NLGJA President: When Political Is Personal

It's been a busy time for LGBT stories — from same-sex marriage to the repeal of the military's ban on gays and lesbians. So how does that news affect journalists who are gay, or cover those stories? Host Michel Martin speaks to the new president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, Jen Christensen.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we want to turn to the challenge of bringing diversity to the newsroom. You've probably noticed that all kinds of issues and stories relating to sexual orientation have been in the news recently - from same-sex marriage to the Pentagon's plan to offer benefits to same-sex partners to the debate over what role gays can play in the Boy Scouts.

How those stories are reported, as well as how LGBT reporters are treated in their newsrooms, are two of the central concerns of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and that group now has a new leader. She is Jen Christensen. She is a writer and producer for CNN.com, so we thought this would be a good time to speak with her and she's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JEN CHRISTENSEN: Thank you for having me on the program.

MARTIN: First, we should probably acknowledge the tragedy that brought you into this position. The former head of your group, Michael Triplett, recently died of cancer just months into his tenure, so I just wanted to start by saying I'm so sorry for the death of your colleague.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. It was a great loss to us. He was a wonderful voice of reason, just a very, very nice man. We attended his funeral last week. I didn't think that that would be the beginning of my presidency - was attending the funeral for a good friend.

MARTIN: What do you see as your first priority as the new leader of this organization?

CHRISTENSEN: You know, we're in pretty good shape for a journalism organization at this time of, you know, economic difficulty for a lot of journalism organizations, so my job, I think, is to carry out Mike Triplett's mission, which is foster fair and accurate coverage of the community and to extend opportunities for professional development to our various members.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that for a second. Your organization is relatively new among journalistic organizations. It was just founded in 1990. I know that you were in college then, but could you just talk about - what are the circumstances that led LGBT journalists who want to have such an association? I think some people might be surprised to find out that there is such an association.

CHRISTENSEN: You know, the late great founder, Roy Aarons, started this organization. He was the executive editor of the Oakland Tribune at the time and he had been an editor and reporter at the Washington Post, where he was very well respected. He was at an ASNE meeting of the...

MARTIN: That's the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

CHRISTENSEN: Yes, sorry. He was giving the results of a survey for gay employees in the newsroom and, at the end of reporting those results - and the results suggested that LGBT journalists were unhappy with the coverage of the community and with the way that they were treated in the newsroom. But, at the end of that speech, he came out and, when he came out, he said he didn't think it was a big deal, but it was something that was covered in the New York Times at the time. So he is somebody that thought, well, gosh, maybe there's something here. Maybe we need to do something else.

Roy was somebody who helped found the Maynard Institute in the late '70s, which, you know, gives professional training and encouragement to people of color to become part of our profession. So he thought that NLGJ should just be a natural succession to something like that.

MARTIN: You work at CNN with high profile gay colleagues like Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper. This whole question of whether to be out or how out to be - Don Lemon, for example, talked with us about his decision to come out back in 2011, but Anderson Cooper just recently came out last summer. And I just want to play a short clip from his daytime show, "Anderson Live," talking about why he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION SHOW, "ANDERSON LIVE")

ANDERSON COOPER: I've been torn for a long time between a desire as a reporter to just do my job and be known as a reporter, and, at the same time, I do think visibility is important, that I do think that, you know, the tide of history only, you know, moves forward when everybody is fully visible.

MARTIN: To my knowledge, you've been out throughout your career, so I did want to ask. Do you think that his point of view on this is a generational one, that people who are just kind of a little ahead of you or a little older than you or you and your peers tend to feel more of that dilemma?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, you know, coming out, of course, is a personal decision. I, fortunately, have been a ghost in the machine. I'm a producer, so people don't normally care about what's going on in my life when we're covering a story, whereas, you know, the people who are on air - people seem to want to know everything they can about them.

There is certainly a dilemma that people may face in terms of being accepted, still, when we don't have all the civil rights everyone else has necessarily, so there's that. I mean, back when I started in the business, I had to sign contracts that said I wouldn't violate the morals of the community. In some of the states that I lived in, my virtue of being in a relationship with another woman made me somebody who was in violations of the morals of the community. In newsrooms like that, you know, I had to really think about - is it something that I should be out about in a place where I could be fired because of who I was.

