Gawker’s Tussle With Robin Roberts, Matt Drudge

The moment it was announced, there was immediate talk of  the irony that ABC’s Good Morning, America’s Robin Roberts got the big Obama interview on same-sex marriage because she was allegedly a lesbian.  I knew there was gossip about Roberts, but there was little actual evidence about Robert’s sexual orientation.  I assumed that it was the kind of gossip that circulates in LGBT circles, where there is always chattering about who is gay/lesbian and who isn’t, but not really much more than that.

Gawker raised the bar on the gossip by suggesting that Roberts was concerned the interview would out her as a lesbian. Their source was someone “close to ABC executives” and it was backed up by other anonymous sources. There was no actual evidence that she is a lesbian, only that it is an “open secret.”  The story was bylined by Gawker editor-in-chief A.J. Daulerio.

When the story was linked by the Drudge Report, Gawker then pointed out that Matt Drudge is also “commonly understood” to be gay.

Now, these stories are nothing new. Michael Musto in his classic Out magazine article on the “glass closet” talks about famous people–including journalists–are gay or lesbian but living haven’t come out publicly.  Beginning with that article, Out has consistently included CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Fox’s Shepard Smith, and Matt Drudge on its “power” list along with openly gay and lesbian media folks like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the New Republic‘s Chris Hughes, Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, Andrew Sullivan, Time Inc. Martha Nelson, Gawker’s Nick Denton, New York Times‘ Richard Berke, Dan Savage, and CNN’s Don Lemon.

So what does this mean for LGBT journalists?  Obviously, NLGJA was founded to make it easier for LGBT journalists to be out in the newsroom and to allow us to have a place at the table when it comes to reporting the news and reporting on the LGBT community.  It’s fair to say that the “power” list would have a lot fewer media people were it not for the efforts of NLGJA to encourage LGBT journalists to be out in the newsroom and in their careers.

While there may be ideological disagreement on the question of “outing,” there is also a consensus that LGBT journalists should be able to decide for themselves whether they are going to be publicly out a journalist. The rub, of course, is when the journalist is also a “celebrity” and has a high-profile.  Some would argue that an anchor of a top morning show and the editor of one of the most powerful websites are “fair game” when it comes to reporting on their alleged sexual orientation and there’s no reason not to report what is widely-known as “true.”

This has been a constant ethical challenge for journalists: when (and if) to report rumors someone is lesbian or gay. And how much evidence is necessary before being able to report it as news.  The Drudge story is old news, dating back to David Brock’s book “Blinded by the Right” where he discussed an ill-fated date with Drudge and Drudge’s infatuation with Brock. There’s apparently a lot less evidence about Roberts.

So what do you think?  Was it fair for Gawker to pass on these anonymous rumors about Roberts?  Are high-profile journalists “fair game” when it comes to these kinds of stories?  And what should we do about the “glass closet”?  As long as these questions persist, NLGJA will undoubtedly be necessary.


Poynter Questions the GLAAD Commentator Project

It’s difficult for some journalists, especially LGBT journalists, to figure out how they feel about the GLAAD Commentator Accountability Project. While it has been praised by some, it has raised concerns from others.  Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute–who focuses on ethics and has appeared at NLGJA conferences–takes a look at the project and raises questions about the purpose and impact.

  • Of course, the danger is that journalists will use lists like this in the same way they would use a black list. If GLAAD is sincere about its intentions, the organization could add a short, instructional paragraph to the site, offering up some ideas about the best way to use the database. Because there is a range of egregiousness, such language would be helpful to journalists and to citizens who might come to the site looking for more information about a voice they heard. GLAAD also might include names of people who do “accurately represent the ‘other side’ of those issues,” as they say these commentators do not.

McBride questions whether the comments of some of the people on the GLAAD list have really committed what GLAAD considers “hate speech” and suggests that journalists and bookers may come away uncertain about why someone shouldn’t be interviewed or interviewed without being viewed as an expert.

She quotes GlAAD’s Aaron McQuade in describing the purpose of the list, and defending the criticism that it isn’t a blacklist.

If you are going to offer vile, hateful rhetoric in one forum, then show up on MSNBC as a scholarly expert, we want the audience to know the full context of who you are,” he said. And he hopes that anchors and reporters will challenge such commentators on things they say in other forums.

McBride’s column comes as GLAAD announces that the National Organization for Marriage and Pat Robertson have been added to their list of questionable commentators.  NOM’s sin, of course, is the release of internal documents outlining the group’s political strategy that included exploiting hostility between the gay community and African Americans, as well as Latinos. But the inclusion of NOM raises the inevitable question: if GLAAD thinks journalists should be suspicious of the largest, most well-funded anti-SSM group in the country, who does GLAAD think journalists SHOULD call to balance out pro-SSM activists and commentators?

This is questions we’ve wrestled with before, when it came to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group designations.  While clearly they are fringe groups on the SPLC list–and there are fringe people on the GLAAD list–there are also many people on both lists who have significant constituencies and a track record of significant support from the public.  So how do you exile such people from your coverage?  Should you?

Maggie Gallagher is rather fearless in her willingness to debate anyone and talk to any media.  But she’s also not a fringe voice or someone without a significant constituency.  It’s difficult to imagine any better advocate for the anti-SSM position than Gallagher if you are trying to book a guest or get a quote.  So why shouldn’t be considered credible and interviewed?  She’s said some crazy stuff, but so have some pro-SSM activists who are routinely interviewed.  Her group has put out some controversial statements and taken some unsavory positions, but so have groups that support SSM and gay rights.

