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American Television, News  
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An (Unwitting?) Agent of Backlash

As gay people began to demand their rights, television news often became an agent of backlash. Gay protesters were frequently defined, often unintentionally, as troublemakers or--at best--as embattled parties to ludicrous "debate." Television news clips showed Anita Bryant denouncing homosexuals as unfit for the company of children. (It has frequently been observed that no other minority group is ever subjected to such defamatory characterizations on television news programs.)

Among activists, there was an increasing dissatisfaction with the inadequate representation of gay people on television news. Mark Segal, a young gay man from Philadelphia, staged several high-profile protests of shows such as Today and news figures such as Walter Cronkite, typically chaining himself to a desk or a camera. At his 1974 trial for trespassing, Segal seemed to make some headway with Cronkite; and coverage of gay news by CBS, Cronkite's employer, increased in the following year.

Subsequent news documentaries on the subject of homosexuality, however, were even more problematic. In 1979, ABC News Close-Up presented an hour-long documentary (again, with no sponsors) emphasizing gay promiscuity and suicide. In April of 1980, CBS Reports took a step backward from "The Homosexuals" when it aired "Gay Power, Gay Politics." An ostensible look at the influence of the gay voting bloc in San Francisco, the program emphasized sadomasochism (using footage shot at a heterosexual club) within the gay community.

Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, told the CBS news crew to leave her office after she was asked, "How does it feel to be mayor of Sodom and Gomorrah?" Less than six months after "Gay Power, Gay Politics" aired, the National News Council cited CBS for dubious news practices such as stereotyping and false implications in connection with the program. This, of course, was less widely reported.

Winds of Change

In 1978, PBS offered an unprecedented look at the breadth and diversity of the gay community when it aired the documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives. Peter Adair and the Mariposa Film Group spent five years making this sensitive work, which explored gay history and options for the present.

There were other occasions for hope, including several episodes of Phil Donahue's talk show, on which openly gay guests were invited to speak out on issues and entertain questions from viewers. (In October, 1982, noted activist Larry Kramer was one of Donahue's guests.) At their best, Donahue's shows took on the seriousness and importance, if not the nominal mantle, of television news, giving viewers access to information that remained unavailable elsewhere.

As they had done many times before, frustrated gay people took matters into their own hands and, in 1992, created In the Life. Although it began as a variety entertainment show, In the Life soon became more news-oriented, offering informed reports on protest marches, the ongoing AIDS epidemic, and other issues. Produced by a not-for-profit agency, the series was offered free of charge to all public television stations.

When it began airing in 1992, In the Life was broadcast on six stations. In the early years of the new millennium, it was airing on 120 stations. However, many stations still refuse to carry it despite the fact that its production values rival the best of television news anywhere.

When this article was first posted, public television surpassed the networks in the quality of its depiction of gay people and their concerns. Although it does not command an audience as large as the networks--each episode of In the Life, for example, is seen by an estimated million viewers, as compared with the multiple millions who tune in to the commercial networks--PBS is more than equal to network television in importance.

For example, an extraordinary documentary by openly gay filmmaker Arthur Dong, titled Licensed to Kill, aired on public television in 1998. In this hard-hitting work, Dong traveled to various prisons to interview inmates who had been convicted of murdering gay men. By asking a varied group of killers why they targeted homosexual men, Dong highlighted the pernicious influence of religious and political figures who have used their prominent positions as bully pulpits from which to denounce homosexuality.

All too often, such "leaders" have been allowed to make their damaging statements in forums provided by television news programs. Media watchdog groups such as GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), however, have been increasingly effective in educating news organizations about issues involving the gay community.

One sign of the winds of change that could be discerned in the new millennium was apparent in ABC's episode of Primetime Thursday that aired on March 14, 2002, featuring Rosie O'Donnell and the issue of gay adoption. While the show included the obligatory anti-gay spokesperson, this time a Florida state representative who opposes gay adoption, the host Diane Sawyer subjected him to a withering cross-examination.

Moreover, the show exposed the dubious credentials of such "experts" on the issue as anti-gay activist Paul Cameron, the author of discredited studies that purport to demonstrate the unfitness of gays and lesbians as parents; and countered those studies with more respectable sociological research. Most importantly, it not only offered a forum for O'Donnell, but it also portrayed positively the loving household of gay parents Steven Lofton and Roger Croteau, who--because of Florida's ban on gay adoption--feared having a ten-year-old boy taken from them despite their having raised him from infancy.

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