Karen Ocamb

Covering the Prop. 8 Trial: Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It)

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 21, 2010 2:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media
Tags: Andrew Harmon, Los Angeles Press Club, Prop 8 federal trial, Ted Johnson

NextTed Johnson gets married Thursday - Feb. 25 - I am going to be on a Los Angeles Press Club panel with Andrew Harmon, senior editor for The Advocate, and my legally married friend, Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety and blogger at wilshireandwashington.com. The discussion topic is: "Covering the Prop. 8 Trial: Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It)?"

Having served on the board of the LA Press Club with Ted, I suspect this topic was selected long before the San Francisco Chronicle published a political column noting the "open secret" that Prop 8 trial Judge Vaughn Walker is gay - which I wrote about citing some facts to counter the spin from the National Organization for Marriage. But the timing is terrific because it may well draw many more straight people who quietly have questions and harbor a lingering doubt about Walker - and our coverage, which is sometimes cited by the mainstream media.

Ted, for instance, blogs about the intersection between Hollywood and Washington and in an Oct. 30, 2008 post, he disclosed that he married his longtime love Stewart Scott:

A note: I married my same-sex partner last week, it'd be a leap to say that I am neutral on this proposition, although I have tried my best to be fair to both sides in covering this story from the industry angle.

Ted also wrote about their one year anniversary for LGBT POV.

John-Rabe-married1-300x199John Rabe, an award-winning member of the LA Press Club (as are Ted and I) and an anchor and reporter for local NPR station KPCC, also wrote for LGBT POV about his marriage. He recused himself from covering Prop 8 after he agreed to let the Pasadena Star News cover his wedding.

Here's how the LA Press Club is framing the debate:

The Proposition 8 trial underway in San Francisco presents a special problem for gay and lesbian reporters. How do they cover the trial objectively? And frankly, given that many write for the gay community, which has strong feelings on the issue, should they? We're assembled some of the top reporters in town to discuss this and other aspects of one of the nation's most significant trials in the new century.

Olson Boies AFERBy the way, not specifically addressed here is whether there is a difference between how we blogged about the trial and how we reported it for our print publications. This became critical after the US Supreme Court ruled that the video of the trial could only be distributed within the district courthouse. Ted, Andrew and I were all at the original May 27, 2009 news conference where the Prop 8 challenge was announced (I asked Ted Olson how the gay community could trust him, given his very conservative background) and we were in court opening day - and then covered thereafter as best we could from other bloggers and reporters and our own sources. Thank heavens the American Foundation for Equal Rights paid for and posted the trial transcripts so we can all be more accurate in our coverage.

I realize the topic of the discussion might seem self-evident and perhaps even insulting to LGBT folks - after all, would you question African American reporters about covering the racially divisive OJ Simpson trial or a divorced reporter about covering any of the myriad of famous divorce trials happening in Hollywood? I remember talking with one black reporter about his early days covering news for the local CBS News affiliate (KNXT at the time) and he told me how his bosses refused to send him to cover the Watts riots fearing he wouldn't be "objective." Today, he'd be one of the first dispatched to the scene to work his sources and report on the nuances unseen by other reporters just parachuting in.

Something akin to that is true for Ted, Andrew and me since we covered the whole Prop 8 campaign and already knew Chad Griffin and Bruce Cohen, two co-founders of AFER.

Jon BeaupreBut that's exactly why such panel discusses as these are important. The Feb. 25 panel will be moderated by Jon Beaupre, veteran radio reporter and anchor for NPR affiliate KPCC and a journalism professor at Cal State Los Angeles. He's also openly gay and was the longtime voice of spot LGBT news coverage for the Pacifica station in LA, KPFK and the long-running show "This Way Out."

Last year Jon moderated another Prop 8 panel I was on - which led to a political awakening for at least one of his students. I was droning on about how it's important for pollsters to start considering lesbians and gays as a serious demographic in their surveys and this one young woman - who voted Yes on Prop 8 - asked me why we would want to do that? Why would we want to call attention to ourselves like that? I immediately realized she was looking at LGB people in the framework of sex - not sexual orientation. Activist Robin Tyler, who was also on the panel, explained how we're a civil rights movement. But I spoke to her in terms of "personhood" - now gay people are more than just who we sleep with. Edward Headington captured the exchange and posted it on YouTube:

The discussion will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Los Angeles Press Club in the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., one block west of Vermont Ave., in Los Feliz. (Metro: Vermont/Sunset station). Free parking and refreshments. The discussion is open to everyone.

