Media Often Remain Mum on Politicians' Sexuality

There are few things newspapers will refuse to print, but the mainstream media — including network news and NPR — still refrain from disclosing the sexual orientation of a gay legislator. Will the news of Sen. Larry Craig's arrest force a change in policy?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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CHADWICK: First, this is news: a conservative Republican senator, Larry Craig of Idaho, arrested in a public men's room accused of lewd behavior, pleads guilty to disorderly conduct. But is this news - the private sexual orientation of a public figure? Most news organizations, certainly the main ones, are reluctant to get into these questions.

As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, that taboo may be going.

MIKE PESCA: It seems like politicians and privacy go together like journalists and judiciousness. Even celebrities are only photographed, not weighed, by the paparazzi. But each year the president puts out a press release which details if he's lost or gained four pounds. That's the least of it. Finances, drug use, trips to the psychiatrist, and 30-year-old utterances of verboten words, it's all out there; save one area where the media, the mainstream media as we're called, still have cold feet. Steve Rothaus covers gay issues for The Miami Herald.

Mr. STEVE ROTHAUS (The Miami Herald): Many editors, many producers, many editors, particularly people who are not gay, still feel somewhat uncomfortable. These are people who've grown up in an era and worked through an era in which to identify someone as gay was to defame them in some way.

PESCA: But Rothaus says this is changing. A generation or two ago, a politician, a gay politician might be allowed to stay in the closet largely because, for one thing, society as a whole was less comfortable with issues of sexuality. But also back then members of Congress weren't asked to cast votes on whether gay people could adopt, get married, serve in the military or receive benefits. To Rothaus, those votes make a politician's own orientation fairly relevant.

Mr. ROTHAUS: I think that if somebody is gay and, you know, is living with a partner or has a partner or had a partner or, you know, is known gay socially, that - if that person then votes in what's considered to be anti-gay legislation, that it's appropriate to bring this up. It's a sense of hypocrisy.

PESCA: Kelly McBride studies ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Ms. KELLY McBRIDE (Poynter Institute for Media Studies): I don't think a mere voting record is enough to justify the hypocrisy defense, if you will.

PESCA: McBride makes the case that it's not necessarily hypocritical to be gay and to oppose gay marriage or gay adoption. You could argue that you're serving your constituents. And there's another problem with using hypocrisy as your threshold for revealing a politician's orientation; only conservatives would be outed, but a closeted Democrat who consistently votes for gay rights could stay in the closet. This all occurred to Dean Miller when he was a reporter at the Post Register of Idaho Falls. He never felt good about asking Larry Craig and other politicians about private sexual matters.

Mr. DEAN MILLER (Editor, Post Register): What does the First Amendment has to do with that? You know, what right do you have to ask that?

PESCA: But for years, Craig's rumored homosexuality kept bubbling to the surface and Dean Miller would dutifully try to track down leads that never led to anything solid. He eventually became editor at the Post Register, the state's second leading newspaper. And he knew that if he could confirm Craig's homosexuality he would have to run the story. Here's how he'd have done it.

Mr. MILLER: You know, there would have been a huge emphasis on his voting record and a huge emphasis on his campaign advertising which features his wife and, you know, sort of portrays him as a family man.

PESCA: In other words, the hypocrisy rationale. But others in his small newsroom made a different argument for running the story.

Mr. MILLER: Several conservative members of the staff said, look, I don't care as much about the hypocrisy as I do about the moral issue. I have a couple of sort of Pentecostal or evangelical Christians on the staff who said you can love the sinner, but I want to know about the sin.

PESCA: That argument strikes at the heart of the old what the public wants to know versus what it needs to know debate. Who are we as journalists to tell the public they don't need to know if a politician is gay? Some voters are highly motivated by the belief that homosexuality is sinful and that belief sometimes decides elections. If journalists suppress stories about homosexuality, aren't we taking sides on an issue? It's another tough call and one that's no closer to being clarified after this week's revelations.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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