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Box Turtle BulletinNews, analysis and fact-checking of anti-gay rhetoric
“Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife…”
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Posts for November, 2010

Newsweek runs offensive puff piece on Brian Brown

Timothy Kincaid

November 15th, 2010

Lately it seems that the only time I take notice of Newsweek is when they have run yet another biased article which paints gay people in a bad light and our opponents favorably. While I would not go so far as to label the magazine as being homophobic – I doubt that they are aware of the extent to which they write pejorative about gay people – clearly editorial staff suffer under heterosexist presumptions.

Their latest is a puff piece on Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, by Eve Conant. Brown is a legitimate topic for discussion, but Conant’s portrayal of him – and even moreso of us – serves as little more than an appeal to sympathy for Brian Brown and validation of his anti-gay efforts. Brown’s talking points are repeated as though objective data and those of us who oppose his efforts are characterized as irrational or violent.

Conant opens her piece by casting Brown as a martyr and implying that those who oppose his anti-gay advocacy are a dangerous threat. Even before telling her audience what Brown does, the tone is set: “Brian Brown’s hate mail is divided into two categories: messages that go straight to the police and those he dumps into a growing computer file labeled OPPOSITION.”

Conant’s second error is to parrot Brown’s declarations of success.

A big reason for their frustration is that Brown is succeeding. His National Organization for Marriage played a key role in financing the Nov. 2 ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled to legalize same-sex marriage there in 2009.

As gays and lesbians battle in the courts and legislatures for marriage rights, Brown is on a mission to match their determination and dollars. Using direct-mail campaigns, donor outreach, and bus tours around the country, he spreads NOM’s message that preserving “traditional marriage” is necessary to protect families and ensure religious freedom. “We believe the marriage issue is the last frontier in the fight,” he says. “We have to hold the line there.” Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

In a display of shockingly naive journalism, Canant accepts Brown’s stated accomplishments – which may as well have been gleaned from one of his many “look what I’ve done, send me money’ emails. She provides no evaluation of the success of those high-profile races in which NOM intervened (all, other than the judge, failed), the bus tours (laughably incompetent), or whether NOM’s message is resonating.

While it is true that three judges were not confirmed – due in part to NOM’s efforts – to declare that “Brown is succeeding” requires that one ignore the total picture and focus only on one incident. And in pronounceing that “the jury is out” on whether marriage equality in an eventuality, Conant used but the scantest of thought:

Though both sides like to claim they’re winning this fight, the jury is out. This year New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., joined Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont in legalizing gay marriage. And polling shows support for it is on the rise, up from 27 percent of Americans in 1996 to 44 percent today, according to Gallup. But in the 31 states where gay marriage has been put to a vote, it’s lost every time.

There is a thoughtful argument for the uncertainty of future outcomes, but this isn’t it. Discussing state DOMA amendments without discussing timelines and geography is simplistic to the point of meaninglessness. So too are discussion of states which have marriage equality without an analysis of possible repeal.

But the most offensive part of Connant’s article is that it serves not only as a “feel good” piece on Brown, but it positions those who disagree with him in a negative light. They are not supporters of equality, rather they are enemies of this good man. This is, indeed, the underlying theme and is present in nearly every paragraph:

Paragraph 1: OPPONENTS of Brown send hate mail, tell him on the phone that they want to burn him while his children watch, and threaten to send a pipe bomb. Even the least threatening are “frustrated”.

Paragraph 2: Repeats that they are frustrated

Paragraph 4: “Critics like to paint Brown as…” The structure of this phrase assumes that anything which follows is a false portrayal. Evan Wolfson, who comments on the likelihood of NOM’s efforts as a “last hurrah” is set up to be dismissed as a falsely painting critic and then Connant presents a counter to the “like to paint” position which is competely irrelevant to the point.

Paragraph 5: Here we have a good guy v. bad guy comparison. Brown “mostly tries to avoid demonizing gays and lesbians” while a marriage supporter “tapes Brown’s events and posts them online as fuel for gay activists.” Look again at “fuel for gay activists.” That is not, under any circumstances, a neutral statement.

Paragraph 6: Here we see two “he said, they said” presentations of the views of those who oppose NOM. It’s subtle, but the comparison leads the reader to one conclusion:

First, “gay-rights advocates say the group is a carefully orchestrated front for…” But Connant’s response is “In fact, it’s almost impossible to characterize Brown’s supporters.” This isn’t even presented as Brown’s position, it’s presented as fact and thus the gay-rights activists are either deluded, paranoid, or liars.

The second is trickier. It’s the presentation of two accusations. First Brown accuses those who are demanding that NOM follow election laws: “his donors could be targeted and harassed by gays and their supporters.” Note that these are specific allegations and cast “gays and their supporters” as harassers and dangerous. Note also that the opening words of this piece assign validity to Brown’s claim.

Then the opposite side’s position is misstated: “gay advocates say he’s simply flouting campaign-finance laws.” No, we don’t think his purpose has anything to do with the anarchistic notion of “simply flouting laws.” We have specific concerns but they are not presented. Rather, you see the vague and slightly paranoid (and probably truncated): “You have to look at why they are fighting tooth and nail to not disclose their donors.” There is no mention as to the reason why we think NOM wants hide the identities of major donors: to allow them to seek to change law in secret, without any fear of public criticism or reprisal.

Fear of secret political machinations of wealthy organizations, churches, or individuals may resonate with Newsweek’s readers. They may share our concerns that the Mormon Church or Catholic Church some other entity or individual almost single-handedly funded a state-wide campaign – and did so in secret and without the voter’s knowledge. One has to wonder why Connant did not articulate this concern.

