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How The Times Have Changed for Gays and the Grey Lady

Frank Rich loves the gays. On opinion pages that are pro-gay to begin with, Rich’s writing about gay rights and same-sex marriage sets him apart from his peers for his ability to capture the essence of the message on gay issues and concerns of the LGBT community. This week’s Sunday column, titled “Angels in America,” recounts the beginning of the AIDS crisis in New York and how things have changed since those dark times in the 1980s to the point same-sex marriage is a reality.

It is often taken as fact that the New York Times has a bias in favor of gay rights and the gay and lesbian community in general. In a 2004 public editor column, Daniel Okrent said “it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.”

But it hasn’t always been that way. It was not until 2002 that the New York Time first began to run wedding announcements from same-sex couples. And tucked away in Rich’s piece are two sentences that describe how the New York Times was very late in covering AIDS and the gay community generally.

The Times did not put the mysterious disease on Page 1 until after the casualty rate exceeded 500 and didn’t start covering it in earnest until Rock Hudson died of AIDS three years after that. In 1985, the term “gay” itself was an untouchable for writers in this newspaper.

Journalism historian Larry Gross recounts that during the 1970s and 1980s, gay stories were a contentious issues in the paper because of publisher Arthur Sulzberger and managing Abe Rosenthal’s attitude towards gay people and stories. On the question of AIDS coverage, he quotes Michelangelo Signorile as saying “Rosenthal, who attacks anti-Semitism in the media, never realized that the way he was treating the AIDS epidemic wasn’t much different from the way that news organizations treated the Holocaust early on.” It wasn’t until 1987, after Rosenthal left the paper to be replaced by Max Frankel, that the word “gay” replaced “homosexual.”

He also quotes former NYT reporter Charles Kaiser:

Everyone below Rosenthal spent all of their time trying to figure out what to do to cater to his prejudices. One of these widely perceived prejudices was Abe’s homophobia. So editors throughout the paper would keep stories concerning gays out of the paper.

While AIDS coverage improved under Frankel, another major turning point in how AIDS and the gay community was covered by the NYT was the 1990 collapse in the newsroom of deputy national editor Jeffrey Schmalz who was later diagnosed with AIDS. The closeted Schmalz said that he feared that his sexual orientation would harm his ascent in the newsroom and therefore his brain seizure at his desk also represented his coming-out as gay. In 1992 Schmalz wrote “Covering AIDS And Living It: A Reporter’s Testimony,” a groundbreaking moment for the paper because a gay man with AIDS wrote about being a journalist and covering both gay issues and AIDS.

Twenty years after Schmalz feared telling anyone he was gay because it would harm his career, a gay man–Richard Berke–is now the national editor and a so-called gay mafia–which includes Ben Brantley, Frank Bruni, Stuart Elliot, Adam Nagourney, and Eric Wilson–hold key positions at the paper. Alas, the paper has no openly gay or lesbian voices on it editorial pages.

Now, of course, gays are everywhere in the paper’s coverage and in the newsroom.  In a recent blog post, Kaiser commented on the changes at the paper after attending a New York Times-sponsored seminar with the lawyers working to overturn Proposition 8 in California.

[I]n the third row sat New York Times publisher and chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. , and six rows behind him was Andy Rosenthal, the editor of the Times editorial page.

Thirty years ago, their fathers, Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger and Abe Rosenthal, were running this newspaper, and they shared such antipathy for homosexuals that gay employees of the newspaper believed that their careers depended on keeping their sexual orientations a secret.

But as the younger Sulzberger began his ascension through the paper’s corporate ranks, he did a  remarkable thing: he made it clear to every single person who worked for him that he would not tolerate an iota of prejudice based on sexual orientation.

Practically overnight, he transformed what had been a relentlessly homophobic place into one of the most gay-friendly institutions in the world.

 

Concluding “[w]hat a difference a new generation can make,” Kaiser said “Andy Rosenthal’s editorial page has published more brilliant editorials in defense of equal rights for gay people than any other editorial page in the world.”

So does the NYT have a bias now in how it covers same-sex marriage and gays generally?  That’s probably something for the next public editor to explore. There’s no doubt that few papers cover the LGBT community  as extensively as the New York Times, but it is far from perfect. Some critics argue that gay people are much more likely to show up on the culture and arts pages than the news pages, and locals complain that the paper does a poor job of handling news that involves the local LGBT community. In addition,  lesbians still remain largely invisible in coverage (and in the newsroom). And, of course, conservative critics of the paper will always contend there is a strong pro-gay bias, not matter the facts on the ground.

But as Rich points out, there’s been a remarkable change at the paper and how it approaches covering the gay community and gay issues. His column provides for a nice moment to reflect on those changes.

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