In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.
It turns out that the bad old days were, in fact, pretty bad.
On Wednesday, The New York Times’s LGBT employee affinity group commemorated a cover story about the paper that ran in the Advocate 20 years ago. Called, “Out at The New York Times: Gays, Lesbians, AIDS, and Homophobia Inside America’s Newspaper of Record,” the article, by Michelangelo Signorile, explored the terror gay staffers felt when A.M. “Abe” Rosenthal was executive editor—until his 1986 retirement, the word “gay” was forbidden in the paper—and the significant changes made in both the coverage of gay issues and the quality of life of gay journalists after his successor took over.
Signorile moderated a panel at the Times conference center that included Rich Meislin, a former associate managing editor, and Sara Krulwich, a staff photographer, both of whom were quoted in the 1992 article, as well as Frank Bruni, who was hired just a couple years after the article was published and is now the first openly gay op-ed columnist there.
“I was kind of shocked at the way the Times was described in the article, because I’ve been here almost 10 years, and the Times that I know is very, very different, very welcoming of the LGBT community,” said Erik Piepenberg, senior editor of the theater section at NYTimes.com, as he introduced the panel. “I think Times employees who read this will be very surprised at how things were and how different they are now.”
How different were they? A photo of two women kissing on LA Law was removed from, ironically, a 1991 article about how television made gay people invisible; Signorile suggested it was because an editor found the photo “distasteful or even prurient.” Most gay and lesbian employees were deeply closeted, fearing Rosenthal’s wrath. Current national editor Richard L. Berke told those assembled that he didn’t think he would have been hired 26 years ago if, when asked by Rosenthal if he were married, or if he was planning to get married, he had responded, “No, I’m gay.”
As for Meislin, after being outed when he was bureau chief of Mexico City, he was eventually recalled back to New York instead of being placed in another foreign assignment. “I was on a plane with someone from NBC and he said, ‘So, you’re going home because you’re too gay for The New York Times — I heard that from someone in the State Department.’ It was just sort of mind blowing.”
Krulwich, who was hired in 1979, said the newsroom was a different place then, full of screaming and verbal abuse. “The place was run by the meanest people you’ve ever run into in your life,” she said. “If you could avoid that blast of anger you would”—which is why people didn’t come out. She added that it wasn’t because people were worried about being fired. “At the old New York Times, you never lost your job; it was losing the job you wanted.”
In 1992, though, when the Advocate article was written, Times staffers were starting to see daylight. Rosenthal had retired, and the diversity-minded Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. had taken over as publisher. In a meeting, he used the phrase “sexual orientation,” and Krulwich told Signorile in the article that “We almost fell off our chairs. It was the first time any top executive at the Times had ever used those words.”
Yet there was still a long way to go. Political reporters didn’t ask presidential candidates about gay issues. As was common at news organization for the time, staff didn’t have domestic partnership benefits, and the Times didn’t include gay couples in its wedding pages (and wouldn’t until 2002). It wouldn’t print that a deceased gay person had been survived by his or her companion. (Susan Sontag’s 2004 obituary was a particularly egregious example.) Though there are still occasional issues with obituaries, such as the recent one on Sally Ride, coverage has come a long way — an obit published the day of the panel said forthrightly that the subject “was gay.”
So yes, things have gotten significantly better both at the Times, which leads the industry in LGBT coverage, and in newsrooms across the country. But “better” doesn’t mean “perfect.”
The panelists noted that they are no longer as vigilant as they once were at policing LGBT coverage, in large part, said Meislin, “because the overwhelming weight of what we’re doing is on the right side of the equation.” However, he said, “we should keep holding ourselves to a higher standard. The perception now may be that it is easy to come out at work or as a teenager, but for a large swath of the country, and even for a number of people on the coasts, it ain’t so easy. There’s the assumption that ‘things get better,’ and they do and have, but that doesn’t mean you stop covering things that haven’t.”
How else can LGBT coverage be improved—not only at the Times, but elsewhere?
First, audience members pointed out, media could cover transgender and bisexual people with more frequency and make it more comfortable for bisexual and transgender people to come out in the newsroom. Second, Bruni pointed out that the Times and other outlets could do much more “mainstreaming” of gay coverage. “We do a lot of coverage of LGBT issues, but they’re in a box,” he said. Whereas, when he was at the Detroit Free Press, he said, gay people would be folded into stories on other topics beyond the real estate section.
“I read stories all the time on parenting, but I don’t see a gay parent slipped in there, not to say, ‘Here are my special challenges as a gay parent,’ but as part of the mosaic of parenthood,” Bruni said. “I feel like we could do as much good and make as much progress in subtle ways by not putting as many bows and ribbons on gay coverage, but working gay people into stories, mentioning their sexual orientation and moving along.”