The National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association held its annual convention in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. And even though I've been around for the 20 years since it was founded by Roy Aarons - I didn't go. I'm still furious over the organization's failure to discuss the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of Prop 8.
As Beyond Chron blogger Paul Hogarth learned from Chronicle reporter Jill Tucker, the political desk hijacked the social story of the now infamous first graders surprise field trip to their beloved teacher's lesbian wedding at city hall. Both No on Prop 8 campaign consultant Steve Smith and Yes on 8 campaign manager Frank Schubert later agreed that the Oct. 11 front page story turned the tide of the election.
What's worse - Schubert's partner Jeff Flint says that the Yes on 8 campaign had no idea about the wedding until they were informed about it by the Chronicle. I called David Steinberg, president of NLGJA's board of directors, who sits on the Chronicle's copy desk and was aware of what happened - and he said he didn't see any problem with what the political desk did.
I have been livid ever since. I thought part of the mission of NLGJA was to talk to colleagues about how news is covered so it doesn't wind up being antigay. What's the point of having an NLGJA Style Guide when there's no substance behind the style? Not only that - but I was censored when I tried to bring the issue up in a Prop 8 story they requested for the NLGJA newsletter Outlook.
Here's that story:
Where was NLGJA During the Fight Over Prop 8?
By Karen Ocamb
As a professional LGBT journalist, I am something of an inconvenience to the old notions of mainstream journalism. I insist on covering the LGBT movement for equal rights as a regular beat, not merely as an easily categorized political issue.
To me, the battle over Prop 8 was a fight over the Equal Protection clause in the California Constitution. If the "tyranny" of a simple majority could strip away a "fundamental right" of a minority - in this case marriage equality for same sex couples - the clause itself would be rendered meaningless. The Attorney General and several minority groups subsequently filed briefs on this point in the case to invalidate Prop 8.
Apart from exceptions such as AP's Lisa Leff, however, most mainstream journalists seemed to cover the story of Prop 8 as if it were just another antigay marriage initiative - with a kind of benign neglect. No one "followed the money," for instance, until the No on Prop 8 campaign declared a "red alert" in early September and revealed that they were between $8-$11 million behind the Yes on 8 campaign. And it still took bloggers to uncover the depth of involvement by the Church of Latter-day Saints.
So where was NLGJA? Unlike the National Black Journalists Association - whose president put the 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors' survey on diversity into the context of Prop 205 (anti-Affirmative Action) or the National Hispanic Journalists Association which called for a boycott over Prop 187 (denying public benefits to undocumented workers and their families) - a boycott that NLGJA convention co-chairs and LA Times reporters Alan Acosta and Vicki Torres publicly honored - NLGJA failed to address Prop 8 or offer guidelines on coverage.
Would it have mattered? Well, consider the Oct. 11 San Francisco Chronicle story on the lesbian teacher's wedding.
"A group of San Francisco first-graders took an unusual field trip to City Hall on Friday to toss rose petals on their just-married lesbian teacher - putting the public school children at the center of a fierce election battle over the fate of same-sex marriage," the front page story by Jill Tucker begins.
In fact, the parents who decided to surprise the beloved schoolteacher didn't put the children "at the center of a fierce election battle" - the Chronicle did for sensationalism.
According to blogger Paul Hogarth in his Oct. 24 dissection of the piece for Beyond Chron and Daily Kos ("SF Chronicle Jeopardizes Marriage Equality"), Tucker said that "the parents who organized the trip actively sought media coverage--and the paper decided on its own that it was 'news' enough to deserve front-page treatment."'
Since lesbian weddings were legal then, one can image that the parents might have expected any coverage to go in the back with the other wedding announcements. On Oct. 26 two aggrieved parents sent a letter to the Yes on 8 campaign and the Chronicle complaining about their children "being exploited and used as pawns" by the Yes campaign which downloaded the front page picture from the Chronicle's website to use in their ads.
But the damage was done. In an in-depth interview with me after Prop 8 passed, campaign consultant Steve Smith said they were winning back the critical undecided women's vote until the Yes ad featuring the Chronicle story on the lesbian teacher.
"I think we lost because fundamentally we didn't get enough votes from women. If the issue was marriage, we were going to win them. When the issue rotated to their kids and their kids 'in kindergarten' - it was a huge problem for us. Without the wedding on the steps at City Hall, I think we would have won this issue. In fact, I think we would have won the campaign," Smith said. But "you can't win a marriage campaign debating kids in school because people will vote for their kids every time."
