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Last Friday, Federal civil-rights mediators descended on the town of Ovett, Mississippi to take on their first gay-harassment case. A lesbian couple attempting to found what The New York Times described as "a feminist and lesbian retreat and conference center" had met powerful resistance from the community, including verbal and written threats and a dead dog draped over their mailbox. Fears of violence brought the mediators from Washington to investigate.
Some people in the community worried that the mediators, working under the auspices of the Justice Department, were arriving with their minds already made up. After all, Attorney General Janet Reno had declared that "the intolerance and bigotry demonstrated by some of the people of Ovett has no place in this country."
But perhaps the people of Ovett should have been just as concerned about the reporters who came with the mediators. The New York Times began its Monday article from the point of view of Hank Carde, a Washington AIDS activist who had arrived in Ovett to assist the two women. Carde said that he expected to find "an extremely rigid Klan-country type of mentality." Even after discovering that the residents seemed "genuinely caring," the noted that they had "a blind spot on this issue that's really sad and disturbing."
The lead, of course, set the tone for the entire article; it seemed to be offered as a sensible man's take on the issue (Carde's tagging as "a retired Naval commander" gave him added stature). When I first saw the piece, I accepted it without much thought, and it thoroughly colored my reading.
But what did Carde's perspective really show? He expected the people of Ovett to be narrow-minded, raving bigots; he probably thought he would be greeted by men in white hoods. When he discovered that his stereotype was mistaken, he turned to condescension, expressing pity for an ignorant community that was fighting to defend its "misguided" moral beliefs.
It was the natural reaction of the outsider, the cosmopolitan city-dweller confronting small-town America--a situation in which the Times reporter and his colleages must also have found themselves.
The article presents a deceptive objectivity--deceptive because it includes Carde's preconceptions among its basic premises. The region is described by reporter Peter Appleborne as "one of the most conservative corners of a conservative state"; Ovett itself is "a dog-eared of 1200." Appleborne attributes the monolithic strength of the community's opposition to "residents' view of homosexuality as a clearcut moral issue"--an implied contrast to more open-minded folk.
The fact that the Times article strove conscientiously for objectivity makes its subtle revelations of bias--and it is bias--all the more striking. It repeats a theme often seen in the national media--the bigotry and ignorance of the small town as seen by the big-city reporter, who expects his audience to shake their heads in time with his.
The Feb. 14 issue of Newsweek contained a particularly transparent example of this sort of journalism, if it can be called that. In the ominously titled "Homophobia: What Does It Mean to Be Anti-Gay?" writer John Leland paints a picture of the mid-sized town of Lewiston, Maine that positively oozes with condescension and posturing.
Apparently, Leland has seen "Philadelphia" one too many times. He's watched Jason Robards's character pour out "the poison in his soul" with perverse relish. It's a dream world of, well, clear-cut moral issues--a world where the reporter can say with smug confidence, "Homophobia seems like such a simple issue. We've all known homophobes."
Unfortunately, it is the issue's very complexity that is supposed to be the subject of the article, so Leland is forced to come back to real life, whose "gray areas" he speaks of with reverence. Yet he spends the rest of the article informing us which side is black and which is white. For this is perfect media fare: the evil that lurks beneath a New England town's "bland reassurance."
The article's condescending portraits of the town's residents--that is, of those on the wrong side of the issue--can be downright insulting. Speaking of one leading opponent of Lewiston's gay-rights ordinance, the reporter believes he speaks for all his readers: "You want Paul Madore to play the villain, to become the Jason Robards character made flesh." Does this sound like respect for the "gray areas" of morality?
In his conclusion, Leland casts away even the pretence of detachment. He points to Paul Madore's candidacy for the state senate as evidence that "progress can move backward as well as forward," whatever that means. His final sentences ring with self-affirmation, declaring that the forces of right will finally triumph over small-town ignorance and evil: "In towns like Lewiston, history sometimes advances at its own uneven speed. But it advances nonetheless." This is not reporting. It is an exercise in contempt.
Rather than laying facts and people before us, the Newsweek article gives us the reporter as facile moral guide--warm, fuzzy, reassuring, and insidious. Such a role, better reserved for the opinion page, is undesirable at any time. It is especially dangerous on an issue as hotly debated as gay rights, where the public itself is deeply divided.
The residents of Ovett have good reason to fear the preconceived notions of those who seek to judge them. Whether or not the residents' attitudes and actions are morally defensible, the mediators must strive for impartiality.
The same maxim holds true for the reporter. On the news page, the reporter becomes the mediator between the situation and the public. It is not the reporter's job to prejudge the case and present it to his audience in a neat moral package.
Unfortunately, when an influential group--the media, the "cultural elite," call it what you will--comes to accept a certain belief as indisputably true, impartiality itself can become a political position. In the current political climate, a reporter who does not take a conscious stand in print in favor of gay rights may find himself labelled homophobic, regardless of his personal beliefs, Yet on an issue so controversial, entertaining a bias in favor of gay rights--even if its correct--should be just as unacceptable as a bias against gays.
The power of the national media lies in its ability to determine the terms of discourse on issues. So even the media's choice of language can be influential--and revealing. Consider media coverage of abortion issues. Casually accusing those who think abortion should be illegal of holding back history hardly seems palatable, even for Newsweek.
But even here the choice of words is telling. Supporters of legalized abortion are invariably described in the main-stream media as "pro-choice." Those on the other side of the issue become the enemy, the "antis"--"anti-abortion," "abortion rights foes." Similarly, people like the residents of Ovett have become the "antis" in that debate--although they would probably think of themselves as "pro-morality."
Whether the media's biases are the rights ones is not the issue. It may be true that gay-rights laws are just and desirable. However, it is not thus desirable for reporters to reflect the view in their reporting. Journalism, as John Leland himself ruefully admits, is about the real world, and to write from a perspective of moral certainty inaccurately presents that world.
Regardless of their stance, everyone must agree that the public's attitude toward homosexuality and gay rights is one of profound ambivalence, of many shades of gray. The reporter's job is to paint those shades as truly as he or she can so that we can decide for ourselves, not to tell us which color is which.
The debate on gay rights, like that on any great issue, must be portrayed not as a simple struggle between good and evil, but as a difficult and ongoing process of choice.
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