When should the media cover antigay hate speech?

Local Bay Area media are being criticized for covering a press conference by homophobe Randy Thomasson, founder of the antigay lobbying group Campaign for California Families, at which he denounced the late gay Supervisor Harvey Milk being given a Presidential Medal of Freedom Honor.

The presser took place the same day as the White House ceremony Wednesday, August 12. Neither the San Francisco Chronicle nor the Associated Press covered Thomasson’s publicity stunt, but numerous TV and radio reporters did.

Here is the Fox affiliate’s report: http://www.ktvu.com/video/20380317/index.html

And here is the local CBS station’s coverage, done by longtime NLGJA member Hank Plante:

http://cbs5.com/video/?id=53999@kpix.dayport.com

The report from KCBS radio can be heard here:

http://67.72.16.166/kcbs/1899001.mp3

The radio station piece in particular has raised the ire of local LGBT leaders, who want the station to apologize for its report.

Here is my story about the controversy in today’s Bay Area Reporter:

“I am outraged,” wrote Mark Dunlop in an e-mail to the Bay Area Reporter. “It seems pretty rare for a reporter to feel compelled to offer balance on a significant honor to a martyred hero of our community. In looking into the awards I saw no balance given to racist hate groups for the awards given to Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu or Sidney Poitier. Would it be considered appropriate to balance a story about Holocaust martyrs with a statement from a Nazi?”

And here is a quote from NLGJA President David Steinberg about the matter, who said he understands why the news stations focused on Milk, as he was a local person. But he said in the interest of presenting balance reports, journalists also must seek out fair and accurate opinions.:

“Just because someone is saying I am from the opposite opinion you need to cover me, we still have jobs as journalists to look at the credibility of the people we put in the paper and on the air,” said Steinberg, whose paper did not cover Thomasson’s comments.

As an example, Steinberg said a reporter covering African American issues should not seek out someone from the Ku Klux Klan for a quote.

“You don’t go and get a blatantly outrageous racist person to get a quote from the other side,” he said. “We have seen this in the past with LGBT issues.”

Plante sent a request for comment on why he thought covering Thomasson’s presser was newsworthy to the TV station’s spokeswoman, Akilah Bolden-Monifa, a former NLGJA board member. She declined comment for the story, citing the station’s policy not to discuss its coverage.

The policy, to me, sounds odd, considering it is a news station that asks people to comment on all sorts of things all day long. So why should it not hold itself to the same standard?

I do give credit to KCBS managing editor Dory Culver for not punting my call to Akilah. But at one point during our interview she said she questioned my journalism ethics for asking about the complaints we had heard about her station’s coverage. The impression I had was that since she said she did not know about any complaints until I called her, she believed I was making up the controversy.

Her retort seemed bizarre to me, because whether or not she knew of the complaints, I do not think it is inappropriate to ask the question of why she felt her station not only needed to cover Thomasson’s remarks, but let them go unchallenged in the piece.

It is a legitimate question to ask journalists why they decide to include antigay hate speech in covering an LGBT person receiving an award. Does every news story about LGBT people need to have an opposing side?

Many LGBT leaders I spoke with over the last week resoundingly said no.

They did not need to cover that press conference at all. The fact that the president gave medals of honor to two LGBT people – that was the story, period,” said Laura Spanjian, an out lesbian on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund who stumbled upon the Civic Center gathering. “This wasn’t a debate. This wasn’t an initiative or a proposition or a piece of legislation where there is usually two sides to a story. This was a celebration of two amazing Americans. There really isn’t an opposing view.”

In an email Dan Savage, who blogged about the press conference, wrote:

sidney poitier was also honored — any local media outlets get a quote from a white supremacist? or an opponent of interracial marriage? no? then why quote anti-gay bigots on the occasion of milk being honored?

Even SF-based Mother Jones magazine seemed to believe the coverage of Thomasson’s remarks was unneeded. Wrote Sonja Sharp:

Of the 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom today—among them Stephen Hawking and Sidney Poitier—perhaps none is more artificially controversial than Milk, whose life and work inspired last year’s Oscar-nominated film. Sure, California’s enjoyed it’s fair share ofreal gay controversy this past year (Prop 8, anyone?). But nothing stokes artificial controversy like TV news cameras.

4 Responses

  1. […] When should the media cover antigay hate speech? « The NLGJA Blog By Matthew S. Bajko Of the 16 recipients of the Medal of Freedom today—among them Stephen Hawking and Sidney Poitier—perhaps none is more artificially controversial than Milk, whose life and work inspired last year's Oscar-nominated film. … The NLGJA Blog – https://nlgjareact.wordpress.com/ […]

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful discussion.

  3. […] ‘When should the media cover anti-gay hate speech?’ […]

  4. I’m all in favor of a Dan White day.

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