Wemple: If It’s Homophobic, Say That

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?

7 Responses

  1. I am astounded that you don’t (or didn’t) recognize the obvious homophobia in Martin’s tweets. What about “whipping ass” and knocking the “ish” out of someone for being attracted to another man that you don’t understand? I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to recognize the level of homophobia spouted by Roland Martin.

  2. I understand how this is a difficult issue for a journalist working in the mainstream press, given the values of that industry, but what is unexplored here is that often the first reaction of the dominant culture to anti-gay prejudice is to deny that such prejudice exists. In so far as the mainstream press reflects the dominant culture, and it does, is refusing to label Martin’s tweets anti-gay a denial of that prejudice, an expression of journalistic objectivity, or a concession to that dominant culture that does not wish to be seen as prejudiced? Is it some combination of these?

    Michael Triplett wrote “For LGBT journalists in mainstream newsrooms, that ‘name it’ approach is even more fraught with problems.”

    This is revealing. In other contexts, journalists have no problem reaching conclusions. Candidates for public office are said to be on “offense” or “defense” at different times during their campaigns. Office holders are reported to be playing to one constituency or another with announcements or shifts in policy. Read any newspaper or watch any news program and you will see journalists reaching conclusions. So what is it about Martin’s tweets that prevents a journalist from concluding that his comments were anti-gay?

    It is not the comments that prevent a journalist from reaching that conclusion because Martin’s comments speak for themselves. It is the values of the mainstream press that are at issue here.

  3. One reason a lot of us lobbied for news organizations to hire more openly gay journalists was in the hope that they would change the values of the mainstream press. The danger is that they seem to be coopted by the values of the mainstream press.

    • Of course, it is the presence of openly gay journalists in the mainstream press that has resulted in people being willing to rush with the accusation of homophobia and the reality that these kinds of things happen less and less.

      I agree with Duncan that there is a concern about the values of the mainstream press and the willingness to take on these larger questions of identifying homophobia when we see it. But there needs to be a caution. GLAAD, in some circles, is being portrayed as bullies here and that accusation is not completely unfounded either. Journalists, as opposed to activists, are caught walking a fine line.

  4. People who are called out for their homophobia will always say that those who called them out are bullies. (Or at least, as in the Roland Martin case, their supporters will.) No one likes to be exposed for saying something they should not have said.

    Had Martin simply acknowledged the inappropriateness of his tweets from the very beginning, this would not have been much of a story. Instead, he concocted an outlandish explanation involving soccer, then issued an apology that said I did nothing wrong, but if you are stupid enough to think that I did, I am sorry that you were offended. And besides I am a great guy. As frequent in these cases, the explanation and defense only aggravated the story and forced CNN to react.

    I would much rather have GLAAD be aggressive in defending gay people (which was their mission when they were originally founded) than have them rush in and act as though their mission is to save the careers of people like Tracy Morgan (which is what they have been doing for far too long).

    Yes, journalists are not activists, but presumably gay journalists bring a certain level of awareness to gay-related issues that non-gay journalists may not have. If a gay journalist cannot recognize the level of homophobia in Roland Martin’s tweets, then I doubt whether they are gay or much of a journalist. All gay people grow up acutely aware of the threat of violence should their homosexuality be discovered by thugs.

    On the other hand, I doubt that Martin literally wanted gay people beaten up. The other story here is the macho culture and casual acceptance of violence that pervades the world he inhabits. Frankly, that is probably more difficult to confront than the homophobia. The best approach to this has been by Charles Blow in the NYTimes where he called out Martin’s homophobia but also placed it in a larger context.

  5. One more thought: it is possible–perhaps even likely–that Martin may not even have realized the import of using metaphors of beating people up and smacking them down for gay people. This kind of talk is so pervasive that he may not have meant them literally, and that may explain his insistence that he was not endorsing violence against gay people.

    That does not excuse the homophobia in Martin’s tweets, but it does make it less dangerous and serious.

    I say this because I grew up very near Martin in a family not that much different from his. I remember people in my family would use “Jew” as a synonym for “haggle.” Someone would say, “Can you jew the price down,” when they meant, can you haggle for a better deal.

    Only when I got to college did it dawn on me that this language was deeply anti-Semitic. It wasn’t intended as anti-Semitic by the people who used the term. They probably didn’t even know any Jews and even realize the connection between the term and a group of people.

    This is not to excuse them, only to give a context for how people sometimes use offensive terms. I would not be surprised if jocular threats of ass whipping and smacking people down are so pervasive in Martin’s family that he never consciously connected it with actual violence.

  6. […]  Robinson’s first point was about a Facebook posting.  The recent publicity over tweets by Roland Martin and Jason Whitlock show that banter across a cubicle wall is different from posting to 50,000 […]

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