Since our last post on how journalists should deal with the sexuality of new Apple CEO Tim Cook, an interesting debate has emerged over the ethics of “outing” Cook.
Felix Salmon, a Reuters blogger, kicked things off by saying:
Tim Cook is now the most powerful gay man in the world. This is newsworthy, no? But you won’t find it reported in any legacy/mainstream outlet. And when the FT‘s Tim Bradshaw did no more than broach the subject in a single tweet, he instantly found himself fielding a barrage of responses criticizing him from so much as mentioning the subject.
Salmon’s essential argument is that everyone knows Cook is gay–although Cook has never affirmed it–and therefore it perpetuates the realities of the closet to ignore the reality that Cook is (allegedly) gay. Nothing terribly new in that argument since it has been the basis for non-politically motivated “outing” since folks like Michelangelo Signorile and the folks at Outweek started working in the late 1980s.
Salmon followed up that argument by taking it another step further and suggesting that not reporting it is unethical. Again, not a new argument but interesting given the context of 2011.
What’s unethical, I think, is perpetuating the false idea that Tim Cook is straight — an idea which, it turns out, many people had. One person said it was “disappointing” that I disabused her of that notion. Why she should be disappointed to learn this news I can only guess, I haven’t asked. But honest journalism has to be honest. If I allow you to continue to believe a falsehood, that’s a form of dishonesty. And I, for one, am not comfortable with that.
In response, Ken Fisher at the tech blog Ars Technica questions whether it really is unethical to not report Cook is gay, especially given the facts on the ground.
Here is a practical problem here: what more can be written journalistically about someone’s sexuality when he or she is not open about it? Salmon readily admits that Cook’s sexuality is irrelevant to his job as CEO. Whether or not you agree with what Gawker published, what more is there to possibly write on Cook’s sexuality identity that can be called journalism? I am certain that there is no shortage of editors in tech who would agree with Salmon’s ultimate aims and hopes in the social justice category, and I count myself among them. Yet I must disagree with the view that covering Cook’s sexuality is an ethical imperative free of any other ethical concerns, chief among them Cook’s privacy, particularly when that very privacy calls into question the status of this “fact.”
It seems that the real ethical question is: Is it Ethical to Report Cook is gay BASED ON THE EVIDENCE WE HAVE. Now, journalists report on gossip and speculation all the time. But that gossip, if reported on ethically, doesn’t suggest the gossip is fact. It’s couched in speculation.
So if a journalist is going to report that Cook is gay, the next question is “based on what evidence.” Salmon would have us just say Cook is gay based on Gawker’s word. No evidence is offered beyond watercooler (or happy hour) gossip. There’s no arrest in a bathroom stall, no pictures on Grindr, no one who has talked to boyfriends, not even pictures of Cook roaming around the Castro or never in the company of women. Nada.
Now, that’s not to say we can’t trust the folks at Gawker. But most journalists need a little more than bitchy comments that Cook is into Asian guys. I mean, we need SOMETHING.
But, oddly, not Salmon. He doesn’t seem bothered by the lack of verification and is happy to run with gossip as fact because the closet is an awful place. Fair enough, but should he then go further and say journalists have an ethical obligation to report gossip as fact?