This year, NLGJA is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the organization’s founding. With that milestone, I’m going to try to do some blogs–and encourage my co-bloggers–to focus on how things have changed for LGBT journalists and journalism in the last 20 years. First up, an essay I wrote for Mediaite triggered by a column by Frank Rich.
We’ve talked about changes at the NYT before on this blog, but it’s important to remember that the last 20 years have seen a pretty amazing change at how the paper covers LGBT issues and treats its LGBT journalists. There is still room for growth, especially in regards to promotion of lesbians and its treatment of transgender employees and issues, but the paper has come a remarkable distance in the time that NLGJA has been advocating for LGBT journalists and fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues.
Journalism historian Larry Gross recounts that during the 1970s and 1980s, gay stories were a contentious issues in the paper because of publisher Arthur Sulzberger and managing Abe Rosenthal’s attitude towards gay people and stories. On the question of AIDS coverage, he quotes Michelangelo Signorile as saying “Rosenthal, who attacks anti-Semitism in the media, never realized that the way he was treating the AIDS epidemic wasn’t much different from the way that news organizations treated the Holocaust early on.” It wasn’t until 1987, after Rosenthal left the paper to be replaced by Max Frankel, that the word “gay” replaced “homosexual.”
He also quotes former NYT reporter Charles Kaiser:
Everyone below Rosenthal spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices. One of these widely perceived prejudices was Abe’s homophobia. So editors throughout the paper would keep stories concerning gays out of the paper.
While AIDS coverage improved under Frankel, another major turning point in how AIDS and the gay community was covered by the NYT was the 1990 collapse in the newsroom of deputy national editor Jeffrey Schmalz who was later diagnosed with AIDS. The closeted Schmalz said that he feared that his sexual orientation would harm his ascent in the newsroom and therefore his brain seizure at his desk also represented his coming-out as gay. In 1992 Schmalz wrote “Covering AIDS And Living It: A Reporter’s Testimony,” a groundbreaking moment for the paper because a gay man with AIDS wrote about being a journalist and covering both gay issues and AIDS.
Because of the work of NLGJA and pioneering LGBT journalists, things have changed dramatically at the paper. We are indebted to the journalists and activists who pushed for change at the paper.