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Covering the Prop 8 Trial: Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It)?

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Ted Johnson gets married

Next Thursday - Feb. 25 - I am going to be on a Los Angeles Press Club panel with Andrew Harmon, senior editor for The Advocate, advocate.com and my legally married friend, Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety and blogger at wilshireandwashington.com. The discussion topic is: "Covering the Prop. 8 Trial: Can the Gay Press Maintain Objectivity (and Should It)?"

Having served on the board of the LA Press Club with Ted, I suspect this topic was selected long before the San Francisco Chronicle published a political column noting the "open secret" that Prop 8 trial Judge Vaughn Walker is gay - which I wrote about citing some facts to counter the spin from the National Organization for Marriage. But the timing is terrific because it may well draw many more straight people who quietly have questions and harbor a lingering doubt about Walker - and our coverage, which is sometimes cited by the mainstream media.

Ted, for instance, blogs about the intersection between Hollywood and Washington and in an Oct. 30, 2008 post, he disclosed that he married his longtime love Stewart Scott:

"A note: I married my same-sex partner last week, it'd be a leap to say that I am neutral on this proposition, although I have tried my best to be fair to both sides in covering this story from the industry angle."

Ted also wrote about their one year anniversary for LGBT POV.

John-Rabe-married1-300x199

John Rabe, an award-winning member of the LA Press Club (as are Ted and I) and an anchor and reporter for local NPR station KPCC, also wrote for LGBT POV about his marriage. He recused himself from covering Prop 8 after he agreed to let the Pasadena Star News cover his wedding.

Here's how the LA Press Club is framing the debate:

"The Proposition 8 trial underway in San Francisco presents a special problem for gay and lesbian reporters. How do they cover the trial objectively? And frankly, given that many write for the gay community, which has strong feelings on the issue, should they? We're assembled some of the top reporters in town to discuss this and other aspects of one of the nation's most significant trials in the new century."

Olson Boies AFER

By the way, not specifically addressed here is whether there is a difference between how we blogged about the trial and how we reported it for our print publications. This became critical after the US Supreme Court ruled that the video of the trial could only be distributed within the district courthouse. Ted, Andrew and I were all at the original May 27, 2009 news conference where the Prop 8 challenge was announced (I asked Ted Olson how the gay community could trust him, given his very conservative background) and we were in court opening day - and then covered thereafter as best we could from other bloggers and reporters and our own sources. Thank heavens the American Foundation for Equal Rights paid for and posted the trial transcripts so we can all be more accurate in our coverage.

I realize the topic of the discussion might seem self-evident and perhaps even insulting to LGBT folks - after all, would you question African American reporters about covering the racially divisive OJ Simpson trial or a divorced reporter about covering any of the myriad of famous divorce trials happening in Hollywood? I remember talking with one black reporter about his early days covering news for the local CBS News affiliate (KNXT at the time) and he told me how his bosses refused to send him to cover the Watts riots fearing he wouldn't be "objective." Today, he'd be one of the first dispatched to the scene to work his sources and report on the nuances unseen by other reporters just parachuting in.

Something akin to that is true for Ted, Andrew and me since we covered the whole Prop 8 campaign and already knew Chad Griffin and Bruce Cohen, two co-founders of AFER.

Jon Beaupre

But that's exactly why such panel discusses as these are important. The Feb. 25 panel will be moderated by Jon Beaupre, veteran radio reporter and anchor for NPR affiliate KPCC and a journalism professor at Cal State Los Angeles. He's also openly gay and was the longtime voice of spot LGBT news coverage for the Pacifica station in LA, KPFK and the long-running show "This Way Out."

Last year Jon moderated another Prop 8 panel I was on - which lead to a political awakening for at least one of his students. I was droning on about how it's important for pollsters to start considering lesbians and gays as a serious demographic in their surveys and this one young woman - who voted Yes on Prop 8 - asked me why we would want to do that? Why would we want to call attention to ourselves like that? I immediately realized she was looking at LGBT people in the framework of sex - not sexual orientation. Activist Robin Tyler, who was also on the panel, explained how we're a civil rights movement. But I spoke to her in terms of "personhood" - now gay people are more than just who we sleep with. Edward Headington captured the exchange and posted it on YouTube:

The discussion will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 25, at the Los Angeles Press Club in the Steve Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., one block west of Vermont Ave., in Los Feliz. (Metro: Vermont/Sunset station). Free parking and refreshments. The discussion is open to everyone.

Here's the RSVP info - free for members, $10 for non-LA Press Club members, $50 for membership and two tickets for new members.

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