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American Television, News  
 
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Until quite recently, gay people and issues pertaining to them have been inadequately covered by American television news. Some of the reasons for this under-reporting have to do with the nature of television news in general. The medium favors highly dramatic, visually exciting content (fires, tornadoes, car chases, and so on) over substantive reportage and reasoned analysis. Television's inherent conservatism can also be blamed. After all, the medium's primary function is not to inform, or even entertain, viewers, but to deliver an audience to advertising sponsors.

Apart from those occasions when prominent women such as Ellen DeGeneres, k.d. lang, and Rosie O'Donnell have publicly acknowledged their homosexuality, lesbians have been even less visible in television news reports than their gay male counterparts. Unfortunately, this, too, is unsurprising, given America's patriarchal culture, in which women are all too often not paid serious consideration.

Sponsor Message.

For most of television's history, news coverage of gay people and relevant issues, if it existed at all, was usually negative. Frequently, gay achievement was ignored; it was not unusual, for example, for television news reports of the 1973 election of Elaine Noble to the Massachusetts state legislature to fail to identify her as an openly lesbian politician. Even major news stories such as the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic were downplayed. By the beginning of 1983, the three major networks combined had dedicated a total of only thirteen minutes to this escalating international health crisis.

More recently, however, as gay and lesbian issues have become mainstream and the struggle for equal rights has assumed national and international importance, American television broadcasters have increased coverage of these issues. Moreover, a number of gay and lesbian television journalists have come out and in doing so increased the level of coverage of gay and lesbian news.

Important First Steps

In the 1960s and 1970s, the bulk of the attention paid to gay people in television news reports was in sensational documentary specials. Few openly gay individuals appeared on-camera, and when they did, it was customary for their faces to be obscured. In a 1966 Florida television news program aired on Miami's WJTV, Richard Inman purported to represent the gay viewpoint, but said he had given up homosexuality four years earlier and giggled when asked if he thought gay couples could live happily together over a long term.

A special episode of CBS Reports, aired on March 7, 1967, almost certainly exposed the largest television audience up to that time to the existence of openly gay people. Hosted by Mike Wallace, "The Homosexuals" was the product of two years' work and debate by members of the CBS news staff. The first version of the documentary was extensively revised for fear that it could be construed as an endorsement of homosexuality.

In the end, the CBS report mainly represented the traditional view of homosexuality as an illness, and emphasized the outsider status of gay people. However, it at least suggested that other viewpoints were possible. Still, nervous advertising sponsors would not touch it; the commercial breaks were filled by public service announcements.

"The Homosexuals" showed footage of Washington activists Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols, Lilli Vincenz, and others picketing in front of the White House and at other strategically chosen locations. In an interview segment, Nichols appeared under an alias ("Warren Adkins") to spare his father embarrassment.

"Adkins" was one of a few positive gay role models who appeared in the documentary to declare their satisfaction with their own homosexuality. Unconsciously anticipating later arguments by gay activists that homosexuality is not a choice, "Adkins" said he couldn't conceive of renouncing his homosexuality and compared it to the color of his hair or skin.

The day after "The Homosexuals" aired on CBS, Nichols was fired from his job in a Washington hotel. Most viewers agreed with psychiatrist Charles Socarides, who opined for the camera that homosexuality precluded the possibility of living a happy, productive life. (Years later, Socarides's own son, Richard, would become an openly gay staff member in the Clinton White House and, later, a frequent guest on television news shows.)

"The Homosexuals" remains a landmark of American television news because of its articulation, however minimal, of dissenting views. James Braxton Craven, a federal district court judge from North Carolina, appeared on the program to question the legal sanctions against those who engaged in consenting homosexual acts. "The Homosexuals" also addressed gay influence in the arts.

Noted author and political commentator Gore Vidal defended gay playwright Edward Albee's 1962 classic, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Along with his fellow dramatists Tennessee Williams and William Inge, Albee had been criticized in The New York Times and elsewhere for writing women characters who were supposedly gay men in drag. Vidal countered this nonsense by emphasizing the popularity of Albee's play. "Obviously it's popular because what he has to say about married couples speaks to everybody," Vidal told Mike Wallace.

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Activists Frank Kameny (left), Jack Nichols (center), and George Weinberg feted at a New York City GLBT Pride Parade. Footage of protesters including Frank Kameny was included in a 1967 episode of the news program CBS Reports in 1967 in which Jack Nichols was interviewed. George Weinberg coined the term "homophobia."
  
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