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Not that there’s anything wrong with that

Big media’s big gay baggage
By ADAM REILLY  |  November 21, 2006

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 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 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.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that
Close but no cigar. Any journalist blathering about "privacy" is only interested in one thing -- miantaining the closet. Same-sex orientation should be a simple fact of life, as easily commented upon as heterosexuality -- which as we all know was recently shouted to the end of the galaxy by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. In the midst of all the recent Republican closet explosions it's more than worth noting that Neil Patrick Harris and T.R. Knight -- two very fine young actors -- came out in style.
By David Ehrenstein on 11/22/2006 at 2:47:36
Not that there’s anything wrong with that
Adam, Great observations. I would (and <a href="//">did</a>) add that it comes down to whether or not someone is involved in "creating, shaping, changing public policy and/or opinion," in which case there is an obligation and responsibility to the public to present a fair and complete story. Curious: Did Bill Maher ever comment about CNN's censoring his comments about Ken Melhman?
By davidinmanhattan. on 11/22/2006 at 3:32:13
Not that there’s anything wrong with that
// I still find people that remain in the closet in this day and age are nothing more than COWARDS!!!! Live ones life as you feel is right, but to put down people that you yourself can identify with is hypocrisy at its worst. Just like the good Rev. Haggard spewing hateful words to his flock while all the time being gay himself. I can understand not wanting to be associated with a group of people that society looks down upon and even makes jokes about ones lifestyle but the more famous the person is that was dragged out of the closet the more mainstream it becomes. If any public figure is closeted I do believe he should be ripped from such closet otherwise there can be no trusting them.
By snappa45 on 11/26/2006 at 2:56:53

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