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Why I Didn't Attend the NLGJA Convention -- They Failed Us on Prop 8

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nlgja_logoThe National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association held it's annual convention in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. And even though I've been around for the 20 years since it was founded by Roy Aarons -- I didn't go. I'm still furious over the organization's failure to discuss the San Francisco Chronicle's coverage of Prop 8.

As Beyond Chron blogger Paul Hogarth learned from Chronicle reporter Jill Tucker,  the political desk hijacked the social story of the now infamous first graders surprise field trip to their beloved teacher's lesbian wedding at city hall. Both No on Prop 8 campaign consultant Steve Smith and Yes on 8 campaign manager Frank Schubert later agreed that the Oct. 11 front page story turned the tide of the election.

What's worse -- Schubert's partner Jeff Flint says that the Yes on 8  campaign had no idea about the wedding until they were informed about it by the Chronicle. I called David Steinberg, president of NLGJA's board of directors, who sits on the Chronicle's copy desk and was aware of what happened - and he said he didn't see any problem with what the political desk did.

I have been livid ever since. I thought part of the mission of NLGJA was to talk to colleagues about how news is covered so it doesn't wind up being antigay. What's the point of having an NLGJA Style Guide when there's no substance behind the style? Not only that - but I was censored when I tried to bring the issue up in a Prop 8 story they requested for the NLGJA newsletter Outlook.

Here's that story:

Where was NLGJA During the Fight Over Prop 8?

By Karen Ocamb

As a professional LGBT journalist, I am something of an inconvenience to the old notions of mainstream journalism. I insist on covering the LGBT movement for equal rights as a regular beat, not merely as an easily categorized political issue.

To me, the battle over Prop 8 was a fight over the Equal Protection clause in the California Constitution. If the "tyranny" of a simple majority could strip away a "fundamental right" of a minority -- in this case marriage equality for same sex couples -- the clause itself would be rendered meaningless. The Attorney General and several minority groups subsequently filed briefs on this point in the case to invalidate Prop 8.

Apart from exceptions such as AP's Lisa Leff, however, most mainstream journalists seemed to cover the story of Prop 8 as if it were just another antigay marriage initiative -- with a kind of benign neglect. No one "followed the money," for instance, until the No on Prop 8 campaign declared a "red alert" in early September and revealed that they were between $8-$11 million behind the Yes on 8 campaign. And it still took bloggers to uncover the depth of involvement by the Church of Latter-day Saints.

So where was NLGJA?  Unlike the National Black Journalists Association - whose president put the 1999 American Society of Newspaper Editors' survey on diversity into the context of Prop 205 (anti-Affirmative Action) or the National Hispanic Journalists Association which called for a boycott over Prop 187 (denying public benefits to undocumented workers and their families) - a boycott that NLGJA convention co-chairs and LA Times reporters Alan Acosta and Vicki Torres publicly honored - NLGJA failed to address Prop 8 or offer guidelines on coverage.

Would it have mattered? Well, consider the Oct. 11 San Francisco Chronicle story on the lesbian teacher's wedding.

"A group of San Francisco first-graders took an unusual field trip to City Hall on Friday to toss rose petals on their just-married lesbian teacher - putting the public school children at the center of a fierce election battle over the fate of same-sex marriage," the front page story by Jill Tucker begins.

In fact, the parents who decided to surprise the beloved schoolteacher didn't put the children "at the center of a fierce election battle" - the Chronicle did for sensationalism.

According to blogger Paul Hogarth in his Oct. 24 dissection of the piece for Beyond Chron and Daily Kos ("SF Chronicle Jeopardizes Marriage Equality"), Tucker said that "the parents who organized the trip actively sought media coverage--and the paper decided on its own that it was 'news' enough to deserve front-page treatment."

Since lesbian weddings were legal then, one can image that the parents might have expected any coverage to go in the back with the other wedding announcements. On Oct. 26 two aggrieved parents sent a letter to the Yes on 8 campaign and the Chronicle complaining about their children "being exploited and used as pawns" by the Yes campaign which downloaded the front page picture from the Chronicle's website to use in their ads.

Sapphocrat, who blogs at LavenderLiberal, complained vociferously about the Chronicle's failure to put the field trip into the larger context of the Creative Arts Charter School's philosophy.

