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November 15, 2006

Outing . . . and Whitewashing


In a week that featured the Democrats’ capturing of both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections, along with the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, the most fascinating media story of the week may very well have featured a late night comedian, and his clumsy statement about the sexual orientation of a top party official.


On Nov. 8, HBO talk show host Bill Maher went on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to discuss the recently-completed election, and in the course of doing so brought up what he feels is the hypocrisy of Republicans campaigning for anti-gay public policy. Why is it hypocritical? Because, Maher, said, many of the Republican leaders are themselves gay.


It’s a common argument, made even more often lately due to the revelations about disgraced Congressman Mark Foley, as well as Pastor Ted Haggard, the Colorado-based evangelical who was close with the White House. But on the King show, Maher named a different Republican: Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Then he vowed that, on his own show two days later, he would name more closeted gay Republicans.


What happened next was a bit of a surprise. King replied that he had never heard such a thing about Mehlman. CNN deleted the entire exchange from future airings of the program, and expunged the line from the episode’s transcript on its website. And when the segment inevitably popped up on YouTube, CNN’s lawyers demanded it be taken down — for “copyright infringement” reasons, they claimed.


Maher, meanwhile, did not follow through on his threat to name others on his show, nor did he make any mention of the flap at all. I’m guessing Time Warner’s lawyers gave him a talking-to prior to the show (TW owns both CNN and HBO). Even more strangely, the news media has essentially ignored the flap, with only various blogs and the gay press reporting on it. The only major newspapers to cover it appear to be the New York Post and Seattle Times. The New York Times reported on the story Monday but did not mention Mehlman’s name.


Is Ken Mehlman gay? I haven’t the slightest idea. Rumors to that effect have certainly been out there for quite some time, but he has always denied them. I suppose it is possible that he is suffering from a Seinfeldian case of mistaken identity, not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Mehlman, for what it’s worth, announced the day after the King show aired that he is stepping down from his post in January, though that move likely has more to do with the expiration of his two-year term, and the Republican election losses, than anything related to the Maher interview.)


Maher, of course, is the former host of “Politically Incorrect,” who has based his career on being exactly that. He is perhaps best known for being, essentially, fired by ABC for going on the air a few days after the 9/11 attacks and stating that the terrorists were not cowards. Maher’s show always has lively debate – much more lively than the essentially staged contests seen nightly on the cable news shows. The debate also goes places that other shows don’t –the outing issue being one example.


Outing was essentially invented by the AIDS activism group ACT-UP, who believed that Reagan-era government officials refusing to stand up for government action were guilty of perpetuating the AIDS epidemic itself. The tactic has made a comeback in the Bush era, especially as Republicans have pursued anti-gay marriage legislation, and the Internet and blogs have made it easier to transmit information to the public.


I find the tactic of outing distasteful, especially in doing so to one’s political opponents. For one thing, it is wrong to decry the politics of personal destruction when, say, the Republicans are doing it to Bill Clinton, but then to turn around and toss the same thing at the other side. I also find it nothing short of un-American for any of us to speak to what anyone else’s political views “should” be.


Therefore, I don’t believe it is right for the media — or, for that matter, Maher — to report on the sexual orientation of public figures. But once it has happened, I believe it is even more inappropriate and unethical for media organizations such as CNN to rewrite history, alter program transcripts, and pretend as though something wasn’t said when it was. If the network feels that what Maher said was wrong, why didn’t they merely apologize for it? Why airbrush their own archives instead?


And as for the question of whether Maher, or CNN, has committed “libel” by suggesting Mehlman is gay – does that not make being gay into something much more sinister than it actually is?


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