Political Notebook: Gay reporters discuss ethics of outing
by Matthew S. Bajko
If there is one thing to learn from hearing gay reporters discuss outing someone in the press, it is that there is no industry-wide standard for when to report on someone's sexual orientation.
When it matters if a person is LGBT is a decision handled differently by each newsroom and individual journalist. And it is a question that likely will vex the news industry for some time to come, for despite the LGBT community's gains in recent years, the closet has yet to be completely demolished.
So were the takeaway messages from a panel discussion about outing public figures during the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's annual national convention held last week in San Francisco. A similar panel was held at the first convention 18 years ago, and while this year's discussion was, by far, less dramatic, it too failed to elicit a common rule to be applied in determining when to report on someone's being LGBT if they are not public about it.
"There is a lot of inconsistency and a lot to talk about. Where is that consistency going to come from?" asked Michelangelo Signorile during a live broadcast Friday, September 3 of his eponymous satellite radio show on Sirius XM's OutQ channel. "I believe it will come from all of you and everybody else out there who is an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender journalist in the newsroom as the people who set the standard and lead the way."
Signorile took part in the panel during NLGJA's first confab in 1992, which was also held in San Francisco. He recalled that back then two gay reporters, the late San Francisco Chronicle scribe Randy Shilts and Andrew Sullivan, editor of the New Republic at the time, both vehemently opposed outing public officials.
"The drama aside, it was the beginning of a very important discussion. Twenty years later people's positions have changed pretty amazingly," said Signorile.
Sullivan was one of the leading voices this year attacking the mainstream media for not investigating the rumors that Elena Kagan , Obama's second appointment to a seat on the United States Supreme Court, was a lesbian.
And the Chronicle's political columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross outed Judge Vaughn Walker, who oversaw the federal Proposition 8 lawsuit, based on it being "an open secret" and a phone call from a fellow jurist and friend of Walker's, who said the judge didn't mind if they reported his being gay. Yet Walker declined to comment himself when contacted by the duo.
Other news organizations then jumped on the story, with reporters for the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio subsequently filing reports after Walker struck down California's same-sex marriage ban as being unconstitutional where they referred to the judge as being openly gay.
For NPR, in particular, it was a striking reversal of editorial policy considering the station refused to allow a movie reviewer to tell listeners the names of politicians who were outed in the documentary Outrage.
"News organizations grappled with how to report on those people in that film," noted Signorile. "Yet when Judge Vaughn Walker was reported on for being gay based on nothing but an open secret ... much of the media across the country picked up on it but months after it was reported, spurned on by anti-gay zealots after he ruled against Prop 8."
When Signorile asked his panelists if journalists have a responsibility to ask public figures if they are gay, he was met by varying responses. Mike Rogers, who has outed countless politicians and anti-gay religious figures on his http://www.blogactive.com website and was featured in the documentary, answered simply "Yes."
"Politicians don't get to decide what stories are written about them, as much as they would like to," said Rogers, who considers himself a citizen journalist. "Same in the LGBT community. It is actually homophobic to say we can't report on this angle of somebody's life, especially when he was the ringleader of the anti-gay campaign of 2004."
Rogers was referring to Ken Mehlman , the former Republican National Committee chairman and manager of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004, which capitalized on anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot that year in numerous states to draw conservative voters to the polls. At the time Rogers outed Mehlman as being a gay man, yet it wasn't until last month that Mehlman publicly came out and revealed he is raising money to help pay for the Prop 8 lawsuit.
LZ Granderson , a writer for ESPN and a commentator on CNN.com, however, disagreed that a person's sexual orientation is always germane to the story. He suggested perhaps the better way to phrase the question is to ask if someone is straight rather than gay. If the person then waffles about being heterosexual, that in itself becomes the news story, he said.
"I just for once would like to ask people if they are straight, especially in Congress or ruling on things impacting LGBT rights. By flipping the script maybe people will see how ridiculous it is, this hounding that a person's sexual orientation somehow impacts their decision-making process," said Granderson.
In the case of Walker, he said reporters should refrain from calling him gay until he has confirmed it himself.
"He did not say he was gay, so you can't report on him being gay," said Granderson.
While he agreed that in Mehlman's case it was a question that needed to be asked, Granderson said he also believes that reporting on someone's sexual orientation when they refuse to address it requires having more than "gossip and hearsay" as evidence.
"The important thing to always focus again on if the information you are reporting on is important to the overall story," said Granderson. "Take your own sexual orientation out of the equation and ask yourself does the public need to know ... Does the public need to know about a politician's sexual orientation as that politician is perhaps implementing laws that are antigay? Does it give you more insight and the public more insight behind motives of a person or possible conflict of interest?"
Michael Triplett, a member of NLGJA's national board who writes about media issues for the organization's RE:ACT To Your News blog as well as the website Mediaite, also believes journalists should ask the question if someone is LGBT. But he said it becomes trickier when the person denies, obfuscates, or refuses to answer the question.
"The denial part is a tough one. For reporters, especially in mainstream media, the question becomes how far do you push it once he has denied it? How many times do you ask again?" asked Triplett.
While NLGJA provides a stylebook for reporters covering LGBT issues, it does not have a policy about when it is appropriate to out someone.
The panelists did lay out some boundaries they would not cross in terms of reporting on a person's sexual orientation. In June Triplett criticized a reporter at Lavender magazine in Minnesota for going undercover at a Catholic group's meeting for gay men struggling to be chaste in order to out anti-gay Reverend Tom Brock.
Asked about the article last week and his critique of it, Triplett said he felt the reporter had overstepped by violating the 12-step-like program's confidentiality policy.
"The fact is the reporter violated that confidentiality," said Triplett during the panel. "Where does it end? I just don't think it was worth that level of effort and hurts journalists when they do something like that. If Mike Rogers wants to do that I would have less of a problem with it because Mike doesn't necessarily agree with the same rules of journalism that Lavender should be abiding by."
Rogers defended the methods used to report the Brock story.
"I think the ends justify the means. When you are proselytizing hate against my family, I get to expose you," he said.
There is one exception, though, said Rogers, and that is LGBT people serving in the military. Even those gay military members responsible for upholding the armed services' ban against openly gay and lesbian members, Rogers said he has decided not to out.
"I know a lot of out people in the military and I haven't outed them because of those complicated issues. We should give deference to our gay brothers in the military," said Rogers.
Granderson said he also sees no reason to out professional athletes he knows are gay if they do not want to be public.
"To me there are athletes who are out but not out in the press. They have partners and teammates who know," he said. "They are out without making a big announcement about it and I respect that."
He did offer one caveat.
"I have a rule with athletes I know are gay. I tell them 'Look dude. If you don't say dumb shit, I won't out you. I catch you saying dumb shit, I am going to tell people about your business,'" said Granderson.
Editor's note: Matthew S. Bajko serves on NLGJA's national board and co-chaired this year's national convention.
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Radio show host Michelangelo Signorile, left, and panelist LZ Granderson were part of a lively discussion on outing at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association's national convention last week. Photo: Lydia Gonzales