Local coverage of Milk's
Medal of Freedom sparks protests
by Matthew S. Bajko
The decision by local television and radio stations to cover an anti-gay group's news conference denouncing President Barack Obama's posthumously awarding a Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk has sparked outrage within the Bay Area's LGBT community.
The inclusion of homophobic remarks by Randy Thomasson, president of the Campaign for Children and Families, an anti-gay lobbying group in California, in the media reports has incensed LGBT leaders who question why reporters and editors deemed it newsworthy. Thomasson held his press conference in front of City Hall Wednesday, August 12, the same day as the ceremony honoring Milk and other dignitaries was taking place at the White House.
"I am outraged," wrote Mark Dunlop in an e-mail to the Bay Area Reporter. "It seems pretty rare for a reporter to feel compelled to offer balance on a significant honor to a martyred hero of our community. In looking into the awards I saw no balance given to racist hate groups for the awards given to Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu or Sidney Poitier. Would it be considered appropriate to balance a story about Holocaust martyrs with a statement from a Nazi?"
Several TV stations, including KPIX/CBS5 and KTVU, the local Fox affiliate, ran extensive pieces about Milk being given the country's highest civilian honor that included not only Thomasson's derogatory comments about Milk and his legacy but also footage of gay men who happened upon the press conference and denounced the statements as lies.
Nonetheless, the coverage has generated criticism within the LGBT community and raised questions about the mainstream media outlets' judgments about what is newsworthy. Several people interviewed by the B.A.R. about the local news reports noted that the reporters did not interview anyone denouncing the other recipients, such as lesbian tennis great Billie Jean King or civil rights leader the Reverend Joseph Lowery, based on their sexual orientation or race.
"They did not need to cover that press conference at all. The fact that the president gave medals of honor to two LGBT people – that was the story, period," said Laura Spanjian, an out lesbian on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund who stumbled upon the Civic Center gathering.
Spanjian said she questions the need for stories about a gay man being given a prestigious honor to include an opposing viewpoint. She asked several of the reporters why they felt the need to cover Thomasson's remarks and suspected the reports would include the gay men's reactions since their interruptions of the news conference were "made for TV moments."
"This wasn't a debate. This wasn't an initiative or a proposition or a piece of legislation where there is usually two sides to a story. This was a celebration of two amazing Americans. There really isn't an opposing view," she said.
Gay blogger Michael Petrelis effectively ended Thomasson's remarks by inserting himself in front of the TV cameras and denouncing the lies he told about Milk. He said he was surprised to see so many reporters there and questioned why they would give a platform to hate speech.
"Randy Thomasson is there to destroy Harvey Milk's life and the truth about gay men. And all of these TV crews come out to cover his nonsense? I am sorry but I didn't see the newsworthiness of one minor anti-gay character showing up on this important day," said Petrelis. "What was the news hook?"
Ire at radio station
A minute-long report by radio station KCBS has sparked the most ire from the LGBT community. The piece included quotes from both Obama and openly gay state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who was at the White House ceremony, speaking about Milk's breaking down political barriers when in 1977 he won a seat on the Board of Supervisors, thus becoming the first openly gay person elected to public office in a major American city.
But the report also quoted Thomasson saying that Milk "led a life that is not admirable or honorable." The piece ran several times throughout the day, incensing those who repeatedly heard what they consider to be offensive and inappropriate journalism.
Several listeners have lodged complaints with the station. Dunlop said he was driving in his car when
"They need to know people are watching and we need to make sure our community doesn't lose our history," said Dunlop in an interview. "The last word spoken is an insult to an assassinated martyr. How can Harvey ever respond and clear his name from this insult? How could they let that be the last word?"
At Dunlop's request the LGBT advisory committee of the city's Human Rights Commission, on which he sits, unanimously backed at its August 18 meeting having the full commission send a letter to the station expressing its outrage over the coverage. The matter will be taken up at its next meeting on September 10.
"It's absurd and completely unacceptable. The fact it is happening in San Francisco is just horrifying," said committee member Lindasusan Ulrich.
When contacted by the B.A.R. last week, KCBS managing editor Dory Culver said she had not received any complaints about the station's coverage.
"My only comment would be I would like to have a conversation with them. I am unaware of the problem," she said. "This is the first time I have ever been contacted about anything like this. We have always been accused by the other side of the equation."
She said she found Thomasson's press conference newsworthy in the context of the fight over same-sex marriage and Leno's pushing a bill to create a state holiday for Milk.
Thomasson "has been a voice" in those debates, noted Culver, "and he had some strong things to say about it."
Dunlop has also asked that the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club take up the matter at its board meeting Monday, August 24. Among the options it will discuss is filing a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.
"I know many members of our board were outraged by the whole situation and have contacted KCBS to express their outrage," said club Co-Chair Charles Sheehan, adding that when he tried to speak to Culver she referred him to the station's spokeswoman. "The gentleman's tone in the radio spot is definitely derogatory and dismissive."
The TV spots have not generated the same responses as the radio piece did, seeing how they included sources directly responding to Thomasson's remarks. But they have raised the same questions as to why the reporters felt the need to cover him at all.
Hank Plante, the openly gay reporter who covered the press conference for the local CBS affiliate, forwarded a request for comment to the station's public affairs department. Spokeswoman Akilah Bolden-Monifa, an out lesbian and former member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's national board, said the station's policy is not to comment about its coverage.
In his piece, Plante noted that even in anti-gay circles Thomasson is controversial and asked him if he considered himself to be an extremist. He ended his piece by saying that if Milk were alive today, he would have enjoyed the controversy "because he never backed down from a good fight."
David Steinberg, president of NLGJA's board and a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, said he understands why the news stations focused on Milk, as he was a local person. But he said in the interest of presenting balance reports, journalists also must seek out fair and accurate opinions.
"Just because someone is saying I am from the opposite opinion you need to cover me, we still have jobs as journalists to look at the credibility of the people we put in the paper and on the air," said Steinberg, whose paper did not cover Thomasson's comments.
As an example, Steinberg said a reporter covering African American issues should not seek out someone from the Ku Klux Klan for a quote.
"You don't go and get a blatantly outrageous racist person to get a quote from the other side," he said. "We have seen this in the past with LGBT issues."