Chronicle Responds on Pulling Reporters

San Francisco abuzz about two lesbians, wed at home, yanked from marriage beat

Reporter Rachel Gordon has written many authoritative pieces about gay marriage and the weddings that took place for about a month in San Francisco for that city’s largest daily, the Chronicle. But last week the paper’s managing editor, Phil Bronstein, and other top editorial staff announced they are pulling her off the story––because she got married.

On Tuesday, March 9, just two days before the state Supreme Court pulled the plug on San Francisco’s gay weddings, Gordon, who is the paper’s City Hall reporter, married her partner, Liz Mangelsdorf, a photographer for the paper, in a private ceremony in their home in San Francisco.

Mangelsdorf has also been barred from covering the gay marriage developments.

The decision has gay rights groups up in arms. Molly McKay, the head of the local Marriage Equality chapter, called it, “an insult,” to both the couple and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community. Geoff Kors, the head of the state’s gay rights lobby, Equality California, said the decision sets a dangerous precedent, because it suggests that gay reporters are inherently biased when covering gay-related stories, because of their sexual orientation.

But managing editor Robert Rosenthal said it’s not like that at all. In an interview with Gay City News, he said the paper didn’t take the two off the story because they were gay, but because they got married.

“We never considered pulling them off because they are lesbian,” he said. “The question for us is if you are in involved. You’re a journalist first and because you are, sometimes you give some things up. The most important value many journalists have is passion. The question here is that Rachel and Liz [before they got married] had very strong views––but we didn’t say they couldn’t cover it. But because they got married they became involved in the story.”

But the editors, in a memo to the Chronicle staff, sliced the point a bit finer. They stopped short of praising the pair’s work––instead saying they have “complete confidence” in them—but worried that readers, if they knew the two are a lesbian couple, might not think they were reading unbiased reporting. They cited an independent source, Bill Kovach, a respected editor who founded the Committee of Concerned Journalists and has authored a journalism textbook.

“Does [the fact of Rachel and Liz covering the story] give readers who might not agree with same-sex marriage a reason not to trust your coverage? That’s reason enough to take them off the story,” Kovach concluded.

Pamela Strother, who is the executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), said that if famed gay journalist Randy Shilts, who worked for the Chronicle, had had the same standards applied to him, he would never have been allowed to do his groundbreaking reporting on the AIDS crisis––because he had the disease (of which he eventually died). Shilts is widely credited with bringing broad public attention to the epidemic, which up until his work was published in the Chronicle didn’t get much notice in the mainstream press.

“I can’t help but wonder who the paper thinks will be objective on this issue,” asked gay activist Robert Haaland. “Will they assign a married heterosexual reporter, or does that person face objectivity questions as well?”

Strother said that the paper should be “transparent,” let readers know the reporter’s relationship to the story, and then double check for objectivity in the newsroom. But she said she speaks only for herself, because the organization as a whole won’t take a definitive position.

In its official statement on the subject, issued after days of deliberation, the group would only say it is “troubled” by the decision, and “respect[s] all the divergent viewpoints.” As Gay City News went to press, NLGJA was hosting a forum in a San Francisco television studio to be attended by Mangelsdorf, Rosenthal, McKay, Kors, and NGLJA president Steven Petrow.

“There are two views of this,” Strother said. “Just because our membership is LGBT, doesn’t mean we all agree.”

Equality California has asked for a meeting with the Chronicle to discuss the problem, and Bronstein didn’t close the door on further discussions. He said he would “remain open” to discussion and debate.

The fundamental issue may be whether, for the Chronicle, gay marriage is a story––or a recognized family relationship––or both. The paper has editorialized about the same-sex weddings, extending “kudos” to Mayor Gavin Newsom, and, in an editorial, said “San Francisco should be proud to have provoked this showdown.”

But they stopped short, just short, of saying that the official policy of the paper recognizes San Francisco’s gay marriages.

Gordon won’t speak for the record about the controversy. But NGJLA’s Petrow said that generally people who agreed with the Chronicle’s decision say the two got married as a political act. Those who opposed the decision, he said, saw Gordon’s marriage as a personal matter. And Gordon, Petrow says, was married in her home, in a ceremony the two worked very hard to keep very much to themselves.

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