Last year, when California’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8, there was little speculation about the sexual orientation of the seven justices or the possible heterosexual biases they might harbor.
But when federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 on August 4, reporting and commentary treated claims of Walker’s gayness as a matter of fact–and a newsworthy subject. This despite Walker’s never having addressed his sexual orientation publicly. As gay activist Michelangelo Signorile noted on the Huffington Post, “Most major media organizations, from the New York Times and ABC News to the Washington Post and National Public Radio, have reported on him as gay or had commentators saying it.”
This treatment, which was in sharp contrast to the the rules journalists normally use to determine if they will or will not report on a subject’s sexual orientation, provided a service to anti-gay groups who wanted to claim that Walker’s ostensible sexuality made him biased and unfit to rule on Proposition 8. In the twisted logic of the homophobes, of course, heterosexuals’ views on gay marriage are unbiased.
While no one has come forth with actual evidence suggesting bias on Walker’s part, what do you call it when journalists treat sexual orientation (or even rumors of such) as newsworthy when judges’ decisions’ favor gay rights, but unworthy of mention when they don’t? Isn’t that a bias?
As Signorile concluded on the Huffington Post (in an article that oddly referred to the allegation of Walker’s gayness as a “smear tactic”), this is more than a story about the tactics of the anti-gay rights right: “It’s a testament to how easily the media is manipulated by the right into doing things about which editors and reporters claim to be staunchly opposed.”