Gawker and Shepard Smith

In a recent article, NYT media and culture columnist David Carr asks: “What if Gawker tried to out an anchor at Fox News and no one cared?”

gawkerA Gawker article claimed that Fox News anchor Shepard Smith supposedly yelled at a waitress at a bar in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea back in March.

Oh, and his date was a man:

Aha. Cue the innuendo, the salacious follow-ups and the specter of mainstream media outlets picking up the item with a pair of tweezers. Except after the post was published, there was nothing but crickets, other than a piece in Slate wondering aloud why Gawker had bothered. Otherwise, there was no significant pickup, and no broad expression of outrage.

We know why: The culture has moved on. People see other people who happen to be gay at their workplaces, in their schools and on their televisions. Somewhere along the way, what was once a scarlet letter became just another consonant in the personal résumé. And now that gay marriage is a fact of life, a person’s sexual orientation is not only not news, it’s not very interesting.

The majority of the country supports same-sex marriage, and among people 18 to 29 years old, a demographic that makes up the bulk of Gawker’s audience, polls show that 70 percent believe that gay marriage should be legal.

The frisson of the Gawker tidbit was supposed to derive from the contextual equation — Fox News + gay = hypocrisy — but the channel has hardly been of one voice on the issue and there is no indication that it has any special obsession with sexual orientation, like, say, Gawker.

Carr then circles in on Nick Denton:

Gawker, which is run by Nick Denton, who is openly gay, seems to have a bit of a thing for homosexuality. Until Anderson Cooper of CNN decided to publicly announce that he is gay, the site pounded on him over and over, more or less demanding that he acknowledge it.

Eventually Mr. Cooper wrote an open letter saying he is gay, and there was a short burst of coverage, but nothing changed in terms of how he was seen, which suggests most people have moved on …

By doing a takedown on Mr. Smith, Gawker, which trades on its bracingly modern approach to news, comes off as moralistic and invasive, while Fox News seems oddly open-minded and pragmatic in comparison.

Of course, by writing about the Gawker coverage, I’m implicated even as I cluck my tongue, obsessing over someone obsessing over someone else’s sexuality; it feels icky and very meta at the same time. I made quite a few phone calls mulling it over and talking with people, trying to understand if I was pointing at a problem or just becoming part of it.

Michelangelo Signorile chimed in at HuffPost Gay Voices:

And this is where Carr’s statement that “being gay carries no higher burden” is so infuriating: He just doesn’t see that, in fact, by not reporting that a male public figure is out in public with a “boyfriend” when an incident occurred, when you would normally report that he was with a “girlfriend” if he were straight, you’re actually giving gays special treatment rather than treating gays equally. You’re also enforcing the closet and keeping gays invisible.

I’m sure Carr considers himself gay-supportive, but his view is paternalistic and, to borrow a phrase he hurls at Gawker, “old school.” He doesn’t seem to get the idea that we’re not going to get any further on LGBT visibility and equality if we keep coddling people of privilege and treating the reporting of public figures’ sexual orientation as if it were a revelation of terrible information that could psychologically damage them forever. And he doesn’t see that that’s not a consideration when reporting relevant details about other issues that public figures would rather not see reported.


The Wait for an Active Gay NFL Player

Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo has backtracked from his claim that up to four gay NFL players were considering coming out on the same day.

That has allowed for some interesting Monday morning quarterbacking (sorry, had to say it!). Yahoo! sports writer Jason Cole has written an excellent article on this topic.

“Media must be delicate in handling of active NFL gay player coming out publicly” is the title of his article:

footballFormer Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, who along with Ayanbadejo supports marriage equality and gay causes, got a phone call from one news outlet. The reporter wanted to know Fujita’s opinion about what Ayanbadejo was saying. The conversation quickly turned to the reporter’s real objective.

Do you know who those four players could be?

“I figured out what they were really wanting pretty quickly,” Fujita said with equal amounts of sarcasm and disappointment.

This is where the chase gets dangerous. Even though Ayanbadejo later backed off his claim, it was only after reporters who work with Bob Costas, CNN, ESPN and numerous other outlets had chased the tidbit. [Cyd] Zeigler [of] eventually weighed in on the subject, casting doubt that there were ever four NFL players planning to come out and throwing a wet blanket on writer Mike Freeman’s assertion that an NFL player is “close” to coming out.

“Just wait for the headline that someone has come out; anything else is just a guess,” said Zeigler, who admitted Friday that he’s only reasonably sure of two gay NFL players.

Worse, Zeigler said, there is almost a witch-hunt element to what is going on. It’s not necessarily intentional, but it’s there nonetheless.

“I just hope that it doesn’t get to the point that somebody feels pressured to come out because they feel that this news organization is about to out them,” said Zeigler, who is 39 and came out when he was 23. “You don’t want people to feel pressured into this.”

It’s anyone’s guess when the media will finally have to deal with this for real, but I do wonder what role, if any, LGBT journalists and LGBT media will play.

Outing the NYT Ed Koch Obit

Ed Koch
Ed Koch

Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York City, has died. He was 88. The only time I ever met him was at a press conference in the late 1980s. I was an undergrad at New York University studying journalism. He was there to answer questions from the student press.

