Can the Gay Media Stay Objective While Reporting the Prop 8 Trial? Should It? Ugh, What Stupid Questions

On February 25, the Los Angeles Press Club will host a talk on the media’s coverage of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger federal trial. The title of the talk is “Covering the Prop. 8 Trial: Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It?).” This is a stupid question, and an even stupider way to phrase an important debate.

The issue of whether journalists can truly be objective about anything is a matter for a 20,000-word essay for another website. But to question whether a journalist, because she is gay, might insert bias into her report (which the institution of journalism would immediately label inappropriate) about what Judge Vaughn Walker is up to, or whether Olson/Boies’ legal strategy was effective, is the very type of distracting and damaging idea floated by ignorant critics of the black media covering Barack Obama‘s campaign and presidency.

That black reporters cannot adequately cover a black candidate is a farce. It suggests that only white (or Latino, or Asian) reporters can satisfactorily cover a black candidate. It also suggests that white reporters are, somehow, the standard of objectivity to be compared against, when history tells us that is actually something so ridiculous, it deserves a laugh.

For the same reason we’ve ignored the argument that Judge Walker is somehow less qualified to oversee the Prop 8 trial because he is gay, we must also ignore the L.A. Press Club’s question mark; immutable characteristics such as race and sexuality do not make a person better or worse at performing a job of objectivity.

Of course, with the L.A. Press Club’s event stacked with gay media types — Advocate editor Andrew Harmon, Variety managing editor Ted Johnson, and Frontiers In LA editor Karen Ocamb — the premise will be answered within five seconds of opening remarks. “Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It?)” Yes, the gay press can maintain objectivity. And yes, it should.

But objectivity is not the same thing as “hearing from all sides.” Not all sides to a debate have an equal stake or right to involvement in the larger conversation. When reporting on health care, far too often we hear more from lobbyists than actual Americans affected by health care reform. Giving more emphasis to citizens doesn’t make a report biased; it makes more even-handed. Moreover, calling out health care providers and pharmaceutical giants for unfair policy making decisions, profit-seeking moves, and attempts to influence lawmakers doesn’t make the report biased; it makes it responsible. And to go to the polar extreme, when discussing voter redistricting or the New Haven firefighters lawsuit, we do not ask our local white supremacists what they think is the best call.

So too, then, might the gay media — and any media — report on the Perry trial with objectivity while still reporting actual facts. Namely, that the defendants at Protect Marriage/Yes On 8 are pro-discrimination. Yes, say it aloud, and in print. These people, in the year 2010, favor discriminating against an entire class of Americans. That is an objective statement. It is not rooted some sexuality-derived bias. It is a fact, plain as day.

Indeed, the gay media can and should remain objective, because that is their job. They should also identify hatred, heterosexism, and bigotry when they see it, because that is also their job.

All that said, the L.A. Press Club event is not a stupid one. Attendees will be treated to a lively discussion about the media, the Perry trial, and objectivity. And the name of the event suggests less about what panel members will argue than the tried-and-true tactic about posing questions to generate interest. This website does it all the time, so really, we’re the last ones to criticize.

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  • Brian En Guarde

    You know too, there is a right and wrong in the Prop 8 trial! Reporters are not required to dress up unconstitutionality as rational, when the whole basis of the decision is that government has no rational interest in carving out gays from the civil right to marriage. If it is not rational in the governmental interest sense, there is no reason to put lipstick on a pig. Animus is at the heart of Prop 8, and that is exactly what Judge Walker will say. Accurate reporting requires journalists to say, “Judge Walker found that animus toward gays and lesbians was at the core of the passage of prop 8, and the defendants had no rational argument against it.” The truth is simply NOT BIAS.

  • RomanHans

    You know, if blacks had stayed objective when they were fighting for civil rights, they would have admitted they were going totally fuck with our white bloodlines, and at least one or two were really going to mess with our womenfolk.

  • David Ehrenstein

    “Objectivity” is a con game. It’s the status quo’s ideal defense of itself from attack. In practice “Objectivity” requires a journalist “get both sides” — even when there may be far more than two, or just ONE. Manufacturing two “sides” prevents said journalist from ever stating the truth. When there are “sides” there is no truth — only “opinion.”

  • Brian En Guarde

    I agree. There is no other “side” when Prop 8 is ruled unconstitutional. The side that lost said there was no animus toward gays at the heart of Prop 8, and the side that won proved Prop 8 is animus itself at it’s core. Where there is no proof or reason that there is any conceivable legitimate civic purpose of Prop 8, no journalist is required to say that there was.

  • RS

    As a journalist who formerly worked in LGBT media, I understand the need to be careful with balance. But that doesn’t mean the need to give equal weight and credence to crackpot theories. You don’t have to pretend that gay conversion therapy might be possible. You don’t have to give quotes and rhetoric from Fred Phelps the same weight as, say, President Obama. You don’t have to pretend that efforts to restrict same sex marriage aren’t rooted in bigotry.