When I asked NLGJA President David Steinberg, who works at the Chronicle, about why NLGJA was missing in action, he said no one saw a problem with the coverage of the Prop 8 battle - including that front page story by his colleague.
For a moment, I felt as if I had just spoken with President Bush flying over post-Katrina New Orleans. The reality of LGBT people as second-class citizens in America is an inconvenience best observed from afar.
Hogarth's Oct. 24, 2008 blog is so much deeper and more prescient than I quoted above:
And while the San Francisco Chronicle took a formal position against it, the paper's news coverage--which has a far greater impact than its editorial endorsements--has actively pushed a meme that helps Prop 8's message. Over the last two weeks, the paper has treated a first-grade teacher's wedding as front-page news, repeated the line that Gavin Newsom is a liability and that San Francisco is "so different" from the rest of the state, and fomented divisions within liberal constituencies that give wavering voters an "out" in supporting Prop 8. With the stakes in this election higher than virtually any other race, the Chronicle should not think that merely opposing Prop 8 can absolve them of responsibility should it pass on November 4th.
Hogarth cites a number of examples of skewed Prop 8 coverage, including:
A companion piece about each side in the Prop 8 fight targeting African-Americans only further legitimized the fearful aspects of that community. The piece pictured a black woman wearing an Obama shirt and holding a "Yes on 8" sign--without mentioning the irony that Barack Obama strongly opposes Prop 8. If the Chronicle asked her about that, her answer didn't make it in the article.
In a case study of their Yes on 8 campaign to the American Association of Political Consultants last year, Schubert said the lesbian wedding came right after the effective No on Prop 8 ad featuring Jack O'Connell, the California Superintendent of Schools, who refuted that gay marriage would be taught to school children. "We caught, no doubt, the biggest break in the campaign," Schubert said. "And so now we have the ability to move beyond this theoretical debate of what will happen in California to say it's happening in California." Schubert said that 48 hours later, the No on Prop 8 campaign "basically conceded this entire debate on education and tried to shift to an argument - no matter what you think about same sex marriage, it's essentially racist to vote in favor of traditional marriage."
The question and answer period, ironically, given recent events, opened with how Schubert and Flint basically mimicked the Karl Rove - Ken Mehlman "72 hour plan" from the 2004 presidential race. Then they are asked if they felt they were "on a roll" before the kids went to city hall.
I thought on a roll before that. We were prepared to just trade the tit for tat debate about education - which we had a lot to talk about. We had the whole Massachusetts experience - other things in California we could have talked about. And then this thing kind of just ended up in our....
We were sitting in one of our weekly strategy meetings when the press secretary of the campaign sent an email to us on our blackberry saying I'm getting calls from the San Francisco Chronicle about first graders being taken to a lesbian wedding in San Francisco - what should I say? (Laughter) "That did change the tenor of the strategy meeting that day." (Laughter)
Flint confirms that no one knew about this expedition until the Chronicle's political desk repeatedly called the Yes on 8 campaign. Lavender Liberal also underscored how no one from the "protect the children" Yes on 8 campaign bothered to ask the parents for permission to use the images of their children in their ad - something that infuriated the parents who supported the No on Prop 8 campaign. The parents' complaint also received little coverage. And NLGJA's board president David Steinberg was cool with this. That's not how I see the mission of an LGBT journalism organization that exists to promote fair and accurate coverage of LGBTs from within.
UPDATE: On Thursday, NLGJA responded to my post, as you may note in the comment section below. However - since I'm not sure how many folks will actually click through to read it, I asked author Michael R. Triplett if I may cross-post it here.
NLGJA, Journalism, and Proposition 8
Posted on September 9, 2010 by Michael R. Triplett
After our very successful convention in San Francisco that brought together journalists from the traditional, LGBT, and citizen press, some questions continue to linger about NLGJA's position on not-taking-a-position on Proposition 8 in California. That discussion really goes to the core of NLGJA's mission to encourage fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues.
Veteran LGBT press journalist Karen Ocamb has raised questions on her own website and Huffington Post about NLGJA's purpose and mission that is worth exploring. Her concerns underscore the tension that exists in NLGJA between journalists in the traditional press, the LGBT press, and citizen journalists.
To speak broadly, journalism groups (and journalists in the traditional press) are careful about staking out positions on controversial political issues. Our 501(c)(3) status prevents lobbying and political activity and good journalism ethics discourages it. While it is true that some journalism organizations have participated in economic boycotts of states because of voter initiatives, that is different from actually taking a position on a voter initiative.
