As speculation about Elena Kagan’s sexual orientation has circulated on the Internet in the wake of her nomination to the Supreme Court, leading newspapers have generally declined to address the rumors, and prominent commentators have tried to dissuade their colleagues in the chattering classes from asking the question.
But a top editor and a reporter at Politico, which late Tuesday night published an article headlined “Kagan’s Friends: She’s Not Gay,” said the decision to do so was not a hard call—because the topic was already the subject of intense public discussion, and because the sources wanted to address, on the record, a false rumor that one said had become a “distraction” to the debate over Kagan’s nomination.
The story, by reporter Ben Smith, quotes two of Kagan’s old friends (one of whom, bizarrely enough, is Eliot Spitzer) asserting that she is straight, and notes that the lead interview—with Sarah Walzer, a law school classmate of Kagan’s who now runs a non-profit organization in New York City—occurred “after Kagan’s supporters decided they should tactfully put an end to the rumor, which White House officials had already tried to squelch in background interviews with reporters.”
The article has been read by observers as the product of a stepped-up administration effort to push back on the Kagan rumors, an interpretation that seems to be correct. Walzer didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon, but John Harris, Politico’s editor-in-chief, explained, “This seemed to be an effort by people who wanted to address the topic in a news-making way to do so… with, it seemed pretty well understood, the support of the nominee, and presumably with the support of the White House that nominated her.”
“My understanding… was this didn’t really come from a reporting line of inquiry that Ben initiated,” Harris said. “It was something that… initiated with [Kagan’s supporters because] they were vexed by this line of speculation that’s obviously out there in full public view in lots of different spots, and wanted to address it directly.” Those factors, he said, made newsworthy a topic that otherwise would not have been relevant, and tipped the balance in favor of running the story. “We had a short discussion about it, but not an anguished one.”
Smith—who penned a widely read blog post about The Wall Street Journal’s use of a Kagan photo that many observers saw as gay-baiting just hours before he spoke to Walzer—said that while sexual orientation, whether gay or straight, is naturally a part of a public figure’s identity, decisions over whether to cover the topic can present hard choices, “which in a way get harder as the ‘closet’ gets smaller.”
But, like Harris, he said that “this wasn’t a hard case.” The recurring chatter, even in the face of on-the-record statements from the White House last month and on-background comments more recently, “had the effect of convincing casual observers that [Kagan] was a lesbian”; her supporters pushed back, he said, “not because they thought it was some horrible smear, but just because it wasn’t true.”
“I think a big part of what responsible political reporting does these days,” Smith added, “is to try to expose and stop false rumors, which spread so fast online, and which — like the rumors about Obama’s religion and birth — you can’t keep out of the public sphere by ignoring… the way [the press] used to.”
It’s an interesting comment, because keeping the speculation about Kagan “out of the public sphere” seems exactly what some leading press outlets have been trying to do. As the prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan—who’s done more than anyone else to make this a controversy over the last few days—noted, The New York Times’s lengthy profile of Kagan did not address the rumors about her sexual orientation. (Dean Baquet, the NYT’s D.C. bureau chief, declined to be interviewed on how the paper had decided to approach the issue.)
The reluctance of old-line outlets to engage the topic may explain why, while places like Yahoo! News, New York magazine, and plenty of blogs have picked up Smith’s story, major newspapers seem not to have done so. (For his part, Smith said he thought it was “basically appropriate that it hasn’t been picked up. I hope [the article] served a useful function in debunking what would have been an interesting story—first gay justice—but turned out to be a false one. ‘Another straight justice’ doesn’t strike me as news.”)
But whatever one thinks about the appropriateness of reporting on a public figure’s sexual orientation—and Smith said, reasonably, that there’s nothing wrong with asking the question, at least until a subject indicates he or she doesn’t want to talk about it—this episode demonstrates the oddity of the “walled-garden” approach to information that still exists in many news outlets, and the gulf it creates between the broader “media” world and the journalistic institutions that have the capacity to obtain answers to questions. The persistent speculation about Kagan, whether driven by pro-equality or homophobic motivations, was, by all appearances, based on some blend of rumor, hearsay, misperception, and stereotype. But it wasn’t going to go away on its own, and it wasn’t going to go away because of some on-background remarks from White House flacks.
It probably won’t, for that matter, go away entirely now. But Smith and Politico have done us a favor by shifting the issue away from abstract terrain and addressing the topic in a straightforward, declarative way. Let’s find something else to obsess about.