The holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth is always an occasion to think about issues of equality in American society.
So this morning, I find myself thinking about CNN and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
GLAAD, the activist group which advocates for equal treatment of gay people, released a petition earlier this month demanding CNN stop giving airtime during stories and debates on gay issues to experts whose only qualification is that they are opposed to homosexuality.
The group cites the Family Research Council's Peter Sprigg as an example of what they call the "anti-gay industry," a network of pundits whose primary goal is advancing the notion that gay people don't deserve the same rights as other Americans. By pairing them with people who have actual expertise when discussing issues such as the military's don't ask, don't tell policy, GLAAD says, CNN is elevating their hurtful rhetoric.
This idea brings up an important question when considering press coverage of such issues: When does a news organization exclude the haters?
Put another way, when should news organizations conclude that purely anti-gay sentiment is prejudice that they should no longer support?
Back in Dr. King's time, when debates over issues of civil rights were covered by the media, they also dutifully included those who favored segregation or denying black people the vote or banning interracial marriage. But eventually, the news media concluded that such views were prejudiced and stopped presenting them as equal arguments -- reasoning that treating racists like equal participants in such debates only granted them a power they should not have.
So when will media take similar action with anti-gay activists?
It seems a simple question. Either there's an open question about whether being gay is harmful or hurtful -- and no reputable psychologist or mental health professional says there is -- or there isn't. And if the act of being gay isn't harmful, then why are otherwise reputable news organizations giving voice to people whose only expertise is their continued resistance to the mainstream acceptance of homosexuals?
CNN doesn't bring on a member of the Ku Klux Klan for expert commentary when talking about the status of Black people in America. So why are they bringing on people from groups opposed to gay rights to debate gay rights issues? (Here's an essay I wrote seven years ago about why gay rights is the new civil rights struggle.)
Don't get me wrong; if there's someone with actual expertise on the other side of an issue -- say, a military commander who opposes the end of don't ask, don't tell -- interviewing that person makes sense. But I agree with GLAAD when they say that bringing in anti-gay activists simply reinforces the notion that the debate over the appropriateness of gay sexual orientation is still an open question.
And given the fact that homosexuality is legal, not classified as a mental illness or sexual dysfunction, and gay people are allowed to do things like marry and adopt kids in many states, I would say that question is pretty much answered.
Of course, I know why they won't do such a thing. Despite the logic of the situation, lots of people still oppose gay rights; which means such a decision could produce a serious backlash and may feel like taking a side during a still-contentious issue.
Still, perhaps CNN -- and other media outlets worldwide -- could consider honoring Dr. King today by changing its policies. Because, as I think about the history of America's civil rights struggles, I'm reminded of all the newspapers which had to apologize for how they gave into prejudice and racism while covering Dr. King's work more than 40 years ago.
CNN could avoid a similar apology by acting now. Maybe, just once, we could learn from our worst history instead of repeating it.
To read more of my thoughts on TV, media and society, see my blog, The Feed, by clicking here.