We haven’t written much about the Roland Martin situation at CNN. It created a lot of conversation inside NLGJA and we did post a statement on our Facebook page. We also talked with the Poynter Institute and Journal-isms.
Erik Wemple, the media blogger at the Washington Post, has asked the more interesting journalism question: why is it so hard to label someone’s comments as homophobic?
Yet the treatment by these cornerstone media properties remains silent on what the tweets actually are. In both cases, Martin is encouraging physical reprisals against men who are attracted to the same sex. There’s also some stereotyping thrown in — ”pink suit” — to eliminate all doubt about the population Martin is offending
This blog has repeatedly termed the tweets “homophobic,” a characterization that has drawn some blowback in the comments. Commenter “jlamb1313” opined that the tweets “reflect the knee-jerk masculine thinking that many Americans revel in during the Superbowl. A conversation about that overt masculinity may be long overdue, but to see violent gay-bashing in those quotes strikes me as overreach.”Wrote ”QStorm,” in part, “The guy was making jokes. Nothing more.” Another critic e-mailed: “You convicted him of being ‘homophobic’ based on your irrational (in my opinion) interpretation of his tweets, which any reasonable person would interpret as simply an attempt at humor and in no way calling for violence against homosexuals.”
Of course, none of those excuses fetches as far as Martin’s very own, which was that he was just making jokes about soccer. The unfunny thing about these defenses is that, in light of gays’ experience in this country, joking about violence against gays in any way is homophobic,is anti-gay.
Noting the New York Times and AP chose to describe the complaints instead of label the comments, Wemple offers a theory on how this approach misses the point as it applies to both homophobic comments and racist comments.
What’s at issue here is a mere description. Journalists deploy shorthand descriptions all the time — describing a candidate’s position, or a politician’s history with women, or a telling historical episode. Editors and style guides fully authorize reporters to describe all such things. When the thing to be described is potentially racist or homophobic, however, it’s time to punt.
And punting doesn’t release the outlet from making a judgment. When you write that the tweets were “interpreted” as being anti-gay, you’re suggesting that they’re not anti-gay on their very face. They were.
This is a much tougher call than Wemple suggests. I will concede that when I read Martin’s tweets and saw a flurry of tweets asking for his scalp, I found the whole affair baffling. In the context of Super Bowl trash talking on Twitter (which has become a 24/7 snark machine) I thought the whole thing was overblown. The tweets seemed to suffer from too much testosterone and trash-talk (that I didn’t completely understand) but I was having a hard time seeing the homophobia. But I also found the outrage over the tweets equally confusing. Maybe the margaritas at my annual “We’re not watching the Super Bowl” dinner celebration was clouding my judgment.
So if I was a reporter covering the initial contretemps over Martin, I’m not sure I could have–with a straight face (no pun intended)–labeled them homophobic. Oh, I could see how they could be viewed as homophobic and offensive, but it would have been harder to have made the judgment they were per se homophobic. As a journalist, then, how do you make the leap Wemple encourages if you aren’t really sold on the proposition the comments or actions were homophobic. More importantly, if you are convinced that they are homophobic, should that judgment be the final conclusion even if there is evidence that reasonable people disagree?
For LGBT journalists in mainstream newsrooms, that “name it” approach is even more fraught with problems. Since LGBT journalists are often perceived to be furthering “the gay agenda” no matter what they write or report, labeling speech or actions as homophobic immediately results in questions about your objectivity and professionalism, which is a whole new set of problem.
So what do you think, specifically on the reluctance to label things homophobic?