Paragraph 7: Brown’s “detractors” are baffled. His efforts are a “mystery.” And Brown presents his case to quickly slap down the strawman of confusion that Connant presented. His explanation is – and we aren’t mystified, we’ve heard it over and over – accepted as fact. Gay folk aren’t too befuddled to point out the hollowness of Brown’s statements, Connant simply chose not to report it.

Paragraph 8: This is perhaps the most insidious of Connant’s insinuations. Characterization by anecdote is not new to yellow journalism; those who wish to present good guy v. bad guy imagery find it a most useful tool. While Susan, Brown’s wife, is a sympathetic character who “understands” the “frustration” of the people who so badly abuse her, gay folk are presented less charitably:

At an event in Providence, R.I., she says, “they walked up to my kids and asked them, ‘Is Mommy raising you to be a good little bigot?’?”

Paragraph 9: This last paragraph, indeed the final words, remind the reader about who is the hero and who is the villain of this article:

Until that day—and perhaps long after—Brown is prepared to keep getting hate mail.

I understand that human interest stories are not in the same vein as hard-hitting journalism. But this goes beyond being a puff piece and instead is a smear on those who support marriage equality. Yet again, “Gays are a threat to be feared” is the theme of a Newsweek article.

Ramin Setoodeh remains a nincompoop

Timothy Kincaid

May 11th, 2010

When Newsweek’s Ramin Setoodeh wrote an asinine article a couple weeks ago in which he lamented that gay actors just aren’t convincing if the audience knows that they are gay, I criticized his logic. And I was certainly not the only one.

Well now Setoodeh has printed a response. Sadly, it is every bit as idiotic as his original assertion.

Basically, he says three things in his defense:

1. I’m not the only one who thinks gay people can’t play straight:

When Sean Hayes, from Will & Grace, made his Broadway debut in Promises, Promises playing a heterosexual man, the New York Times theater review included these lines: “his emotions often seem pale to the point of colorlessness … his relationship with [his costar Kristin] Chenoweth feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector.” This, to me, is code: it’s a way to say that Hayes’s sexual orientation is getting in the way of his acting without saying the word gay.

Well, no, that’s not exactly what they said. The full quote is:

Yet except when he’s with Ms. Finneran (more on whom later), who plays a crazy barfly, his emotions often seem pale to the point of colorlessness. It’s easy enough to like Chuck but hard to feel for him. And his relationship with Ms. Chenoweth’s Fran feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector.

But the Times had high praise for a scene between Hayes and Finneran:

Nothing in the languorous first act prepares you for the jolt of energy that begins the second. That’s when Ms. Finneran shows up as a singles-bar stalker named Marge, a molting flamingo of a woman whose pickup line is that she is not a pickup. When Marge homes in on Chuck, the evening’s first sparks are struck, and we are reminded that sexual desperation can be very, very funny.

Doing the freshest variations I’ve seen in years on over-the-top, deluded drunkenness, Ms. Finneran and Mr. Hayes turn their single shared number, “A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing,” into a showstopper you wish would never end.

And we can be sure that Setoodeh didn’t make a quick run to the bathroom during that scene and miss all the sparks and sexual desperation, because it is exactly that scene that he described as “unintentional camp” because “the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay.”

2. I’m a victim

Immediately, a number of gay blogs picked up my essay and ran excerpts from it out of context, under the headline that I was antigay. It went viral. Chenoweth wrote a letter to NEWSWEEK calling the article “horrendously homophobic,”, even though she went on to acknowledge that I am openly gay. It went even more viral. In the meantime, commenters on the Internet piled on the attacks. Many of them said they hadn’t even read the original article (some of them did) but they all seemed to agree on the same point: that I was an idiot.

Sometimes, just sometimes, when all the world agrees that you are an idiot, it should give you pause to stop and consider, “Gee, I wonder if maybe I’m an idiot?” And maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t help to run a follow-up article that only confirms the idea that you are.

And when measuring out who gets martyr status, I think that Jonathan Groff just might be closer to the front of the line. After all, he doesn’t have a prominent news magazine in which to defend himself.

3. You missed my point.

But what all this scrutiny seemed to miss was my essay’s point: if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say, because no actor like that exists. I meant to open a debate—why is that? And what does it say about our notions about sexuality? For all the talk about progress in the gay community in Hollywood, has enough really changed?

I agree that Hollywood is no where near as gay-accepting as it pretends to be. I live here. And I know that there are gay actors who might not get cast in that macho role, or star in that teen drama, or get a chance to be a leading heartthrob if they were out. I know of the ladies who don’t show up on the red carpet with their other half in tow.

But that is Hollywood’s homophobic (and insulting) assumption that midwestern Americans would never accept gay actors. And that wasn’t Setoodeh’s point.

No, his “point” is that Hollywood is right. That we would not accept an openly gay Clooney playing a heterosexual leading man. (In his ‘rebuttal’, Setoodeh answers his own question with “The answer seems obvious to me: no, it has not [changed].”) He may pretend to lament the homophobia of Hollywood, but in reality he supports it and agrees with it.

And Setoodeh knows that producers and Hollywood executives are right because he, himself, can’t see beyond the sexual orientation of the actor. It’s his “honest impression” that sexual orientation should indeed “limit a gay actor’s choice of roles.” Because, you see, “The fact is, an actor’s background does affect how we see his or her performance.”

Poor Ramin Setoodeh. He’s been called on his own internalized discomfort with his own sexuality, and rather than consider the criticism he’s entrenched his position. Frankly, I’m not sure his sense of self worth – or his intellect – are adequate to the challenge of reporting on gay issues factually and fairly.

If the editorial staff at Newsweek are wise, they’ll let Setoodeh go. Or, at least, rein him back in and reassign him his old role of writing banal interviews of C-list celebrities.

He’s an embarrassment to their reputation.