Married and Off the Story

San Francisco Chronicle does great marriage coverage, but then blinks

After publishing some of the finest coverage on the gay marriage events in northern California, the San Francisco Chronicle has laid one giant egg.

On March 15, Phil Bronstein, the Chronicle’s executive editor, yanked City Hall reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf off the marriage beat in San Francisco because the couple joined the roughly 4,000 other gay or lesbian couples who have tied the knot at City Hall.

“Chronicle journalists directly and personally involved in a major news story––one in whose outcome they also have a personal stake––should not also cover that story,” Bronstein wrote in a memo obtained by the Associated Press. “The issue is the integrity and credibility of the paper, as well as conflict and perception of conflict.”

Let’s be clear about this. The marriage story in San Francisco is huge and any reporter or photographer would kill to cover it. Bronstein is punishing these two journalists by pulling them off that story. And they are being penalized just for getting married.

Bronstein did not complain about any stories or pictures these two have produced before or since getting married. On the contrary, he had nothing but positive things to say about their work.

“We all agreed that no one was acting in bad faith,” Bronstein wrote. “But with Liz’s and Rachel’s marriage a fact, we then had to separate out how we got here and what we should do going forward.”

Bronstein engaged in the standard public posturing that mainstream journalists employ when they want to screw someone. It was a difficult and painful decision, he said. It was made after long conversations and meetings on the subject. He even consulted Tom Rosenstiel who heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

After all of this faux agonizing, Bronstein, of course, made the easy choice. He tossed out the two lesbian journalists.

Bronstein could have championed his paper’s coverage and the work produced by Gordon and Mangelsdorf. He could have demanded that anyone who accused the two of bias produce evidence of that bias. In short, Bronstein could have stood by the Chronicle.

That would have been an act of courage and integrity. Those are qualities that are in increasingly short supply in the mainstream press.

Bronstein made the expedient choice. He avoided any conflict by simply cutting off Gordon and Mangelsdorf. In the name of ethics, he abandoned ethics. If anyone should complain now, Bronstein can respond that he showed those uppity dykes the door.

This is the second time this year that a major newspaper has elected to give a queer journalist the boot. The New York Times tossed freelancer Jay Blotcher because he was once a spokesman for two AIDS groups.

The Times made some nominal reference to ethics in dismissing Blotcher, but in the end its decision was all about expediency. It was easier to fire Blotcher than it was to actually grapple with any ethical issues raised by his past.

There are a lot of queer journalists who work in the mainstream press and they better see the writing on the wall. So far, their bosses are choosing to fire them or demote them when these supposed ethics issues come up. I doubt that mainstream news managers will get more courageous if the marriage matter gets hotter.

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