This leaves journalists in a real jam. I agree that journalists should ask hard questions and commentators should be called on controversial statements. But is creating a list of suspect commentators really the answer?

Sex Sting, Mug Shots Included

In the bad old days of covering the gay community, covering bar arrests and sex stings was de rigeur.  Pictures of men being hauled from bar for being in “homosexual establishments” have been iconic symbols of pre- and post-Stonewall America.

If you think the days of listing the names and addresses of men arrested for misdemeanors in sex stings was a relic of another time, you’d be wrong. The Scripps Treasure Coast newspapers in Florida, on their, have gone a step further (h/t Phil Attey) and even provided a slideshow of the ten men arrested in a recent sex sting at a local beach. The men range from 38 to 84, with most older than 60.  Here’s how the side described the sting:

JENSEN BEACH — The Martin County Sheriff’s Officehas charged nine men with exposure of sexual organs and a 10th man with battery for engaging in sex acts in remote parts of public beaches and parks, according to arrest reports.

Between Wednesday morning and Thursday evening at Bob Graham Beach, 3225 N.E. Ocean Blvd., undercover detectives saw the men exposing their genitals to each other or to other undercover detectives stationed there, the report states.

If the story had ended there, it could have been a justifiable story. The community may have reasons to be concerned about sex taking place on public beaches. But going a step beyond that and publishing names, addresses, and even a slideshow of mug shots for men arrested for a misdemeanor is without journalistic justification.

The journalism question is whether all people arrested on misdemeanor (or even felony) charges end up with their names, addresses, and mug shots in a news story. If they don’t, then what’s the news reasoning for highlighting these men arrested in this situation for unusual coverage. Is there a public interest in having the men’s pictures? Sure, they’ve been arrested and therefore the pictures are fair game, but that doesn’t mean every person arrested for a misdemeanor should have their picture placed on a newspaper’s website.

Because these men have been singled out, I would be curious whether there was any discussion inside the newsroom about the news judgment in posting their pictures and names/addresses. Did anyone suggest that maybe such a story could be viewed as homophobic? Given recent reports about park arrests just a few miles down the coast in Palm Beach reported by the South Florida Gay News, did anyone question the police’s motives in conducting such a sting?


Is It Unethical NOT to Report That Apple’s CEO is Gay?

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?

Is Apple’s New CEO Gay?

As NLGJA’s annual convention begins today in Philadelphia, the national news provides one of the enduring ethical questions when covering LGBT folks: when do we say someone is gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgender)?  From our very first convention where Andrew Sullivan and Michelangelo Signorile had a heated discussion over when to “out” someone, it is a question that continues to perplex journalists.

The announcement that Tim Cook would take over as CEO of Apple has reignited the story of whether Cook is gay. While there were longtime rumors throughout Silicon Valley that Cook was gay, it took Gawker’s Valleywag to go public with the rumor in January.  In that story, a lot of people spend a lot of time speculating off-the-record on Cook’s sexual orientation and we are even treated to rumors that he’s into Asian men. Here’s the money paragraph:

After Cook was profiled as a “lifelong bachelor” and “intensely private” elsewhere, we wondered if he might be gay. We’ve since heard from two well-placed sources that this is indeed the case, and it sounds like Cook’s sexual orientation has been the topic of at least some discussion within the company. One tech executive who has spoken to multiple Apple management veterans about Cook was told executives there would support Cook if he publicly acknowledged his orientation, and even would encourage him to do so as he steps up his leadership role, but that they also had concerns about whether his coming out would impact the perception of the Apple brand.

Not to be outdone, pardon the pun, in April Out magazine then listed Cook as the most powerful gay man in America.  This is in keeping with Out’s tradition of including people in the  “glass closet”, including journalists, on its power lists.

So where does that leave other journalists?  What we have is a lot of well-substantiated gossip. So is gossip enough to say that Cook is gay?  There’s the million dollar question.

The LGBT media–including The AdvocateDallas Voice, Windy City Times and Queerty— quickly took Cook’s advancement at Apple as a victory for gays, with headlines saying Cook was gay. The gay angle has also made it into the mainstream press, including Daily Beast and MSNBC.  Many of the stories rely on the Out and Gawker stories, although it is amusing to read he is “openly gay,” which will come apparently as a shock to Cook and the reporters who cover Apple.

This question of whether to label Cook as “gay” is the latest permutation of when to identify people as LGBT and when not to.  Cook, like Elena Kagan and Judge Vaughan Walker before him, raises the question of what is “outing” in 2011 and is there really a problem with saying someone is gay based on rumor and gossip.

On one side, there is the argument that if the information is reliable and the subject is privately–or even semi-publicly–out, then it’s important to identify people as LGBT because there is nothing to be ashamed of and visibility is important. On the other hand, all we really have is gossip–which is now viewed as hard fact–and not much else.  But the story is out there and both Gawker and Out are reputable enough to assume they aren’t just peddling in idle rumor.

The weasel approach–and I’ve used it myself–is to quote the sources that have identified people as LGBT and let the reader make up their own mind.  It’s a bit of a cop-out, I admit, but it is an approach that at least provides documentation and puts it in the hands of the reader.

So what should we make of the Cook stories?  Should stories identify him as gay?