Our Boys On The Bus

10.29.2008

By Jesse Oxfeld

'The fact that there are so many gay reporters on the campaign, what is the effect on coverage of gay issues in the campaign?' wonders Charles Kaiser, the media critic and gay historian. 'I suspect the answer is zero. Gay reporters aren't any more likely to raise gay issues than straight reporters, and in many cases are probably less likely to raise them, for fear of being labeled 'that gay reporter.'' Same-sex marriage, don't ask don't tell, the rights of gay men and lesbians to adopt children'they're all issues debated on the campaign trail. In July, for example, John McCain gave an interview to the Times's Adam Nagourney -- in a long-term relationship with his partner -- and a straight colleague, Michael Cooper, in which the candidate defined his stances on many issues. "Mr. McCain, who with his wife, Cindy, has an adopted daughter, said flatly that he opposed allowing gay couples to adopt,' wrote Nagourney and Cooper. ''I think that we've proven that both parents are important in the success of a family so, no, I don't believe in gay adoption,' he said.' What's it like to interview a candidate and be told you're incapable of being a parent?

'How does a woman who has had an abortion, how does she write about a candidate's position on abortion?' replies one reporter. 'Every person covering politics, as a human being, has strong feelings about certain issues. But they have to be able to put those things in a box, to analyze and write as dispassionately as possible about what a candidate is advocating and what that means. I don't think being gay and writing a story about a candidate's position on gay issues is any different than being a straight man who's violently opposed to the death penalty and writing a story about a candidate's positions on capital punishment. It's all part of the process of covering politics.' That ability to turn off your own feelings and attempt to report neutrally is part of what makes these people succeed at major mainstream news organizations. But, still, hearing a candidate tell you that his position is counter to something you believe in is different than hearing a candidate tell you his position is counter to you.

'It's definitely an issue on the issue of gay marriage,' says a different reporter. 'There are a lot of issues you cover as a reporter where you pretend like you don't have opinion on it. But on this one, you can't pretend to be an objective observer.' So what do you do then, interviewing, say, a Republican candidate pushing an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. 'You just ask the question,' he continued. 'It goes unsaid. They might be thinking, 'Oh, I'm saying something that offends this gay guy.' And you might be thinking, 'That offends me.' But it never really gets articulated. Now, am I as quick to talk about the fact I'm gay with sources in Republican campaigns as I am with sources in Democratic campaigns? Definitely not. It doesn't come up, and I don't force that awkwardness.'

'It's kind of like, there are gays everywhere,' says one of the reporters, 'and I keep hoping we're going to move beyond the, 'Look, there are gay teachers,' 'Look, there are gay political reporters.'' Essentially, we have. Through the early '90s, The New York Times was one of the most homophobic news organizations in the country; when Arthur Sulzberger Jr. became publisher, in 1992, he immediately changed that culture, and today its most marquee political reporters are gay. Reporters' sexuality isn't an issue to the campaigns, agreed everyone I talked to, even to conservative Republican ones. There aren't cliques of 'the gay reporters' on the planes and buses -- assigned seating is by type of news organization, which means the stratification is more class-conscious (a reporter from The New York Times is going to hang out with reporters from other big-city papers, thank you very much, not with one from the Cedar Rapids Gazette. ) But there's one way the gays do remain removed from much of the rest of the press corps.

'A campaign is a very conventional, very heterosexual environment,' one reporter says. 'And at the same time, it's an extremely oversexed environment. There's the whole wheels-up-rings-off culture' -- when the plane takes off, the wedding rings are ignored. There's a long tradition of flings, affairs, and liaisons among reporters cooped up with only each other for so much time. 'It's weird,' the reporter continued. 'You realize that people are married and they're sleeping with someone on the campaign. It just happened, because they're at the end of these long days in what is a highly sexed environment.' The gay reporters are, of course, in that same environment, and they're not immune. But the numbers are stacked against them. 'I think the gay guys are left out of that,' he says, maybe a touch wistfully, 'because there are fewer of us.'

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