Rewarding Mediocrity

GLAAD’s nominations for media excellence begs the question of who’s covering queer issues

So it’s that time of year again. Not Christmas, mind you, but the time when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) announces the nominees for its fundraising—pardon me, media awards.

This is the 15th year that these awards have been handed out and, as usual, the roster of nominees reads like a long list of undifferentiated and undistinguished entertainment products. But these products featured queer characters or people and this apparently justifies taking note of these mostly mediocre works.

One category caught my eye—“Outstanding Newspaper, Overall Coverage.” The nominees in this category are the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and USA Today. It is not clear to me what it is that these newspapers have done to warrant appearing in this category, but it sure wasn’t for doing a good job of covering the queer community.

To be sure, all five more than adequately covered the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas that struck down America’s remaining sodomy laws. Perhaps they will get around to covering how Virginia is continuing to prosecute gay men for sodomy simply because those men were arrested in public venues.

Certainly, all five gave plenty of ink to the decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that may soon lead to gay men and lesbians getting married in that state.

Of course, these two stories had such significance that these newspapers could not ignore them. Ignoring the queer community and, more often, getting the story wrong is typically what the mainstream press does. These newspapers are no exception.

Let’s look at one striking example.

This past May, 15-year-old Sakia Gunn was murdered in Newark after she rejected the advances of a man who approached Gunn and her friends. When she told the man that she was a lesbian, allegedly, he stabbed her. The anti-lesbian bias could not be more apparent. How did these papers handle the murder of this young African American?

The Chicago Tribune has not mentioned Gunn’s name once in any story since her murder. Not once. For those who protest that Gunn’s murder is a local Newark story, let me point out that in the seven months following the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder, the Tribune ran 58 stories that referred to Shepard and 29 of these dealt specifically with the circumstances surrounding his murder.

Newark may not be as close to Chicago as Laramie, but it is certainly easier to get there. The San Francisco Chronicle also did not publish a single word about Sakia Gunn. The paper ran 41 stories that referred to Shepard and, at least, two dozen were all about him, the protests his murder spawned, and the trials of his two killers.

The Boston Globe and USA Today each had one story that referred to Gunn. Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, wrote the USA Today piece. There is at least one decent human being published in that newspaper.

In the seven months after Shepard’s death, the Globe ran 61 stories that made note of the killing and 15 of them were about Shepard, his murder, or the trial of his murderers. USA Today had 45 stories that referred to Shepard and eight, at least, were primarily concerned with him.

Then there is The New York Times. Headquartered across the Hudson River from Newark, the Times gave us 478 words on Gunn’s death in its first story. Even the hacks at the New York Post, a right wing tabloid, managed to cough up 278 words about Gunn. The Times has given us another three stories since then. Altogether the Times has published 1,411 words about Sakia Gunn.

In the seven months after Shepard’s murder the Times ran 99 letters, articles or editorials that referred to Shepard. Eighteen had that killing, the later trials, or the public protests as their subject.

Shepard was assaulted on October 7. On October 10 the paper ran a 1,035-word story on the assault. That was followed by a 1,073-word piece on October 12 and then a 1,473-word piece on October 13, the day after Shepard died.

On October 13, under the headline “Murdered for Who He Was,” the paper ran an editorial about the Shepard murder, then columnist Frank Rich weighed in on October 14. Rich has been nominated this year in the Outstanding Newspaper Article for his piece “Angels, Reagan and AIDS in America.”

In fairness to these newspapers, they did, or didn’t do, what the rest of the mainstream press did. If you search on Sakia Gunn’s name in Nexis, a database of TV transcripts, newspapers, magazines, and other media, you will find 44 stories. Compare that to the flood of coverage the Shepard killing received. This is also why no mainstream press outlet deserves to be honored for its coverage of the queer community.

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