News Angles: "Wipe Out Smears; 'Spill Ink' On Defamation"

Commentary by Mark F. Johnson

As the voices of gays and lesbians have become louder and more forceful over the years, we should not lose sight of the age-old power of the pen. Perhaps that power is now more appropriately accorded the personal computer, but you get my point.

Even in the age of sound bites and sit-ins, writing is still an effective way of sending a message. Whether the letter or statement gets e-mailed, faxed or sent the old-fashioned way, if the point is made effectively, it will most likely elicit a response.

Just recently, I sent a letter to Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's World News Tonight, expressing GLAAD's disappointment at his continued use of the term "practicing homosexual" in referring to Father Barry Stopfel, the non-celibate gay priest at the center of the Episcopal Church heresy proceedings. In the letter, I called Jennings' attention to the pejorative implications of the term.

I also reminded him of the powerful voice that the press has and the tendency for many to regard the media as sacrosanct in its role as news provider and opinion-maker. Therefore, I said, it is extremely important that members of the media choose words and present information carefully. To use words that imply that homosexuality is a choice and is something that one practices is a misrepresentation.

Part of GLAAD's mission is to work with the media to help foster a better understanding of issues of sensitivity, inclusion and respect with regard to the gay and lesbian community. However, it is very important when pointing out a faux pas to not add insult to presumed injury. Perhaps the other party really had no idea of the damage that they inflicted and would have chosen to act or speak differently had they known.

At least this is what Peter Jennings said to me when he called me a day or two after receiving the letter.

He told me that he never meant any disrespect to the gay community and had in fact only used the term because he had heard it used elsewhere and did not realize that it was offensive. Jennings mentioned during our brief but substantive conversation that he always tried to make sure he used terminology that was not considered offensive to any group and thanked me for my letter.

I was satisfied with our conversation and I believe that Jennings is a friend to the gay and lesbian community. At the very least, he knows that we will not allow the broadcast of false or inaccurate information, whether intentional or not, to go unchallenged or uncorrected.

There are times in the continuing struggle to attain equality of rights for gays and lesbians that a simple, fact-based, well-formulated and persuasively argued letter can be the most effective weapon, and sometimes the only one necessary. To be an activist does not necessarily mean that you carry a banner, get arrested or call a press conference. Sometimes, a single voice that does not represent a group or coalition has as much or more impact. The fact that someone took the time to write or call to protest a comment or action is impressive. When our community talks, more and more people listen---and actually do something to satisfy our concerns.

The work performed by GLAAD and other national gay and lesbian groups is important in voicing the community's concerns and perspectives. But remember that, as individuals, we can all be our own "little GLAADs" and safeguard the dignity and representation of our community from our very own homes. Take every possible opportunity to challenge defamation.

The chances of being smeared will diminish the more ink you spill.

This is the first in a series of regular columns, called News Angles, that will analyze recent coverage of lesbian and gay issues by the news media or provide a behind-the-scenes look on recent events or situations. The purpose of GLAAD's News Angles column is to provide an alternate view of how issues affecting the lesbian and gay community are perceived and handled. The column will be written by GLAAD's News Media Director, Mark F. Johnson, who has been both a reporter and writer in the gay community. Johnson is a former Legislative Specialist for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) in Washington, D.C. and also a former News Assistant in the Washington Bureau of The New York Times. His commentary has appeared often in gay, political and business publications. GLAAD will also invite individuals most affected by coverage to express their opinions and we will share these with you as well. Johnson can be reached at JOHNSON@glaad.org.
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