But the damage was done. In an in-depth interview with me after Prop 8 passed, campaign consultant Steve Smith said they were winning back the critical undecided women's vote until the Yes ad featuring the Chronicle story on the lesbian teacher.

"I think we lost because fundamentally we didn't get enough votes from women. If the issue was marriage, we were going to win them. When the issue rotated to their kids and their kids 'in kindergarten' - it was a huge problem for us. Without the wedding on the steps at City Hall, I think we would have won this issue. In fact, I think we would have won the campaign," Smith said. But "you can't win a marriage campaign debating kids in school because people will vote for their kids every time."

When I asked NLGJA President David Steinberg, who works at the Chronicle, about why NLGJA was missing in action, he said no one saw a problem with the coverage of the Prop 8 battle -- including that front page story by his colleague.

For a moment, I felt as if I had just spoken with President Bush flying over post-Katrina New Orleans.  The reality of LGBT people as second-class citizens in America is an inconvenience best observed from afar.

Why?

Hogarth's Oct. 24, 2008 blog is so much deeper and more prescient than I quoted above:

"And while the San Francisco Chronicle took a formal position against it, the paper's news coverage--which has a far greater impact than its editorial endorsements--has actively pushed a meme that helps Prop 8's message. Over the last two weeks, the paper has treated a first-grade teacher's wedding as front-page news, repeated the line that Gavin Newsom is a liability and that San Francisco is "so different" from the rest of the state, and fomented divisions within liberal constituencies that give wavering voters an "out" in supporting Prop 8. With the stakes in this election higher than virtually any other race, the Chronicle should not think that merely opposing Prop 8 can absolve them of responsibility should it pass on November 4th."

Hogarth cites a number of examples of skewed Prop 8 coverage, including:

"A companion piece about each side in the Prop 8 fight targeting African-Americans only further legitimized the fearful aspects of that community. The piece pictured a black woman wearing an Obama shirt and holding a "Yes on 8" sign -- without mentioning the irony that Barack Obama strongly opposes Prop 8. If the Chronicle asked her about that, her answer didn't make it in the article."

In a case study of their Yes on 8 campaign to the American Association of Political Consultants last year, Schubert said the lesbian wedding came right after the effective No on Prop 8 ad featuring Jack O'Connell, the California Superintendent of Schools, who refuted that gay marriage would be taught to school children. "We caught, no doubt, the biggest break in the campaign," Schubert said. "And so now we have the ability to move beyond this theoretical debate of what will happen in California to say it's happening in California." Schubert said that 48 hours later, the No on Prop 8 campaign "basically conceded this entire debate on education and tried to shift to an argument -- no matter what you think about same sex marriage, it's essentially racist to vote in favor of traditional marriage."

The question and answer period, ironically, given recent events, opened with how Schubert and Flint basically mimicked the Karl Rove -- Ken Mehlman "72 hour plan" from the 2004 presidential race. Then they are asked if they felt they were "on a roll" before the kids went to city hall. In the video:

Schubert says:

"I thought on a roll before that. We were prepared to just trade the tit for tat debate about education - which we had a lot to talk about. We had the whole Massachusetts experience - other things in California we could have talked about. And then this thing kind of just ended up in our....."

Flint says (at 6:54 into the video):

"And that footage you saw was not amateur video -- as most newspapers have done -- they try to integrate online components so it's actually shot and put in the public domain by the Chronicle's TV and video department and it was posted on their website.

We were sitting in one of our weekly strategy meetings when the press secretary of the campaign sent an email to us on our blackberry saying I'm getting calls from the San Francisco  Chronicle about first graders being taken to a lesbian wedding in San Francisco -- what should I say? (Laughter) "That did change the tenor of the strategy meeting that day." (Laughter)" (emphasis mine)

Flint confirms that no one knew about this expedition until the Chronicle's political desk repeatedly called the Yes on 8 campaign. Lavender Liberal also underscored how no one from the "protect the children" Yes on 8 campaign bothered to ask the parents for permission to use the images of their children in their ad - something that infuriated the parents who supported the No on Prop 8 campaign. The parents' complaint also received little coverage. And NLGJA's board president David Steinberg was cool with this. That's not how I see the mission of an LGBT journalism organization that exists to promote fair and accurate coverage of LGBTs from within.