    Objectivity, in this case, would involve a factual analysis. Providing a legal analysis for why the courts might uphold same sex marriage bans is not the same as pretending that restricting equal rights is morally right.

  • KirilleXXI

    You know, the larger question here is why the Non-Gay Media was reporting the trial so poorly? If they did their job to report it more openly, more honestly, objectively and with all the attention it deserves, not downplaying it, I would have more respect for them and I would consider them to be objective enough. Simply the fact that they tried to ignore this trial as much as possible poops all over their objectivity — you can’t be objective when you ignore and downplay something. So, who’s really not objective enough here?

  • Francis

    I like the question and think it is valid AND IT NEEDS TO BE EXPANDED and applied to Justice Scalia whose dissent in Lawrence is loaded with his prejudice equating homosexuality as immoral and upholding the government’s right to enacting laws to protect public morality. Justice Scalia can not be impartial when ruling on cases that deal with homosexuality. Examining his ability to be impartial and objective is just as valid as questioning whether Walker can be impartial. We should embrace the question. They brought it up. Let’s expand on it and even create a movement to demand Justice Scalia’s recuesal from the Prop 8 case!

  • David Ehrenstein

    Not just Scalia — there’s his Lawn Jockey, Clarence Thomas. Thomas is famous for never speaking from the bench about anything — except Prop 8.

  • paul

    regarding “objectivity,” I’m a big fan of this quote from Christiane Amanpour:

    “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing.”

    Of course, that was said about Sarajevo…

  • Duncan Osborne

    Can the members of the Los Angeles Press Club define objectivity and explain how that quality was present in the many stories the mainstream press produced on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the US invasion of that nation?

    Can the press club members show how objectivity was present in the many mainstream press stories accusing Wen Ho Lee of being a master spy who was selling America’s nuclear secrets to the Chinese or charging that Steven Hatfill mailed anthrax-laced letters to public figures?

    How about all those stories portraying Bernie Ebbers, the one time head of WorldCom, or the senior staff at Enron as financial wizards? Were those objective stories?

    The list of errors and screw ups, big and small, by the mainstream press in this country is only getting longer and those of us who work in the gay press are supposed to emulate them?

    That industry cannot perform the basic function of getting facts correct and we are supposed to believe that mainstream press reporters possess some sort of majesterial objectivity that allows them to describe reality without bias.

    I followed the Prop. 8 trial by reading the trial transcripts that the America Foundation for Equal Rights posted on its web site. One New York City paper, the New York Times, had some reporting on the trial and that was buried in its San Francisco blog. Frankly, between the transcripts and the Times’ coverage, the transcripts were always far more interesting.

  • ripdash

    I hate the framing tactic: “Can a member of subset X objectively report on representatives or issues of subset X?”

    Firstly, it’s inherently racist/bigoted. Can a black person objectively report on a black president? Can a gay person objectively report on a gay issue? Can a latino Supreme Court Justice objectively preside over matters involving latino issues? Or will she (even worse) be harsher towards ‘white’ issues than, say, an old, rich white dude? The question is not just offensive, it’s insulting.

    Secondly, the question itself implies that, no, a gay person can’t cover gay issues objectively, now it’s on you to counter an arguement that shouldn’t even exist. Or, at the very least, it calls into question the target’s ability to do their job. The job they’ve probably spent most of their adult lives working toward. The job that has principles they believe in.

    Again, this debate shouldn’t even exist. When someone holds a
    “Covering DC: Can the White, Rich Press Maintain Objectivity (and Why Shouldn’t It?)” talk, call me. Until then, fuck this fake debate.

  • akb

    “actual Americans effected” should be “actual Americans affected”.

  • RLS

    What I hate about having this conversation is the automatic assumption that straight white males are always objective at all times, which is in itself total hogwash.

    Do you think straight white guys don’t have a vested interest in keeping straight white maleness at the top of the heap?

    ESPECIALLY when the media is concerned.

    This is played out to a lesser extent in gay media, which is also *surprise!* white male dominated and controlled. Is it any wonder which images are constantly being held up as the standard of desirability?

  • Larry

    I generally agree with this article, but I’m not sure about comparing gay journalists covering gay-rights issues with black journalists covering a black presidential candidate for the simple reason that the civil rights of racial minorities are basically secure in this country; they’re not being debated and are not under threat. I’m sure that it would be a huge disappointment for most African-Americans if Barack Obama had lost, but it wouldn’t entail a rollback of black civil rights. On the other hand, gay journalists had something to lose — and did lose — with the passage of Proposition 8.

    I think gay journalists can be objective, but I know it would be a challenge for me, considering how heated I can get with respect to gay-rights issues.

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  • Cam

    This has been the far rights tactic all along. “If you do not allow me to be a bigot, then you are a bigot!” It’s bullshit and all they want to do is to try to intimidate the big networks into not reporting on gay issues at all.

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