You know, I think there is certainly a generation coming up. My nieces are perfectly comfortable and happy and thoughtful about LGBT issues and they don't give it a second thought and they're confused by people who have discomfort. Perhaps that does play into it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with the new president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, CNN's Jen Christensen. But, to that point, though, you're still - you have to navigate, you know, what to say and when to say it. And I'll just give an example. A few years ago in an article in a magazine here in Washington, you related an experience that you had with a former editor in North Carolina. Do you mind sharing that?

CHRISTENSEN: I was covering a story about why certain groups were banned from giving blood and still are banned from giving blood. I spoke with somebody who had been put on a list because she had a false test, essentially, and then I also spoke with a man who was an AIDS educator who was very well aware of how AIDS was transmitted, but by virtue of the fact that he was a gay man, he was not allowed to give blood and that's still the case today.

When I brought the story up because we were talking about it generally, one of the managers in our newsroom said that I could talk about the woman who had the false positive test, but in terms of the man who was an AIDS educator and happened to be gay, that I wasn't allowed to include him in the story because she said our viewers think that gay men are icky and, therefore...

MARTIN: She said that? I mean, I quote? Is this a quote? Gay men are icky and...

CHRISTENSEN: She did. She did.

MARTIN: And therefore what?

CHRISTENSEN: She said, that's what our viewers think, and I'm not entirely sure how she felt, but that - you know, that we should be absenting ourselves from something that would make people uncomfortable.

MARTIN: So what did you do?

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I fought the battle a different time. I, fortunately, got to work for a different company and actually just wrote that story last year for CNN.

MARTIN: That's 10 years later. That's 10 years later, so it took you 10 years to get that story on the air.

CHRISTENSEN: Unfortunately, yes.

MARTIN: Well, but that does speak to a point, though. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll mention that your organization honored me with an award a couple of months ago, the Randy Shilts Award, for - you know, our coverage of LGBT issues and I, you know, am appreciative of that. But it also true that, when I received that award, I was criticized by conservative organizations, saying that that meant that, you know, I was an advocate or that this was advocacy.

And I have to ask, you know, how do you, as an LGBT journalist, navigate that for yourself and also your members, more broadly? Because there are those who will feel, simply by raising the issue, that you are an advocate.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, it's tricky and we'll always face criticism - right - just like we would be facing criticism for any kind of stance of bringing our personality to a particular area of coverage. I mean, I think we can all bring something different to the table, whether it's sexual orientation or race or religion. We have different life experiences that inform our work.

Fortunately, as journalists, we are charged with the very special mission of absenting ourselves from direct political action and challenging ourselves to ask all of the questions and to be able to report with a bigger picture perspective, despite what our personal feelings are.

But, you know, it's tricky on this issue because the personal is the political - right - like the old feminist saying here. But we also work as a team. Right? You know, I don't work alone on my stories. I have editors and a standards and practices unit and lawyers and people who look at my work. I also am very, you know, able to stand back and be extra critical of what it is that I'm doing on any issue to try to keep out my personal opinions about what it is that we're doing.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, the gay rights movement has been described as the civil rights movement of our time. You know, obviously, everybody doesn't agree with that. But, if you and I were to get together five years from now - right - what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having about this?

CHRISTENSEN: I mean, I think we'll still be having the same conversations in five years. We've had record progress. It's been an amazing time to live, you know, and to see our president talk about marriage equality or, you know, to hear my relatives at Christmas talk to me about, you know, when are you getting married? When are you going to have a child? I've never had - thought that I would have those conversations with my relatives, so we really are at an interesting time, most definitely.

I think progress, though, you know, is slow. I mean, we're still having those same conversations about race that we've had for generations. I think we're at an interesting time, but we still get - we don't get as many reports of poor coverage of the community that is unfair, but we do still get reports saying that people aren't being treated fairly.

And, again, that's why we have this organization, to make sure that, you know, we as journalists are telling the truth and this is a part of our truth.

MARTIN: Jen Christensen is a writer and producer for CNN.com. She is the new president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association and she was kind enough to join us from Atlanta.

Jen Christensen, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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