Here's the RSVP info - free for members, $10 for non-LA Press Club members, $50 for membership and two tickets for new members.

This blog was originally posted at LGBT POV.


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What's being asked of LGBT's is absurd, as if we asked women and blacks fighting for the right to vote to represent the opposing side.

This takes me back to a wonderful contribution you made a while ago, where you addressed the insidious notion that sides in a debate are of equal weight.

Thanks. Yes, it is difficult for MSM reporters to realize that you don't have to get Josef Mengele's opinion when doing a story criticizing the Nazi's treatment of Jews in the camps.

Judas Peckerwood | February 21, 2010 4:55 PM

The whole concept of journalistic objectivity is a joke. From the moment you decide what news you're going to cover you're making ideological choices. The only honest thing to do is to be upfront about your perspectives.

The examples (OJ and divorce trials) aren't quite the same because while a reporter might have personal experiences that apply to the situation, in this case -- at least for Californians -- we're talking about people who will directly and personally benefit or be harmed by the outcome of the trial.

It's akin to asking for a woman in 1919 to objectively report on the possibility of extending the right to vote to women. Of course, it's laughable to suggest that a man would somehow be more objective in that scenario as well. I think situations like these really screw up the idea that objectivity is possible.

I don't think the LGB press can be objective. But the straight press certainly has no window into objectivity. Lacking awareness of the details of oppression is not the same thing as objectivity.

In reality "objectivity" is often confused with a privileged lack of experience or biased ignorance. I remember in my old campus student government, there was discussion of whether or not the one person of color on a funding board could be objective when it came to funding the multicultural center -- as if the white students lack of experience with the center was a inherently neutral perspective.

If the question is whether the LGB press should write informative or persuasive pieces, the answer is pretty clear to me -- both. But none of it, informative, persuasive, LGB, or straight, is going to be objective.

Many LGBT legal orgs didn't want conservative straight men fighting for our rights without their permission. They were invited in the beginning but refused. I am sure some journalist side with those LGBT orgs who were left out of the case. But even if they don't, what is wrong with being partial to LGBT civil rights. Justice Sandra Day O'Conner admitted she fought for womens rights in Roe vs Wade, and Justice Thurgood Marshall did his part in fighting for African American civil rights. I think the gay press should crucify Judge Walker if his judgement is in favor of the opposition.

A newspaper reporter, if that reporter is following the ethics of their profession, has to remain completely objective, and make every attempt, in reporting the news, to represent all sides in their coverage.

I was a reporter. I'm pissed off any time I see, in the news, the little squib: "So and so was unavailable for comment."

When I see that in a news report, I know immediately the reporter did not do their job to the best of their ability, but instead, rushed to put their copy to bed.

In making the blanket assumption a homosexually oriented news reporter is incapable of fairly recounting a news item, the framers of that thought are also stating - if that thought is taken to its logical extension - that political party affiliation automatically negates a news reporter from covering the events of that political party.

Or that women cannot objectively report news when it concerns womens' reproductive rights.

Persons raising children cannot objectively report on child-abuse legal proceedings.

I think the better question in the marriage equality issue is whether devout Mormons or Catholics should should have automatically recused themselves from coverage of the Prop. 8 trial.

Screw objectivity, at this point I'm dubious that we should even attempt journalistic integrity. After all, nobody else is.

Nearly every mainstream piece of coverage of Proposition 8, before the election, during the election, and since, has parroted the claim that domestic partnerships provide equal rights to marriage in California.

That statement is false, not in a subjective way, but in an objective, 2+2=5 way. Residency requirements are differerent. There's no DP equivalent of confidential marriage. The putative spouse doctrine doesn't apply to domestic partnerships. This is before we get to federal differences and such, which are usually considered a "oh, we don't have to talk about that exception" exception.

As this is a simple, factual question, whose answer is evidenced in simple text from sources as wide as Wikipedia and the California Supreme Court's rulings themselves, there is no excuse for mainstream journalism to avoid the task of telling statement from misstatement, yet for years, the mainstream media has utterly failed to manage this simple task.

Let's skip objectivity, and go straight to counterprop.