By: MARK FITZGERALD
S NEWSPAPER COVERAGE of gay issues and personalities too pro-gay?
At first blush, that’s an astonishing question. After all, well into the 1960s, headline writers routinely used “deviant” as a synonym for homosexual. Even now, some newspaper newsrooms are regarded by their gay and lesbian employees as hostile workplaces where they are better off in the closet than out.
These days, however, most newspapers, especially metro dailies, are striving mightily to present themselves as “gay-friendly” both in their offices ? and on their pages.
As more news about gay people and organizations gets into the paper, however, some gay and lesbian journalists are beginning to question the quality of the coverage.
Put bluntly, they say it’s simply too positive.
“We’ve sort of gone in the opposite way,” said Bettina Boxall, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose metro beat includes gay organizations.
“Sometimes it’s too gay,” said Boxall, who is a lesbian. “We do too many simple, formulaic, sappy stories . . . in which every gay figure is a hero. I think it’s time for coverage of gay issues to move to a higher level.”
“I agree,” said John Gallagher, national correspondent for the Advocate, the biweekly gay and lesbian newsmagazine. “A lot of the reporting, unfortunately, is sort of spongy. I don’t know if that’s because newspapers don’t want to offend their gay and lesbian readers . . . [but] you see it even in the gay press.”
Atlanta-based freelance writer Richard Shumate says he has seen the problem in almost every medium he writes for: mainstream magazines, alternative papers and gay newspapers.
“People who are covering gay and lesbian stories don’t really do a lot of critical, thinking-out-of-the-box stories about our community,” Shumate said. “The gay press doesn’t want to do it because it’s not PC [politically correct]. The mainstream press doesn’t do it because by and large they don’t care about these issues . . . . But all of us ? whether we are in the gay press or the mainstream press ? should be doing more of these critical stories.”
In panel discussions and hallway conversations at the recent National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Miami, journalists critical of this supposed tendency toward positive stories say its biggest effect is to misinform both mainstream America ? and the gay community itself.
u The almost universally cheerleading reports on the potential of protease inhibitors to reverse the symptoms of AIDS or even to cure the disease. Some gay activists maintain that the gay and mainstream press are ignoring reports that some asymptomatic users are actually developing symptoms.
u Constant repetition of unsubstantiated claims of the gay community’s size and wealth.
“How many times do we repeat the statistic that the gay community is 10% of [the general population]? Well, I don’t think it’s 10% and I don’t think anyone can prove it’s 10% of the community,” the Los Angeles Times’ Boxall said.
That statistic ? and frequently repeated assertions that gay males have incomes substantially above average ? are unreliable because they depend on people identifying themselves as gay in surveys.
“To some extent our community suffers based on our lack of diligence,” said Jeordan Leg?n, Latino community reporter for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.
Leg?n says there is an understandable reason gay and lesbian reporters in the mainstream press tend not to be critical when writing about gay topics.
“The reason why we’re not being too critical of the gay community is because of the stigmatization and marginalization of the gay community over the years. It brings back a very bitter taste to the gay community [and] it can be perceived as gay bashing.
“There is a feeling the mainstream press owes us for marginalizing the community,” Leg?n said.
“There is feeling the gay community is not strong enough yet,” added Monica Trasandes, editor of Frontiers, a Los Angeles biweekly magazine.
“There is a feeling that as a movement we’re not strong enough to withstand the criticism. It’s terrible since it closes doors to us [journalists].”
Indeed, the push for more critical coverage of the gay community may be fueled by the bitter feelings that have developed between gay community leaders ? and the gay and lesbian journalists who cover them.
“The organized gay community is not interested in news, it is interested in propaganda ? particularly if you are a gay reporter,” Boxall said. “I’ve had people say, ‘I want you to cover us in such and such a way so we can get new members or new funding.’ In that sense, [gay organizations] are very similar to advertisers,” Frontiers editor Trasandes said.
The pressure increases for reporters from the gay press, says Achy Obejas, a lesbian who formerly wrote for the Windy City Times, a gay newspaper in Chicago.
“There’s a sense among the [gay community] leadership that the gay and lesbian media was there to protect them and if you asked tough questions, you were an asshole traitor,” said Obejas, who is now a cultural affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
“I’ve never seen anything as nasty and vicious as the gay community,” Obejas added.
“I thought the Latino community had that down, but it was nothing compared to queers. What I walked away with was an amazing lack of respect for these national organizations.”
As a gay reporter covering gay organizations, Advocate national correspondent John Gallagher said, “In a lot of cases you find yourself wading into a sea of gossip and backbiting. You have to separate what is legitimate criticism and what are personal agendas.”
And at times, gay activists use a reporter’s sexual orientation as a kind of cudgel against them, some gay and lesbian journalists said.
“They’ll say, ‘Well, you’re a lesbian,’ ” the Los Angeles Times’ Boxall said. “Well, yeah, I’m a lesbian ? so what? What’s that got to do with this story? My message to the gay organizations is, grow up! Get professional.”
Indeed, the Chicago Tribune’s Obejas says “there’s a real double standard” in how gay leaders treat journalists.
“There’s a real difference in the way they treat straight reporters and how they treat gay and lesbian reporters. If you’re going to have a certain respect and courtesy for straight reporters ? do the same for us,” Obejas said.
Often what happens is that gay community activists simply close down to every reporter, some journalists said. That can be especially true on the local level, said John McCoy, staff reporter for the Dallas Voice, a gay weekly.
“There seems to be a feeling that no one wants to air the dirty laundry,” McCoy said.
Still, many gay journalists remain unconvinced that the press ? especially the mainstream press ? is running too many positive gay stories.
“I think that’s certainly a stretch,” said J. Russell King, deputy news editor of the New York Times. “The fact is, [the gay community] is hardly covered at all in the mainstream press. I don’t think you could make that argument stick very broadly, but it’s something we grapple with and talk about at these conventions.”
Similarly, Mercury News reporter Legon argued that it’s probably premature to talk about changing the approach to covering gay people and institutions.
“When American newspapers,” Legon said, “have reporters covering the gay community full time ? when the Mercury News does and the L.A. Times does ? then you can talk about taking [coverage] to another step.”