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No One Just Comes Out Anymore: How the Mehlman Story Went Public

When Marc Ambinder went live on Wednesday with his story for The Atlantic that former Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman was coming out as a gay man–in one of the worst kept secrets in Washington, D.C.–the story may have appeared to come out of nowhere.

Although the story reads as if Ambinder had been cultivating Mehlman for years, it’s also evident that Mehlman timed his coming-out story to coincide with his sponsorship of a $5,000 a person fundraiser for American Foundation for Equal Rights, the folks behind the challenge to the anti-gay marriage law in California.

Mehlman, a master at controlling the story and staying on message, didn’t just blurt out his story to Ambinder in an un-planned fashion.  It now appears that a number of people knew about the story even before Mike Rogers went public with the rumor of the coming-out expose that Ambinder was planning. Like all “coming out” stories involving well-known people, it was well-orchestrated by people surrounding Mehlman although there is no evidence he was shopping the coming-out story around to anyone besides Ambinder.

Politico, The Advocate and Huffington Post soon had interviews with Mehlman and admit they knew about the story for at least a couple of days. Here’s what Advocate reporter Kerry Eleveld said in her piece, that went up on Advocate.com Thursday morning.

Mehlman had first discussed his coming out story with Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, but he had reached out to The Advocate in advance of its publication and made a point of offering his second interview on the matter to an LGBT news outlet.

But if The Advocate got the second interview, they weren’t the first to go live with a follow-up story and interview.  Instead, HuffPost’s Amenda Terkel had an interview up a few hours after the Ambinder story went live based on an interview she did that evening.  Her story was followed quickly by a story by Mike Allen at Politico, who also talked to Mehlman after the Ambinder story went live.

Nico Pitney, national editor at HuffPost, told Mediaite that media outlets learned about the Mehlman announcement “a few days earlier” but that there was never a doubt that Ambinder would break the story.

Rogers, who has been working at outing Mehlman for years, is taking credit for pushing The Atlantic to go at least two days earlier than they wanted with the story. He suggests that Ambinder wanted to dump the story out on a Friday to make follow-up harder and, according to Rogers, so “apologists like Dustin Lance Black and Chad Griffin time to support Ken publicly.”

But Ambinder denies that he was waiting until Friday with the story.  Linda Douglass, The Atlantic’s head of public relations, told Mediaite that the story went live on Wednesday because that’s when the story was done. And in a chat today, Ambinder also dismissed Rogers’ version of the timing.

Very curious how quickly people become interested in the meta-representation of reality (the mechanics behind the story) than the story itself. The story was published when it was published. I talked to Ken late last week and early this week, and wrote the story, had it edited, and then pushed it out.

In 2006, Ambinder wrote about the challenges that Mark Foley scandal created for gay Republicans, including the lavender mafia that surrounded Foley and reached into the Republican establishment. A well-connected openly gay reporter, Ambinder would have the connections inside the web of gay Republicans to convince Mehlman to give him an exclusive.

Ambinder insists that he didn’t know that Mehlman was gay until he admitted it last week, although they had discussed gay-related political issues for many years. In his chat, he said “I haven’t found a single person who says that Ken outed himself to them earlier.” As to the worst keep secret in D.C., Ambinder said  “If I outed everyone I suspected was gay, I’d be a bad person, firstly, and very very busy, secondly.”

In an interview today with the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, Ambinder said if he’d known that Mehlman was gay he would have outed him.

“I would have reported it because he was in power at a time when the Republican Party was whipping up anti-gay sentiment to get votes,” Ambinder told Kurtz. “I’m very squeamish about outing anyone. That squeamishness certainly would have gone into the equation. But there would have been a clear and compelling reason. Even though outing would have encroached on his personal dignity, which would have made me uncomfortable, it would have been the right thing to do to hold someone in power accountable.”

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