Did the Networks Sanitize the Gay Rights March?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
On the last weekend in April, a Delaware couple brought their four young children to Washington, D.C., to see the sights. They wound up seeing more than they expected.
On their way to the Smithsonian they ran into drag queens blowing kisses, gay men with nipple rings parading in studded leather, "Dykes on Bikes" cruising down the avenues, and bare-breasted lesbians showering each other with lingering kisses.
"Our children are seeing things they've never seen before and they don't exactly understand everything that's going on," Sherry Watkins told CNN. "We're trying the best we can to explain it to them."
Watkins and her family had accidentally bumped into the April 25 national gay rights march, which drew an estimated 300,000 people to the mall.
Some media critics say the Watkins family and other onlookers, the marchers and those viewing C-SPAN's unedited, live broadcast saw a lot more than those who watched news reports of the demonstration on network newscasts. A review of the April 25 evening newscasts on ABC, CNN and NBC (CBS did not air a newscast that night) indicates that viewers saw a sanitized version that made the gay movement seem largely mainstream and respectable, just as march organizers had hoped. The drag queens and lesbian motorcyclists were nowhere to be seen.
"If you were in Iowa, you'd assume from the march coverage that the gay community was a bunch of people who could be your neighbors," says Brent H. Baker of the conservative Media Research Center. "But the gay community also includes whips and chains and people who like to parade around naked. Whether it was a majority or a minority, it is a segment of their lifestyle. It may have occurred in the parade but you didn't see it on television."
Television reporters who covered the march, however, insist they presented an accurate picture of the day's events. They say the overwhelming majority of marchers dressed conventionally and were mild-mannered. They also point out that the march was a political story, not one on lifestyles. And, some ask, how far can network news go without resorting to tabloid-style sensationalism that would offend viewers?
Give Me An F!
The speakers at the post-march rally provided a stream of obscenities considered too vulgar for mainstream television. For example, a drag queen duo cracked a joke on stage about the military ban on homosexuals that was aired on C-SPAN. "They're afraid we will be demanding blowjobs in the shower," said one, "when it's blow dryers we want." Later, a master of ceremonies, praising the conspicuously absent Bill Clinton, told the throng, "I think we have a leader who is thinking with his heart and mind, and not just his penis." And at another point, a woman told the crowd that she'd like to "fuck" Hillary Clinton.
Tapes of the Sunday night newscasts on NBC, ABC and CNN, plus the overnight and Monday morning shows on all the major networks, indicate the raciest images those networks aired were of same sex couples kissing, holding hands or stroking each other's bare backs.
CNN's "Prime News Sunday" did include what reporter Jeanne Meserve called a "Mardi Gras" moment: a man dressed in a blonde wig, wearing a skimpy flag costume and high heels parading on stage. Meanwhile, NBC's "Nightside" offered some footage of a white man French-kissing a black man, and a shot of another man in a black mini-dress singing, "Queers Can Do It in the Army." But "Nightside" begins its broadcast at 3 o'clock in the morning.
Both liberal and conservative media critics have complaints about the television coverage, but not always the same ones. They do agree, however, that the public didn't get the full story.
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal press watchdog group, praised the news media for treating the march as a civil rights event, but also says they failed to cover the breadth of the gay and lesbian movement. "A decade ago or more, gay people were either diesel dykes or drag queens," says Laura Flanders of FAIR. "That was an inaccurate depiction of the diversity of the movement. But the depiction today of the community as looking like everyone isn't accurate either."
Andrew Kopkind, an associate editor of the Nation who is gay, also noted that the march was cleaned up for Middle America. In a May 17 article, he wrote, "Perhaps because lesbians are still far less visible than gay men, the reporters and TV cameras that jammed Washington for the weekend seemed to concentrate on the nice young men in jeans and white T-shirts who could have been going to an office picnic or Michael Bolton concert....
"In fact, despite the heat there were the inevitable leather chaps and harnesses, a fist-fuckers section and more bare-breasted lesbians. And a fair amount of drags sashayed down the avenues in high heels. But for the first time in the history of gay gala events, the media averted their eyes."
Kopkind suspects that years of campaigning to influence coverage have paid off for homosexuals, who in the past have attracted more attention for their eccentricities than their politics. Other critics say the media put an "acceptable" face on the march because more gays and lesbians are in newsrooms and therefore have greater influence on coverage.
Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter believes those reporters covering gay rights – whether heterosexual or homosexual – are largely sympathetic to the cause, and that may affect their reporting. "It has as much to do with the attitudes of the editors and institutions as it does reporters," he says. "But there is still a reluctance on the part of the mainstream media to deal with the wide range in the gay and lesbian community. It's a subject editors and reporters are uncomfortable with. They don't want to show the people with tit clips walking around [Washington's] Dupont Circle."
Joseph Goulden, the director of media analysis for the conservative Accuracy In Media, doesn't think it's a matter of discomfort. "Our media seemed determined to force-feed homosexuality to the American public," he says. "But advocacy has now taken a dangerous step. Media people realize the revulsion which mainstream Americans would have felt had they received unvarnished coverage of the Washington demonstration. So the media stepped in to protect the homosexuals from themselves, censoring images which would be distasteful to a mass audience."
Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz believes the coverage was more affected by reporters' desire to be politically correct than to promote a cause. He tried to explain why the media downplayed the "fringe" element at the march in a May 9 article he wrote for the Post's Sunday Outlook section. "In an age of hypersensitivity," he wrote, "the operative motto seems to be 'when in doubt, leave it out' – even if crucial information is consigned to the cutting-room floor."
