conversation the Palm Center thinks isn’t necessary.

Your thoughts?

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Chain-Ups, Sit-Ins, and Bad PR: The Media Wrap-Up

What if you held a protest at the White House and no one really notices?  Imagine holding a sit-in on Capitol Hill that was ignored by the three newspapers who cover Capitol Hill like a blanket?  What happens when you hold a press event with a major celebrity who earlier calls a congressman “a queen” and the event gets hijacked?

That, in a nutshell, was the media story from Washington as the Human Rights Campaign held a “rally” with Kathy Griffin about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell that was hijacked by Lt. Daniel Choi.  Choi then went to the White House, handcuffed himself to the fence, and got arrested.  Simultaneously, activists staged sit-ins at Nancy Pelosi’s offices in San Francisco and Washington over employment discrimination.

And what was the mainstream media’s reaction. A collective yawn.

Here’s the Washington Post’s coverage of the Choi protest.

Gay men arrested in White House protest

The U.S. Park Police arrested two protesters who handcuffed themselves to a portion of the White House fence Thursday afternoon.

Shortly before 2 p.m., Park Police came upon two men who had chained themselves to a section of the iron fence on the north side, said Sgt. David Schlosser, a police spokesman. Officers told the men they did not have a permit for their demonstration and gave them three warnings about the violation, Schlosser said. The men refused to leave, so officers arrested them on the charge of “failure to obey a lawful order.”

James Pietrangelo, 44, of Sandusky, Ohio, and Daniel W. Choi, 29, of New York are scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court on Friday.

Choi is an openly gay Iraq war veteran who has been a vocal critic of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward homosexuals. Pietrangelo is a former U.S. Army captain and also openly gay.

Choi said in a statement that he and Pietrangelo went to the White House to take their message directly to President Obama.

That’s it. There was also a blog post involving a city council race where the arrest was becoming an issue.  The paper’s coverage of Kathy Griffin, the day before on the gossip page, was longer than both pieces combined and came with a photo.

The broadcast networks–with the exception of CNNonly covered the protest on their websites and without much independent reporting.

The coverage of the sit-ins was worse.  The three publications that blanket Capitol Hill and cover the opening of an envelope–Roll Call, The Hill, and Politico–completely ignored the sit-in.

Now, it can be argued that the DC press ignores theatrics like this because, well, theatrics like this happen almost every day in DC.  Someone protesting at the White House just isn’t that big of a news story.  And the protests all occurred on a day when health care was sucking up the oxygen in the press room.

That left the bulk of the coverage to the LGBT press and the blogosphere and twitterverse. Both Kerry Eleveld of the Advocate and Chris Geidner of MetroWeekly dominated the twitterverse coverage. John Aravosis at Americablog provided heavy coverage on his blog.

Despite the collective yawn by the press, David Mixner declared the day the birth of a civil rights movement and compared his friends (and fellow March on Washington organizers) at GetEqual.org, as well as Choi and Captain Jim Pietrangelo, to Dr. Martin Luther King. Michael Crawford at Bilerico Project spoke of a “new queer order” and praised “new organizing,” echoing fellow Bilerico Project blogger Jillian Weiss, who saw the day as a triumph for online/offline activism. At Huffington Post, Rob Smith mixed a number of metaphors before saying that Choi isn’t the next Dr. King, but instead the next Malcolm X.

Queerty was quick out of the gate with both praise and criticism. Here’s their take on Griffin and HRC:

She opted to stay behind, with HRC’s Joe Solmonese, to take pictures and get more B-roll. Instead, she missed the real action at the White House, and so did her cameras. Alas, that might mean no footage of Choi’s efforts on Bravo.

And on the failure to get media coverage:

Why weren’t any of them reporting on Choi’s protest? Because they weren’t notified about it ahead of time. Cable news operates this way: If there is no video, there is no story. Sure, Wolf Blitzer can insert a “this just in” as he relays what he hears in his IFB, but unless they’ve got tape or a live feed, producers will not put it on the air. That’s how it works. And without advanced notice, they had zero time to coordinate the ordeal of getting a satellite truck in position, and a cameraman and reporter on the scene.

Obviously, the net result of the day’s actions and misactions will be judged down the line. Queerty is correct in pointing out that it was a media blunder for not organizing the protests and planning a media strategy. Mixner said he spoke with Choi before hand, but was anyone advising him on how to get media attention? And whose idea was it to have Kathy Griffin headline a DADT rally?

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