Friday, April 27, 2007

Outing in 2007: Media Coverage of Glass Closets

My article, see below, appears in today's New York Blade. This issue remains quite contentious among activists and journalists alike.

Out Magazine’s May issue reignited and redirected the debate on outing celebrities and public figures. “The Glass Closet: Why the stars won’t come out and play” reads the cover line. The provocative image portrays two models holding masks of actress Jodie Foster and CNN personality Anderson Cooper.

In the feature story, Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto examines the reasons celebrities choose not to openly discuss their sexual orientation—specifically, those celebrities who seemingly live an openly gay life on many counts but who refuse to divulge the details in the press. Hence, the term “glass closet.”

The issue of Out also includes a story called “The Power 50,” which lists the most powerful gay men and women in America. (The top five: David Geffen, Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Tim Gill and Barney Frank.)

Before the issue hit the stands, it was a hot topic among bloggers and activists. Many praised the magazine; others went on the attack.

Musto himself was quick to defend the article, saying he has a right to report on celebrities’ personal lives. “As an entertainment reporter, I cover celebs’ lives,” Musto said. “When these people are acting out same-sex love affairs, often in public, it’s not even outing. It’s simply reporting.”

The openly gay columnist has written extensively about Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres and other lesbian and gay celebrities, at times reporting on them before they came out in the media.

Musto labeled potential critics of his reporting as hypocrites. “No one ever complains when the reports are about Paris Hilton’s boyfriends or Lindsay Lohan’s partying,” Musto said. “Most of the people who are so outraged at the [Out] piece gobble up all kinds of personal gossip all day long, but suddenly become pious when gay sex comes up.”

In a New York Daily News article, Chris Ciompi, editorial director of Genre magazine, which is affiliated with the Blade, criticized Out Magazine editor Aaron Hickin for putting likenesses of Foster and Cooper on the cover. Ciompi described the stunt as a ploy to sell magazines. “Your right to privacy is a constitutional right,” Ciompi said. “Maybe Jodie and Anderson would prefer to be known for their work, not their sexuality. The climate of the United States today still would not allow that to occur. With Anderson, many people would perceive his credibility to be undermined.”

Hicklin defended the article. He, like Musto, suggested celebrities remain in the closet to protect and advance their careers. Hicklin challenged them to come out as a way to decrease media speculation.

“It takes people like Jodie Foster and Anderson Cooper to acknowledge their sexuality to stop [this story from] being intrinsically interesting to the media,” he said. “None of these are new arguments. There’s enough information out there, and we were just stating the obvious.”

Sirius Satellite Radio host Michelangelo Signorile has outed late publishing tycoon Malcolm Forbes and other public figures throughout his journalism career. He agreed with Hicklin’s defense of Musto’s article.

“Journalists are not in the business of helping people’s careers with lies—or at least, they’re not supposed to be—or being worried about the well-being of public figures to the point of keeping facts out of stories,” he said. “They’re supposed to be in the business of telling the truth.”

The abrupt resignation of former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley [R-Fla.] last September after ABC News broadcast sexually explicit e-mails he sent to a former Congressional page and other recent scandals, such as claims former pastor Ted Haggard had sex with a former male prostitute, highlight the difficulty national LGBT organizations face in addressing outing. The Human Rights Campaign and other organizations quickly issued statements that condemned the former Congressman’s alleged conduct.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, on the other hand, remained silent for several weeks despite several conservative commentators who attempted to link homosexuality and pedophilia after Foley came out.

GLAAD President Neil Giuliano told the Washington Blade in an interview last November his organization worked behind the scenes with journalists to focus their coverage of the scandal away from the former Congressman’s sexual orientation. He told the Blade his organization does not support outing. Signorile quickly dismissed this position.

“They articulate a very simplistic and often offensive response to the issue,” he said. “They know why this is relevant, why it should often be reported on and why it’s not wrong.”

Giuliano conceded the public remains interested in celebrities’ private lives. He further added that public figures whom come out increase understanding of LGBT people.

“When more people from all walks of life choose to live openly, the more accepting and understanding society will become toward LGBT Americans,” Giuliano said.

National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association President Eric Hegedus agreed. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughan and other high-profile couples and romances have dominated gossip columns. But Hegedus concluded the media, as a whole, fails to report on gay and lesbian celebrities in the same way it continues to report on the private lives of their heterosexual counterparts.

“The public certainly has an interest in who is LGBT,” he said. “But the news media still treats LGBT individuals differently by not attempting to approach the subject of their personal lives.”This question continues to pose difficult ethical questions for journalists. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute said they should weigh whether a person’s sexual orientation is relevant to their story before they write about their personal life. But she noted Musto’s article for Out Magazine contains potentially damaging speculation that readers could conclude is true.

“In this case, you’re not dealing with fact—you’re dealing with innuendo and rumor,” McBride said. “That’s very dangerous because innuendo can become fact in public perception if we don’t give it the proper treatment.”

Musto said he will continue to report these issues. “The debate will always rage on,” he said. “I will always find a way to simply state to the public that many of our idols are gay and leading gay lives. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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