The Boy (or Girl) Next Door
The march's intent, organizers say, was to show that gays are not an isolated group practicing perverse sex – they are doctors, lawyers, politicians, accountants, nurses and neighbors. And that's generally what anyone watching television on the night of April 25 or the following Monday morning saw.
"It really was mainstream," says Linda Vester, who covered the demonstration for NBC's "Nightly News." "There were very, very few freaks. The majority were people in polo shirts and Dockers, and those people were very concerned the presence of the freaks would affect the message. We made a point to shoot it the way it really looked."
ABC correspondent John Martin, who covered the parade, also says that the exhibitionists, who in the past have dominated reporting of gay marches, constituted a small minority. "The overwhelming presence was of straight-looking gays," he says. "That was the dominant feeling. What I saw was a remarkable outpouring of people from all over the country. Drag queens were a tiny part of it."
Martin also points out that while his Sunday night segment may have showed only the "straight-looking" gay community, "the day before, which I anchored, we had a piece that showed the usual drag queens and others."
"I'm sure the piece could have been broader," he concedes, but stresses that time constraints also dictated coverage. "Maybe I could have put in a few drag queens, but it didn't strike me as a major part of the story."
CNN's Meserve notes that her network and others aired stories the day before the march that featured more ostentatious gays. "I saw flamboyant moments at the march," she says. "I feel I included them in the coverage the day before. On the day of the march I made a point to cover it as a political story, not as a lifestyle story."
Another CNN reporter who covered the demonstration, Kathleen Koch, says she didn't try to skirt sensitive issues or shield the public. "I thought about it [the criticism]," she says. "Did I purposely paint a certain picture? No, I don't think I did. I reflected what I saw and I was surprised by what I saw. So many moms with strollers, so many normal average Jack and Jill people next door.
"CNN wouldn't direct their photographers to only shoot certain types of people or not to shoot others," she adds. "If that did happen, any cameraman or reporter would refuse to do that... If I had had a nice tight shot of someone in leather and chains shouting, 'Look out America here we come,' I would have used that."
Uncensored Seven Hours
C-SPAN didn't have to wrestle over what to broadcast. The station aired the entire rally, unedited and unexpurgated. Anyone who tuned in could watch seven hours of cinema verité featuring politicians such as Democratic Reps. Pat Schroeder and Nancy Pelosi, celebrities such as tennis star Martina Navratilova and actress Cybill Shepherd, a master of ceremonies talking about "crotch politics," and a self-described "big dyke" comedienne who faked an orgasm on stage.
While the major networks were attacked by media watchdogs, C-SPAN was inundated with calls from viewers. The reaction came in waves. In the three days following the march, C-SPAN received 200 to 300 calls critical of the coverage. Then, according to Monica West, who handles viewer comment for the network, a San Francisco publication published an ad calling for the local gay community to write letters to C-SPAN praising its coverage. Two weeks after the march, C-SPAN's Washington headquarters received about 200 letters of support from the bay area.
Callers were most upset by the fact that C-SPAN carried the comment by the lesbian speaker who had said she wanted to have sex with Hillary Clinton. "We got more calls about her than [about] the actual coverage," says West.
ýo one complained about C-SPAN covering the event. But, according to Rayne Pollack, a C-SPAN spokeswoman, "the majority were critical of the nudity and the obscenities and they were critical of C-SPAN for putting it on, without any censorship, in the middle of the day."
But that's how C-SPAN treats all events. Since its inception, its policy has been to provide unedited coverage of live events, demonstrations and forums. Pollack suggests that the best and only form of censorship for those who have access to C-SPAN is the television set's on-off switch.
Several television journalists interviewed for this article say they are in a no-win situation. Years ago, the gay and lesbian community complained loudly that the news media only covered fringe members, excluding the more middle-of-the-road homosexuals. Now, while homosexuals may be pleased with the recent coverage, conservatives are demanding the media focus again on the fringe.
"They [conservatives] are always criticizing us for going too far," says an NBC News official who asked not to be identified. "Now the conservatives are saying we didn't go far enough."
Many members of the gay community, not surprisingly, are thrilled to see the sensationalized coverage of its diverse community toned down. "The media coverage was, for the most part, an accurate reflection of the march," says Nadine Smith, a national co-chair of the committee that organized the march. "They covered the issue with a depth that they haven't traditionally shown."
John Stine of Queer Nation, an activist group that uses what Stine calls "in-your-face tactics," says that for the first time the media coverage wasn't one-sided. Media coverage has "been a tragic injustice since the 1970s because the majority of the movement is the polo shirt and Docker folks," he says. "We are the people who live next door or work down at the bakery."
One reason the news media may have focused on the more conservatively dressed marchers was because there really were thousands of participants dressed that way, says Stine. He says that even groups like Queer Nation and ACT UP made a conscious effort to dress inoffensively for the march.
Torie Osborn, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force and a speaker at the demonstration, says she viewed tapes of 50 to 60 television reports aired in major media markets. "I have to tell you, the march the media portrayed was the march I was at," she concludes. "I thought there was extraordinarily fair press coverage."
Nonetheless, other gay organizations, such as the New York City-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), would like to see coverage that respects differences in their community.
"The challenge of the future for the media is to really reflect the diversity of the gay and lesbian community," says Donald Suggs of GLAAD. "The unspoken theme of the march was, 'Lesbian and gays, just like you and me.' Some of us are, but some of us aren't." l ###