I never got to ask a question, but I did hear a question that I had never before heard asked of a politician and certainly never heard answered: “Are you gay?” was the question. The answer: “No, next question.”

Although Koch said those words with a smirk on his face, his tone was noncombative. He looked at no one in particular as he answered, pointing randomly to the crowd to get a quick question that would change the subject.

What strikes me the most about that moment is that his answer in public never changed. Despite his support for LGBT rights, activists have pointed to his closeted life as one of the reasons he didn’t do enough for AIDS. Perhaps Koch was a ninja expert at keeping his heterosexuality in the closet, but I would argue the testimony of countless credible sources that he was gay is overwhelming.

While this is all old news to me, I was struck today by a straight colleague who said casually that he had never even heard of the Koch-is-gay stuff until now. Just goes to show how some issues are more relevant to some of us than others. And there’s nothing unusual about that.

That phenomenon explains why many folks, even former adversaries of Koch, praised his accomplishments in the wake of his death while others were disturbed by a seemingly deliberate omission of discussion about his inaction in the early days of the AIDS pandemic.

It’s not my style to dance on graves. I don’t want my loved ones to be hurt by any dancing on my grave, so on this matter I remain a Golden Rule adherent. That said, I do not consider discussing Koch’s inaction on AIDS in and of itself as dancing on his grave.

He was a public figure. As such, scrutiny of his public record isn’t personal, it’s a matter of public concern. And journalists especially shouldn’t shy away from telling the facts of the lives of public people, especially in their obituaries.

The New York Times obituary of Koch originally did just that. The Huffington Post reports that the word “AIDS” was mentioned only once in the first version of the NYT obit, which was 5,500 words long, in a reference to “the scandals and the scourges of crack cocaine, homelessness and AIDS.”

A few hours later three paragraphs about his handling of AIDS were added, but the NYT wrote that “hundreds of New Yorkers were desperately ill or dying” in the 1980s when in fact it was tens of thousands. Even in its attempts at correcting the record, the NYT fell short. As of this writing, that incorrect fact has not been updated.

Some activists go as far as to accuse Koch of murder because of his inaction on AIDS, but that is too far for me. Discussing his inaction on AIDS, however, shouldn’t be too far for anyone.

Are You Gay?

“Are You Gay?” is the latest NLGJA tip sheet on LGBT coverage.

From the introduction:

When is it appropriate to ask a subject to disclose his/her sexual orientation for a story? Is it ever?

Spring 2012, a New York judge ruled it wasn’t defamatory to call someone gay, even if he or she was heterosexual. As more LGBT people come out and more cities and states provide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the stigma of being LGBT has lessened. As a result, reporters are more likely to cover issues that affect LGBTs (e.g., jobs, the economy, marriage, health care), and encounter people who are openly gay. How do you ask if someone is gay without prying?

First and foremost, be sensitive. Realize that some LGBTs are out and proud and some are very much closeted. It’s a personal decision and it isn’t ethical for a reporter to pass judgment on someone else’s decision or journey.

Second, think about why you want to know and why a reader would want to know. Does it add to the story? Is it important to telling the person’s own story? Would it seem out of place if you omitted it? Would it seem out of place if you added it?

To read the complete tip sheet and download a PDF, click here.

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

If you’re old enough to remember the 1980s, then there is no question that you often heard Whitney Houston’s voice emanating from radios worldwide. Only a handful of solo artists in the past few decades could claim to be in her league at the height of her powers. Her death this past weekend at the age of 48 was sadly premature.

She was still so beloved that ratings of the Grammys about doubled from last year with about 40 million viewers, second only to 1984 when Michael Jackson won his Thriller awards. People tuned in to hear Jennifer Hudson sing in tribute the Dolly Parton song “I Will Always Love You” that Houston made famous.

Depending on the media outlet, the coverage of Houston’s death ranged from scandalous to respectful. That’s to be expected in the case of any famous person, but the alleged circumstances of her death only heightened the interest. The official cause of death has not been released, but most people assume drugs contributed.

It’s that assumption that has fueled some of the most distasteful coverage, but also some of the most inspiring. An example was “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, which dedicated the entire hour two days after her death. He originally had guests for another segment on politics that he bumped to continue the lofty conversation. Drugs and alcohol were discussed, but in the context of addiction and recovery.

In the mix was the delicate issue of discussing lesbian rumors. I didn’t see any references in broadcast media, but I did see a few online. An article at the day after her death was complementary, especially about her attitude concerning LGBT people. It did include, however, her denial from a 2000 interview of the lesbian rumors. took it up a notch two days after her death with an entire article dedicated to exploring the lesbian rumors.

We’ve come a long way from the days of Malcolm Forbes, when Michelangelo Signorile reported after he died that Forbes was gay. That was the start of the “outing” controversy, which remains to this day but greatly diminished. I believe it is fair to say that a majority of people think there is nothing wrong with asking celebrities if they’re gay.

My discomfort is not in the asking or discussing as it is in the timing. As the saying goes for jokes about dead celebrities — “Too soon?” — perhaps it’s too soon to be indulging in rumors, or at least a version of events that Houston denied. There will be plenty of time to dive into the juicy details of her life, but could we at least wait until after the funeral?