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American Journalism Review
The Media's Embarrassing Coverage of Gays  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   November 1996

The Media's Embarrassing Coverage of Gays   

Straight News: Gays, Lesbians,
and the News Media

By Edward Alwood
Columbia University Press

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     



Straight News: Gays, Lesbians,
and the News Media
By Edward Alwood
Columbia University Press
386 pages; $29.95

If you have ever hauled out old clippings and cringed at something you once wrote, you may experience familiar feelings reading this history of news coverage of homosexuals.

Edward Alwood traces the issue from World War II to the present, and you don't get too far before embarrassment sets in. For a long time, coverage of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media was routinely stereotypical, smirky and thoughtless, characterized by such headlines as "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad" (New York Daily News, 1969) and news-column references to perverts and fags.

Alwood thoroughly documents the history, from an appropriately critical point of view, but he also attempts to do considerably more. He seeks to analyze, to "suggest important reasons for the inadequacy of that coverage."

The result is a book that is both a useful specialized history and a constructive look at news media limitations.

His main conclusion is that "the widespread antigay attitude in news coverage has been rooted in a structural bias of the media, one that causes journalists to favor the established power base and defend the status quo while shunning the perspectives of those who are politically powerless."

This matters, he writes incisively, because "the capacity of the news media to create and perpetuate prejudice is one of the most unsettling and frightening aspects of American journalism."

A former CNN reporter, Alwood links the problem to several "myths of American journalism."

For example, he cites the "myth of the neutral observer," which holds that journalists are dispassionate outsiders. But Alwood contends that journalists "cannot completely detach themselves from their assumptions about the world." Because heterosexuals have long controlled most newsrooms, "the heterosexual assumption" became "the underlying perspective of the news."

Similarly, the "myth of objectivity" impels journalists to balance stories about gays and lesbians with antigay comments. And the "myth of autonomy," in Alwood's view, lets journalists feel they control news content when, in truth, they respond to "thinly veiled orders" and "unwritten rules" that tend to marginalize coverage of homosexuals.

These and other institutional realities, Alwood asserts, tilt journalists' coverage away from a fair and empathetic portrayal of homosexual life.

This is a serious sociological analysis, but Alwood peoples it with real human beings and everyday flesh and blood.

He tracks the milestones in coverage of homosexuals, including groundbreaking early pieces on gay life by the New York Times (1963), Life magazine (1964) and "CBS Reports" (1967); neglect of the 1969 police-gay confrontation at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village; Merle Miller's "What it Means to Be a Homosexual" essay in The New York Times magazine in 1971; turning-point coverage of Rock Hudson's 1985 death from AIDS; and the San Francisco Examiner's 1989 "Gay in America" series.

Alwood also documents the rise of the gay press and the role of gay journalists inside newsrooms. Some familiar faces appear — Randy Shilts, Jeffrey Schmalz — but the story is enriched by firsthand accounts from gay journalists at places like "Good Morning America," the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and the Tacoma Morning News Tribune.

Special attention goes to the New York Times, whose gradual change in tone toward gays seems to reflect the grudging but steady progress of the media at large.

Alwood credits the ascents of Executive Editor Max Frankel in 1986 and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in 1992 with steering the Times toward more balanced coverage.

Interviewed by Alwood, Sulzberger makes the insightful point that the Times (and, he might have added, most of the press) is cautious about all kinds of changes. "The Times is slow..it's not just [using the word] gay. The Times is almost the last to change from one style to another style. But there was also a generational shift."

Often, in fact, media move slowly, and it seems to take a generational shift to budge their behavior. True to form, as public attitudes about homosexuality changed, so did press coverage.

Today, Alwood concludes, "news media often go beyond the once-prevalent stereotypes to tackle many core issues facing gays and lesbians." But he perceives a continuing "undercurrent of bias," particularly in reporters' willingness, in the name of balance, to include "demeaning and hateful remarks" about gays, the equivalent, he feels, of quoting KKK members about black people.

Ultimately, Alwood provides a wealth of fresh kindling for the old debate over whether journalists lead or follow public opinion. Based on the evidence in "Straight News," they do more following than leading.

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