Some minority journalism groups have also taken positions on political issues when there was a concern that a policy would potentially harm journalists' ability to do their jobs, jeopardize attempts to diversify the newsroom, or harm journalists' status in the newsroom. These decisions by other organizations have not come without controversy from the larger journalism community and from their own members.
In the case of Prop 8, there was no overriding journalism issue and no economic boycott of California by LGBT organizations. If there had been, then it's possible that NLGJA may have honored such a boycott after weighing the financial costs. This is consistent with positions the UNITY groups have taken at various times in terms of honoring economic boycotts linked to voter actions or legislation.
Journalism groups usually don't stake out positions on issues that go beyond journalism itself because such moves raise questions about the objectivity of journalists who work in traditional newsrooms. One of the reasons NLGJA was created was because there was the perception that openly LGBT journalists were unable to provide objective coverage of LGBT issues and their credibility was often questioned.
While there is a fascinating intellectual argument about objectivity, that argument doesn't control newsroom policy and ethical standards. At least two journalists who sat on the panel about covering the federal Proposition 8 trial at our recent conference said they would be required by the employer (or good ethics) to quit NLGJA or quit covering Prop 8 if NLGJA had taken a position on Prop 8. That's how important this debate is in some newsrooms and why NLGJA is loathe to jeopardize members' reputation as journalists.
In terms of criticizing the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of Prop 8 and specifically the story about kids attending a teacher's wedding, those who reviewed the coverage for NLGJA did not find that story or coverage problematic. Journalists report what they see. A story about kids attending their teacher's wedding is a compelling story in the narrative of same-sex marriage debate in California.
That it was later used by Prop 8 supporters in a very successful advertisement that No on 8 had difficulty countering is not the determination of whether it is good or bad journalism. As long as reporters are committed to fair and accurate coverage, the story stands on its own and it is then up to the activists and politicians to sort through the repercussions. Good journalism reports and tells stories, whether it is politically problematic for activists or not.
The fact that the Chronicle's story was a turning point-in the eyes of some activists-means the reporting was interesting, relevant, and newsworthy. It wasn't the Chronicle's job to pick sides and make editorial decisions based on whether a fair and accurate story could hurt one side or the other. Putting that story on the front page was a defensible editorial decision, as were process stories which raised concerns about No on 8?s tactics and leadership.
Could there have been better reporting with more context on Prop 8 from all media? Sure. But that's pretty much true of every story out there. Should there have been more "follow the money" reporting on both sides of the Prop 8 story? Sure. As someone living on the other side of the country, I felt I saw a lot of coverage of the Yes on 8 funding and some, but not as thorough, coverage of the No on 8 side.
But citizen journalists and LGBT press also play a role in this. If there was too much coverage of the problems with No on 8?s strategy in the Chronicle, some have argued there wasn't enough coverage from citizen journalists and LGBT journalists who were dependent on the same activists who were pleading with bloggers and LGBT press members to remain on message. While journalists were busily reporting on Yes on 8 and their financial ties, the No on 8 campaign was struggling- and some would argue imploding- outside of the glare of the media: traditional, LGBT, and citizen.
Could NLGJA have been more involved in aiding journalists in covering the Prop 8 story? Again, I'd argue sure. We did issue press releases and the issue was discussed at conferences. The Prop 8 election came as the organization was dealing with financial trouble plaguing the media industry, which meant we cut staff and resources available to respond and guide. But our Rapid Response Task Force continued to monitor coverage and work with newsrooms when concerns arose.
One of the purposes of this blog has been to create a conversation around better coverage. Prop 8 and same-sex marriage have been constant themes in our blogging, encouraging journalists to be better at how the same-sex marriage story is told and how the Prop 8 legal battle is reported on.
In introducing our first plenary session at the San Francisco conference, Michelangelo Signorile recounted that first NLGJA conference where "very heated debates" broke out over the issue of "outing." It is part of our organization's DNA that there will be disagreements over the direction and focus of NLGJA.
The leaders of NLGJA have always been willing to engage critics both inside and outside our membership and we want to create a conversation as journalism-and specifically journalism on LGBT people-changes. We may not reach agreement or consensus, but there is room for all sides of the journalism debate. We invite critical voices to sit on panels and plenaries year after year, including at this year's conference in San Francisco. It's what good journalists do.