the audit

Oklahoman Columnist Strikes Out

Softball, stereotypes, and straw
May 17, 2010

Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman devotes an entire column to what I and a couple of others said last week on the Wall Street Journal softball photo of Elena Kagan. Or what she says we said, anyway:

The photo quickly sparked a raging online debate about Kagan’s sexuality. Speculation has existed for years that she is a lesbian. She never got married. She never had children. Add that to the fact that she once played softball, and the rumor mill went into overdrive that she must be gay.

Ryan Chittum wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review: “You don’t have to be a cynic to think that the Journal chose the 2-decade-old picture to imply Kagan is a lesbian.”

You might not have to be a cynic, but you might need to be a complete and total moron. It’s as idiotic as saying every football player is dumb; Rhodes Scholar turned NFL draftee Myron Rolle might take issue with that.

May I say what an honor it is for me to called a “complete and total moron” in my home-state paper. See, ma? I told you I’d amount to something.

Now, I’m a big boy, and as a CJR writer, I have to dish it out, and so I have to take it, too (I’m a man! I’m 32!).

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But not when you’re giving your readers the ol’ okie-doke.

First, I didn’t say that every softball player is a lesbian. Nor did I imply it. At all. Read my post—which is about why the use of the photo (in the context of a weeks-long controversy about whether Kagan was gay and whether that was a legitimate line of inquiry) raises questions of whether you can still trust the Journal like you used to.

Second, even if someone had said that, name-calling like that is beyond the pale for a respectable newspaper. When you call somebody names for saying something they didn’t say, it just makes you look like, well, what you called them.

Third, this is a major straw man. Does anybody anywhere think that “someone playing softball automatically means that they’re gay”?—a stance Carlson imputes to two gay advocates via a rhetorical question (emphasis mine):

John Wright, a writer for the gay and lesbian publication Dallas Voice, told Politico, “Personally, I think the newspaper … might as well have gone with a headline that said, ‘Lesbian or switch-hitter?’”

Cathy Renna, a gay and lesbian advocate, told the same website, “It is clearly an allusion to her being gay. It’s just too easy a punch line.”

Hold on a minute.

Are they saying that someone playing softball automatically means that they’re gay?

Aren’t they also representing a minority group? Aren’t minority groups usually fighting against stereotypes instead of perpetuating them?

Lemme answer that one for them: No, that’s not what they’re saying. At all.

Finally, this column can’t even make up its own mind. Wright, Renna, and I are criticized for criticizing the Journal about using the softball image. But then Carlson criticizes the Journal for using the image, and quotes a former Oklahoma (my alma mater) softball player questioning why the paper used it:

“I do think it is a very interesting photo selection,” said Kelli Braitsch, who played on four consecutive Women’s College World Series teams at Oklahoma. “I mean, the woman has studied at Princeton, Oxford, Harvard and has been working directly in our government for years. And you print that photo?”

Strike four.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.