After months of pressure from activists to make good on his campaign promise, Barack Obama called for a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his January 27 State of the Union address. Less than a week later, Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee hearing on February 2 that repealing the policy that prevents gay men and lesbians from serving openly was “the right thing to do.”
As the story made the rounds on television, the most striking thing about the conversation was who wasn’t in it: the people at the center of the debate.
Since it became law in 1993 under Bill Clinton, DADT has forced lesbian, gay and bisexual service members to stay in the closet or face discharge; the law has drummed more than 13,500 members out of the armed forces, while forcing tens of thousands of current service members to hide their identities (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, SLDN.org).
Yet in the four weeks following Obama’s call (1/28/10-2/24/10), only three of 25 sources commenting on DADT on ABC, CBS and NBC—one on each network—were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or representing an LGBT organization.
It should come as no surprise, then, that instead of stories about the discriminatory nature of DADT, viewers largely heard a debate about whether the “timing is wrong” or the repeal would undermine “military cohesion.” And even though the repeal is remarkably non-controversial at this point, with recent polls showing as much as 75 percent of the public in favor (ABC/Washington Post, 2/4-8/10), many in the corporate media did their best to turn it into a political football.
“This will be dramatically debated for days to come,” reported ABC World News (2/2/10), airing soundbites against the repeal from Republican senators John McCain and Saxby Chambliss, evenly balancing out Adm. Mullen and discharged Army Lt. Dan Choi, the most visible gay spokesperson in favor of the repeal. The same night, CBS Evening News featured Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, again countered by McCain and Chambliss.
On ABC’s Good Morning America (1/31/10), host Bill Weir announced “a new firestorm brewing over the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy...an issue that’s really been dividing those in uniform for nearly 20 years. Now, with strong opinions on both sides, we’re gonna talk to one retired officer who says repealing this policy is a bad idea.”
Weir’s “firestorm” wasn’t exactly borne out by the context he gave it: “When President Clinton tried to lift this ban on gays serving openly, only about 44 percent of Americans agreed with that. Now, it’s closer to 75 percent, a majority of conservatives, Republicans, even Evangelicals.” And yet the guest ABC chose to speak on the issue was in the distinct minority, retired Army Col. David Bedey—who argued that “the coming out of gays would compromise the integrity of the military community and thus undermine unit effectiveness, unit cohesion.”
In fact, the military effectiveness question was answered long ago by the many other countries that have integrated their forces—and even by the U.S. during the first Gulf War, when the military’s anti-gay policy was temporarily suspended, with no ensuing chaos.
Trouble is, if it’s a question of discrimination, there’s little to debate. Framing it as a question of military effectiveness, however non-existent the evidence, gives the right a foothold and makes TV debates possible. And it lets Fox hosts bring up the North American Man-Boy Love Association. As Fox host Oliver North told Sean Hannity on February 4: “This isn’t about rights. This isn’t about fairness. It’s all about national security.... Now, here’s what’s next. NAMBLA members, same-sex marriages.”
Unsurprisingly, in Fox’s nine segments that mentioned Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell following Obama’s announcement, not a single gay source was featured.
On MSNBC, host Rachel Maddow gave several brief updates on the policy, though only once (2/2/10) did she have on a guest who identified as gay, Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach. Significantly, though, Maddow provided Choi with his public launching pad; he first publicly outed himself on her show (3/19/09) and appeared another three times before Mullen’s announcement. MSNBC host Chris Matthews also brought up DADT frequently, expressed his own support for the repeal more than once, and regularly pointed out recent polls showing strong public support for the repeal. Still, except for Fehrenbach’s appearance on Maddow’s show, not a single person identified as gay or lesbian spoke on the issue on MSNBC in the four weeks examined, and only one representative of an LGBT group appeared (Hardball, 2/2/10).
CNN made a marginally greater effort to air gay voices—Choi appeared several times—but the network also offered repeated face-offs between advocates and opponents of repealing the policy. With top military brass speaking out in favor of a potential repeal, it was difficult to find any active members of the military to publicly oppose the decision; CNN simply dug deeper into their rolodex of homophobes. Twice (Larry King, 2/2/10; Newsroom, 2/2/10) the network brought on Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council after he put out a press statement saying a repeal would “jeopardize our nation’s security to advance the agenda of radical homosexual lobby.” Conservative pundit Bill Bennett (a CNN regular) also made an appearance on the issue (Situation Room, 2/1/10).
Perkins’ FRC colleague Peter Sprigg was invited on Chris Matthews’ MSNBC show (Hardball, 2/2/10), where he warned that repealing DADT was “guaranteed” to lead to sexual assault. “If we had a policy where people were considered bigoted if they were opposed to same-sex conduct, then there would be much greater danger of misconduct on the part of the homosexuals,” he argued.
Matthews explained his perspective on Sprigg’s inclusion in the debate: “I accept completely your right to make this case. This is an American debate which is very much alive, so I’m not taking sides exactly in this debate, although I do have a position.” To his credit, Matthews pushed Sprigg on his views, getting him to admit that he wanted to see sodomy re-criminalized in the United States. But while vigorous debate is essential for democracy and should be encouraged in media, it’s worth questioning whether misinformed and homophobic opinions deserve such a prominent platform, particularly given the extremely limited news hole allotted to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.