News anchor Anderson Cooper’s coming out moment of this month to the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan – was it ‘news’ to you?
It was quite literally ‘breaking’ news for several of America’s big media organisations, but obviously not for Anderson’s employer CNN. Any one of their countless producers tasked with the never-ending job of scanning the agency wires would have instantly referred the story to their line editor – who then would have given it to another more-senior editor – with the email trail eventually weaving its way to the top tier of CNN’s management.
The big cheeses may or may not have had prior warning of Cooper’s intentions, but unless you are running Iranian State TV, try sending out a mass memo to scores of journalists warning them in advance to avoid reporting such a story for corporate reasons because it involves the company’s biggest star (sorry, Piers Morgan). CNN ultimately did what any other media organisation would do in similar circumstances, it sat on the story before realising that it really should be trying to ride some of the publicity and siphon a bit of the Twitter maelstrom (albeit in an appropriately low-key fashion on CNN.com).
For me personally and a lot of other people, Cooper’s decision to reveal that he is indeed gay seemed less of a news story and more about confirming a highly credible rumour that had been allowed to masquerade as fact for years. To say it was an open secret is an understatement. Most of the press takes the age-old adage that if a journalist fails to get a strenuous denial from someone regarding a rumour then there’s a strong likelihood of it being true. In broadcasting (even in the deregulated wild west of American TV news) it’s generally not the done thing to run stories on this cavalier approach; yet, some publications are indeed happy to go down this route.
In May 2007, Out magazine placed Cooper second in its list of the fifty “Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America”. One of the central nuggets of information that increased the magazine’s confidence to effectively ‘out’ Cooper for its own purposes stems from a New York Magazine interview conducted two years prior.
Cooper was asked about his orientation and refused to be drawn on the question. He said discussing his “personal life” could threaten his ability to be an “observer” – in other words surmising that if people knew the truth about his sexuality, it would increase the risk of him being potentially undermined as a journalist – and most notably by those with homophobic sentiments who could theoretically choose to interact with him differently.
There is always the potential for such a scenario, say for instance in a live interview on gay rights. However, professional homophobes such as Tony Perkins from America’s Family Research Council or Florida’s Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones are generally aware of the pitfalls of using such a blatant tactic and are likely to be rather more subtle in their approach to undermine a gay journalist.
I have only been in such a situation once, at Gaydar Radio, when I felt my sexuality was slightly being drawn upon in a discussion.
It was in June 2010 as a guest on Jon Gaunt’s former radio phone-in show on the now-defunct Sun Talk station. At the time, if you recall, there was a big furore after the Sun newspaper decided to run an online poll asking “Should gay people be cabinet ministers?”
The question was based on the resignation of Davis Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He was forced to come out publically as gay after becoming embroiled in the expenses scandal. As Jon Gaunt was working for the paper at the time I decided to ask him live on his show if he thought the question was offensive?
He responded by saying that the question was acceptable and that we should all take solace in the fact that Sun readers overwhelmingly were in favour of allowing gay people to serve at the highest level of government.
The exchange that followed over the next three minutes is what you would describe as an ‘adversarial’ encounter. When you witness fireworks in an interview it’s usually because one person refuses to belief the other is maintaining a credible argument. A dramatic head-to-head is pretty much a battle of wills. My central disagreement with Gaunt was that the Sun would never ask if women or ethnic minorities should be allowed to serve in the cabinet; so why did it think it was acceptable to pose such a question about gay people.
Listen to Scott Roberts and Jon Gaunt’s exchange below:
However, Gaunt could not understand why the poll was offensive, despite my repeated attempts to explain the above point. Towards the end of the interview a clearly agitated Gaunt asked an open question by saying “I don’t know if you are gay?” – which seemed like an attempt to defuse my argument by getting my sexuality into the thrust of what I was saying – and here lies the most important lesson, a good journalist never rises to the bate otherwise you end up as fodder with the interview becoming about yourself and not the subject.
Distance in an interview, even when a topic gets your juices flowing, is always essential.
Drawing back to Anderson Cooper’s rationale of 2005, the reality is, as an openly gay journalist, your sexuality is highly unlikely to ever impede on your work – unless you allow it to. Someone who tries to make use of sexual orientation in a professionally setting is almost certainly going to be diminished in the eyes of the audience. My encounter with John Gaunt ended with him calling me a “prat”. I could have responded with an equally unflattering comment, but the lasting impression of an interview should come from the person who was asked the question and not the other way round.
Scott Roberts is a former news editor for GaydarRadio.