The politics and ethics of outing, and indeed what constitutes outing, are, as ever, a subject of significant debate in the journalistic community.
Michelangelo Signorile, whose outing of celebrities became a flashpoint in 1990, when he reported for the now-defunct OutWeek upon the sex life of the late Malcolm Forbes, has seen the debate shift. “The Daily News got the exclusive from us and they wanted to put it on the front page. They killed it and instead went with Marla Maples—an acceptably heterosexual scandal,” said Mr. Signorile, who is now a news commentator on the Huffington Post and SiriusXM Radio.
When is outing in the media acceptable? “There were two criteria journalistically that had to be met,” said Mr. Signorile. “Is the sexual orientation relevant? And is it a public figure? If you’re a public figure where you open up your life for dissection by the media, and it’s relevant to the story, journalistically, that’s something that is perfectly acceptable. At the same time, I have also talked about how culturally, as a journalist working for a journalistic outfit, it’s not a tabloid, I see it as you report on it when it’s relevant to a larger story.”
In other words, “Anderson Cooper is gay,” were it verified, is not a story; “John Travolta sued for same-sex sexual misconduct” is.
But this sort of thinking leaves wide-open any number of loopholes. A.J. Daulerio, the current editor of Gawker, told The Observer, “Everything’s on a case-by-case basis. If you saw a story about a public figure and it’s someone newsworthy and someone interesting, there are so many different variables that I can’t say across the board.” We were discussing Gawker’s recent article about ABC anchor Robin Roberts’s purported lesbianism, a story with valences both in her recent gay-rights exclusive interview with President Obama and good old-fashioned prurience.
“I don’t take exception to Gawker,” said Howard Bragman, the publicist who is known for ushering closeted stars out of the closet (notably, 1980s TV star Meredith Baxter, who made a big announcement on Today after blogs noted her presence on a lesbian cruise). Referring to the practice of calling out stars who seem to be out to everyone but the public, he said, “They’re the ones who say the emperor has no clothes.”
Blogs like Gawker and Perez Hilton (the latter having sworn off outing celebrities in 2010) have lately played the role that OutWeek occupied in its brief existence—after all, Mr. Signorile’s story was as much about testing the limits of what could be reported and written about an individual as it was the specifics of Mr. Forbes’s sex life. In comparison to the OutWeek 1990s, though, today “there’s nothing disparaging about saying someone’s gay,” said Mr. Bragman. Indeed, an Albany appellate court recently ruled that claiming someone is gay, even falsely, is not libelous.
Just as for some media outlets, the sexuality of an individual who chooses not to comment can never be a news story, for others it will always be a news story. Kevin Naff, editor of the gay newspaper the Washington Blade, refuses to call writing about closeted individuals “outing”: “I call it truth telling.”
“If a celebrity is gay, it’s a fact,” he explained. “We should report it. What you do behind closed doors is private. The fact of being gay is not a private fact. Being straight is not a private fact.”
(If he were gay, would Mr. Cooper ever come out? “Probably when he needs a ratings boost on his talk show,” Mr. Naff replied.)
One need only look at Gawker’s persistent if not incessant coverage of Mr. Cooper’s Downtown antics to see the end of the old decorum.
Brian Moylan, now a Hollywood.com writer once responsible for Gawker’s coverage of Mr. Cooper, views the longstanding media prohibition on outing to be a rights issue. “You don’t write a profile about Chris Evans being in The Avengers without asking who he’s dating. You ask Daniel Craig about his recent marriage—and he gets pissed off, but you report the answer. Not asking people about who they’re dating is discrimination. Plain and simple … Reporters are under the obligation to ask that question and report the answer. [Mr. Cooper] needs to answer it, and they need to ask it like they would Katie Couric.”