Between the Lines

The not-so-gay press

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
It has all the hallmarks of a battle royale: gay syndicated Savage Love columnist Dan Savage and conservative gay journalist (and former New Republic editor) Andrew Sullivan have been waging a month-long battle with The Advocate's Editor-in-Chief Judy Wieder, who is also the editorial director of Liberation Publications, which will soon own both The Advocate and Out magazines, Alyson publications and the Out & About travel guide (and, as I write, PlanetOut Partners is currently merging Liberation Publications, Gay.com and PlanetOut.com into a mega gay-media conglomerate). The battle began this past fall when Sullivan wrote on his www.andrewsullivan.com website of The Advocate's toothless interview with U.S. President Bill Clinton, "The interview is by 'journalist' Chris Bull, and it reads as if Bull was on his knees, polishing Clinton's shoes with his tongue, when he conducted it."

Inside.com reported on Dec 12 that Wieder then told Sullivan she would no longer need a story he was writing for The Advocate.

Four days later, Sullivan wrote on his website, "BANNED FROM THE ADVOCATE: Got email today from Judy Wieder, editor of The Advocate, who only last week commissioned a piece from me about the future of AIDS therapy. After my comments in this space about Chris Bull's tongue-bath of Bill Clinton's shoes in a recent Advocate interview... she emailed to officially disinvite me. It's a free country, I suppose, and poor Judy, who has worked wonders with the magazine, gets mau-maued by the Stalinists for even asking me to write. But it's a pleasure to have formally confirmed what we all know informally. The gay press in general has about the same openness and diversity of views of Pravda, circa 1974. Cheap pot- shots at anyone outside their leftist ranks are permitted; but serious criticism of an interview that failed to meet even basic standards of objectivity makes me persona non grata."

Well, things only deteriorated from there, so much so that Dan Savage resigned his columnist gig at Out magazine in a recent, lower-case letter to Out's Editor-in-Chief, Brendan Lemon.

"i'm afraid this will have to be my last column for out," Savage wrote. "i've communicated to you just how unsettling i consider the business of judy wieder banning andrew sullivan from the advocate on account of his critical comments about the clinton interview. As judy wieder is the corporate editorial director of out as well as the advocate (and planetout and gay.com!), i can't help but feel that my association with out is tainted. as i told you in a previous email, i believe that sullivan being banned at the advocate for making critical comments about one piece reflects badly on those of us who still write for liberation publications."

But Wieder was having none of that. She lashed back, telling Inside.com that Sullivan misinterpreted the withdrawal of the assignment as a "ban."

"My staff was very angry and felt that if we immediately printed a major story by Andrew, it would suggest that we agree with him," she said. "It was a difficult decision, but there was and is no ban."

Savage also suggested in his letter, posted on Jim Romenesko's MediaNews website, that Liberation is attempting to control the discourse in the gay community. "No merger has taken place," Wieder explained, "and Dan, in the course of doing this solidarity dance with Andrew, put out this message that we control everything. It would be very moving if it were true."

But Sullivan shot back, "I am not welcome right now to write for them. Honestly, it's not a big issue for me, because I am able to write for other places. My only concern is the message that it sends to other people who are not as established as me or Dan, which is, 'Don't rock the boat.'"

Which, of course, is the prevailing sentiment among writers these days as media-merger-mania puts the squeeze on more and more freelancers.

This, ironically, comes at a time when gay and lesbian issues are getting unprecedented coverage in the mainstream media, kickstarted by the onslaught of AIDS in the 1980s. The AIDS plague then forced many journalists to come out in the early 1990s, and provoked dialogue about gay issues in newsrooms across North America.

"Stories about lesbians and gays [have] reached an unusual level of momentum," Leroy Aarons, founder of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, told Poynter.org, an American website that moniters media issues, in a Dec 6 posting. "The AIDS epidemic served to make the story newsworthy, and also brought a lot of information about the gay community into public discourse."

But, Poynter.org reports, this sense of urgency is now sorely lacking — that according to the Lesbians and Gays in the Newsroom — Ten Years Later survey conducted by the University of Southern California and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (of which there are chapters in Montreal and Toronto) and which was released during the NLGJA convention this past September.

Aarons, formerly with The Washington Post and Oakland Tribune and now director of the Study of Sexual Orientation Issues in the News at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, coordinated the study along with co-researcher Sheila Murphy. The survey shows progress has been made but there is still room for improvement. "Journalists have greater comfort in the newsroom, but there is a sense of shortcoming in the performance of more localized, ongoing stories," Aarons explained.

That is where the gay press is supposed to come in. But with globalization and merger-mania running rampant, observers fear local stories about gays and lesbians in their communities will no longer be covered, or at least no longer covered in depth.

"Gays and lesbians wish for what all groups wish for — that they be covered as people and that their issues be taken seriously and respectfully," David Flick, senior writer at The Dallas Morning News and former officer of NLGJA, told Poynter.org.

But, Aarons added, "If it doesn't have a sizzle, celebrity, or a dramatic angle it doesn't get printed. It's the digging, enterprising stuff that's missing."

Which is what the whole Sullivan vs. The Advocate skirmish is all about.

Richard Burnett's syndicated queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine and The Ottawa X Press, and on the web at www.gaywired.com.