We’ve criticized mainstream media reporter and bloggers for their giant fail on reporting California State Sen. Roy Ashburn’s hypocrisy — that he is a gay man voting against gay rights. But at the Bakersfield Californian, the hometown paper of Ashburn, there was a reason they hid Ashburn’s secret: It wasn’t relevant. Haha.
For years, we got the Christmas cards with the official family portrait — Roy Ashburn, his wife, kids and golden retriever, smiling for the camera. Political reporters tacked them up on their cubicle walls with the cards from other local politicians. When the Ashburns divorced, the cards stopped coming. Life went on, and so did Ashburn’s political career as a legislator. But as the years rolled by, we heard rumors he was gay. We didn’t report them for two important reasons. First, we didn’t know it was true. Even if it was, we didn’t see the relevance. I didn’t believe it was news.
It took Ashburn’s DUI arrest to change that, he says.
Things changed after news of his arrest came out Thursday. A highway patrolman arrested Ashburn in the early hours of Wednesday morning for allegedly driving drunk in a state-owned vehicle in Sacramento. His DUI was newsworthy. But there was more. A Sacramento television station, citing no named source, reported Thursday that Ashburn had been at a gay nightclub before his arrest. Even though an online news site later reported that the bar’s manager said that wasn’t the case, bloggers jumped on the story. Leading the charge were gay websites and bloggers who “out” closeted gay public officials, especially politicians who’ve taken positions seen as anti-gay.
And this is where Jenner admits he is wrong.
In reporting the DUI charge, Ashburn’s sexuality was no more relevant than a heterosexual lawmaker’s would be were he arrested for drunk driving. That he was leaving a gay bar — if we’re to rely on Jenner’s years-long thinking that Ashburn’s sexuality wasn’t worth touching — is immaterial, and thus the Californian shouldn’t have even bothered reporting he is gay at all.
But they did. Or at least, they used the oldest trick in the book to do so: the paper “reported the blogosphere’s feeding frenzy,” says Jenner, which is always a cute way for the media to cover something in detail that’s otherwise too controversial. (Even the New York Times does this.) Suddenly, Ashburn’s sexuality is relevant because other people are talking about it. Rather than leading the coverage, the Californian found itself trailing behind; the area’s CBS affiliate was the first to report the news.
Quoting this website, Jenner says:
One gay website, Queerty.com (motto: “Free of an agenda. Except that gay one.”) wrote this about our decision not to pursue the story:
“To some, it’s curious that Henry and the paper wouldn’t report their suspicions about an anti-gay lawmaker to its readers, but we can understand how that went unreported. When the information gets back to editors, their concern is accuracy, and having substantiated information. Rumors are just that: rumors. And while this website and many readers might support public outings of anti-gay politics, print media hasn’t necessarily caught up with that manifesto.”
Despite Friday’s coverage, we haven’t bought that manifesto.
But one thing print media always prides itself on? Investigating a story and getting the facts. If they are going to report on Ashburn, and there is knowledge that he might belong to a community that he’s voting against, that is news. News that is worth reporting.
Jenner can play defense all he wants, but his newspaper — and others — failed in its duty to report a story that is relevant to voters. This isn’t about outing. This is about transparency in government that affects the populous. And hypocrites in politics deserve to be outed. In the case of Ashburn, the outing just happened to include his sexuality.