DON'T ASK, DON'T REPORT: Ken Mehlman, Mark Foley, and Ted Haggard offer three variations on the same theme: the media's reluctance to out closeted public officials
Want to make the mainstream press squirm? Suggest that a major public figure is gay.
Case in point: CNN talk-show host Larry King’s live November 8 interview with comedian Bill Maher, in which Maher claimed that several Republican Party stalwarts — including Ken Mehlman, the outgoing chairman of the Republican National Committee — are homosexual. King himself seemed fascinated by the suggestion: “I never heard that. I never heard that. I’m walking around in a fog. I never . . . Ken Mehlman?”
In fact, Maher’s proposition wasn’t new. Since Mehlman ran George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign, his sexuality has received close scrutiny, with blogger Mike Rogers of blogActive.com and liberal radio talk-show host Randi Rhodes, among others, suggesting that Mehlman could be a closet case. Their main evidence: Mehlman’s longstanding refusal to comment when asked about his orientation. Earlier this year, Mehlman publicly said that he isn’t gay, but skeptics remain. And they believe that, given the national GOP’s aggressive politicization of sexuality — including Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — Mehlman’s own sexual orientation should be fair game.
By the time the Maher interview aired again later the same day, though, the Mehlman reference had been deleted; a spokesperson for the network told the New York Times that re-broadcasting Maher’s “potentially defamatory” remarks could place the network in legal jeopardy. Times reporter Maria Aspan described that as a “cautious interpretation of the law,” but the Times itself was strikingly careful in its follow-up. While Aspan noted that the rebroadcast had been edited, that Maher’s remarks had been excised from transcripts on CNN.com and Nexis, and that CNN had forced YouTube to take down a video clip of the full interview, there was one thing she didn’t mention: Mehlman’s name.
These are heady days for proponents of outing — identifying public figures as gay who haven’t already done so themselves. Earlier this year, Florida Republican congressman Mark Foley’s e-dalliances with teenage congressional pages brought widespread public attention to his homosexuality — which had been widely known in the gay media, but not elsewhere — and may have helped the Democrats retake Congress this month. A gay prostitute’s claim that he’d been involved with conservative-Christian bigwig Ted Haggard led to Haggard’s ouster as head of New Life Church, his 14,000 person Colorado megachurch, and prompted his resignation as president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Florida governor-elect Charlie Crist (a Republican) had his sexuality scrutinized of late too, along with Idaho senator Larry Craig (a Republican and supporter of a federal amendment banning gay marriage).
Given the GOP’s fascination with personal morality, homosexuality in particular, this upsurge in outing is no surprise. Social conservatives responded to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts by arguing that marriage itself was in jeopardy, along with the family and the very fabric of American culture. In the 2004 presidential election, proposed gay-marriage bans helped get Republican voters to the polls in several key battleground states. And at last month’s annual “Liberty Sunday” event in Boston — sponsored by the Family Research Council — Massachusetts governor and would-be president Mitt Romney hammered same-sex marriage alongside evangelicals such as James Dobson, Chuck Colson, and Gary Bauer. Come 2008, there’s a good chance Republican presidential hopefuls will woo religious conservatives who deserted the party in this year’s midterm elections by making gay marriage a central issue in their campaigns. This will lead, invariably, to yet more outings, as irate gays who’ve seen their personal lives become political fodder seek to turn the tables on closeted gay politicians complicit in the demagoguery.
So what should the media’s responsibility be as all this plays out? A few considerations make it tempting to leave reporting of this sort to advocate-journalists in the blogosphere and the alternative press: fear of libel lawsuits; recognition that these stories have a human cost; a genuine conviction that the personal and the political should be kept separate. But there are solid counterarguments. If a particular individual stridently criticizes gays and same-sex marriage, for example, but turns out to be gay himself, this tension casts his motives in a markedly different light. More broadly, repeatedly treating sexual orientation with great delicacy tacitly endorses the notion that being gay is something to be ashamed of. Imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like if every closeted politician and civic leader in the US were outed in one fell swoop. Would we still talk about sexuality the way we do now?
What are the rules?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that America’s news organizations engage in an en masse outing campaign. But given the media’s ambivalence about this issue, it’s fair to say that existing guidelines for dealing with sexual orientation could use some fine-tuning.