Sunday, May 09, 2010

Subtle Bias in The Post

There was a subtle kind of bias in The Post this past week, after school principal Brian Betts was murdered in his home in Silver Spring. You read all about what a wonderful educator he was, all the things he did the day he died -- it seems he really was a good guy, an exceptional principal, recruited for his position, friends with the students, respected by his peers and neighbors, and he was gay.

He was gay and The Post never mentioned it. It appears he was killed by someone he had invited to his house after meeting them on a telephone sex-chat line.

The Washington Blade called them out on it earlier this week:
The Washington Post has made tremendous progress in covering overtly gay issues since its new editor took over. When same-sex couples walked the aisle in D.C., the Post was there, flooding the zone with a multimedia extravaganza of marriage coverage.

But when the LGBT angle isn’t so obvious, the Post continues to cling to 1950s-era notions about sexual orientation — namely that it’s something to suppress or hide.

This lingering problem with honest reporting at the Post surfaced again in recent weeks as the tragedy of the Brian Betts murder unfolded. Betts, a nationally respected educator, was principal of Shaw Middle School in D.C. and a hero to his students. The Post has devoted much coverage, including front-page stories, to his brutal killing. Three teens are charged in connection with the murder; a fourth person faces charges related to alleged use of Betts’ credit card.

Almost immediately after the story broke, several of us at the Blade began getting tips that Betts was gay. Not closeted, but openly gay to a wide circle of area friends and colleagues.

Indeed, Betts was gay and the Post, even in a lengthy, prominent Sunday story about the murder, refused to report that basic fact. Post editors will tell you that his sexual orientation isn’t relevant or that they can’t prove it. Don’t believe them.

First, the Blade’s reporting staff was able to establish Betts’ sexual orientation quickly and with certainty. Surely the Post’s mammoth newsroom could have done the same.

Second, if Betts were straight, there is no question the Post would report basic facts, such as whether he was married, engaged, had a girlfriend, ex-wife or children. But because he was gay, such details are considered “personal,” “private” and “irrelevant.” It’s an indefensible double standard: If the fact of a straight subject’s sexual orientation is considered fair game for public disclosure, then the same must hold for LGBT subjects. The specifics of what you do in the bedroom: private. The fact of being gay or straight: public. It’s that simple.

Finally, and most significantly, his sexual orientation proved key to the story. Betts allegedly met his killer or killers through a gay-oriented chat line. WaPo botches Betts murder story

In today's Post the ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, writes that the editors simply decided that Betts' sexual orientation was not an important piece of information. You can see that in most news stories it doesn't matter whether somebody is gay or straight, but it mattered in this case for two reasons. First of all, it mattered because calling a gay sex-chat line got him killed, it was a factor in the murder itself. Reporters may not have known before the arrests that he was gay, or if they did they may have wanted to keep it quiet and not tip off the suspects, but after the arrests they knew Betts was gay and they failed to report it.

There is a second reason it would have been good to mention Betts' sexual orientation. And that is, the guy was known as an exemplary educator. He loved his students and they loved him. He was brought in to turn a failing school around, and by all accounts he succeeded at that. There is a certain stereotype of the predatory gay educator, and Brian Betts disproved that stereotype, big time. Where you have experts like George Rekers testifying in court that gay people are not qualified to adopt orphans, it would have been important for the public to learn that a gay principal was tops in his field.

I understand it can go the other way, too. Comedian Dylan Rhymer had a great line about treating same-sex marriage as a special case: "It's like calling it Chinese marriage or Black marriage. It just sounds wrong, it's just marriage. Calling it same-sex marriage, or gay marriage, is dumb. Do you have to premise everything gay people do with the word gay? Like, oh they went out to gay-dinner. They went gay-grocery shopping and had a gay-argument about eating gay-cottage cheese, which is just stupid, because gay-cottage cheese is just like regular cheese but it's so much more fabulous!" In the same way, we don't need a headline that says "Gay Guy Killed," that wasn't the news story. The real news was that a much-loved principal was murdered, and as the facts came out, one of them was that he was gay. He invited a friend to dinner and the friend couldn't make it, so he went home and made a drink and cooked up some dinner on the grill, said hi to the neighbors, talked with his sister on the phone, updated his Facebook, called a sex chat line and invited a guy over and the guy killed him. Maybe it's a little lurid, but it turns out even school principals have sex. The point of a newspaper article is not to tarnish or salvage a person's name or influence the readers' attitudes about sexual behavior, the point is to give information to readers so they understand what happened. Is someone killing people in Silver Spring at random? No, it turns out there is some danger in meeting men in chat rooms and inviting them to your house late at night. It is not an exclusively gay thing, either, it is also dangerous for women to meet men in chat rooms and invite them to their houses late at night.

It would have been good for The Post to mention that Betts was gay because it would have increased readers' understanding of the event.


Anonymous Robert said...

The Post's policy is such that if they were to write an obituary on me, you probably wouldn't have a clue about my sexual orientation, unless you read between the lines delineated by the absence of certain information.

The statment they've always made to my community (because you can bet we've challenged them on this for years) is that they want to preserve the feelings of family and friends of people who may be closeted to certain people.

I suppose my grandmother, hypothetically, might have been upset if such information were in my obituary; but I doubt she would have been shocked.

As far as I know, there is no 'advanced directive' on this; i.e., you can not tell the Post in advance what you want them to say about you. It seems their assumption is that everyone wants to keep secrets.

May 11, 2010 9:39 AM  
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