There was something distinctly weird about Fox News titan Roger Ailes showing up at the last minute to appear with Tina Brown, Steven Brill, Mike Wallace, Harold Evans and Jane Pauley on Feb. 25 at a fund-raiser for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. There he was, scarfing down hors d’oeuvres at the cocktail party held in the offices of Time Inc., one of the sponsors. Even more bizarre was Mr. Ailes’ plunking down a thousand bucks to join them all for the second part of the benefit, a dinner at the 7,000-square-foot East Village loft of investment banker Greg Morey.
Mr. Ailes, after all, is the media wizard who helped both Ronald Reagan and George Bush court rabidly antigay religious zealots in successive political campaigns, often screaming at gay activists along the campaign trail and doing whatever he could to silence them when the cameras began rolling. And he today works for ultraconservative Rupert Murdoch, whose New York Post and other publications have cast homosexuals as the greatest threat to modern civilization.
But Mr. Ailes’ motives became clear soon after he arrived at the cocktail party. He complained incessantly to anyone who would listen about how the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has been on his butt ever since one of his network’s seedier tabloid shows, Fox Files , ran a sensational piece Jan. 21 on “gay gangs”-yes, as in violent, drug-using, sex-crazed street gangs-a phenomenon that no one except the Fox Files producers seems to have heard about.
Mr. Ailes wasn’t the only media mogul trying to take some of the heat off by placating the gay social-climbing set, some of whom are so hungry for validation they’ll settle for the mere presence of someone famous and powerful who brings cold, hard cash rather than concrete ideas for change. At the eleventh hour, Norman Pearlstine, editor in chief of Time Inc., decided to speak at the event. His magazine’s coverage of gay issues has historically been dismal. And in its 75th-anniversary commemorative issue last year, the magazine seemed to have forgotten about the gay movement entirely, as well as the AIDS epidemic. That oversight ignited blistering e-mail exchanges between playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer and Time’s Walter Isaacson, exchanges that were c.c.’d to dozens of media types.
Sponsoring the party was an attempt at damage control. But not until Barbara Raab, an NBC producer and an irate member of N.L.G.J.A., circulated a letter expressing her concerns about Time ‘s commitment (to coverage of gays as well as to the benefit) did Time Inc. even announce the party to its own employees-three days before the event. Ms. Raab’s letter is what spurred Mr. Pearlstine to address the crowd, offering lame excuses about Time ‘s past coverage. The event’s organizers nonetheless cheered him on.
Gays-in particular, those who are white and male-are often easily bought because many are in actuality just one tiny step removed from being just like everyone else. Thus, it doesn’t take much to satisfy them. Unlike African-Americans or women, most don’t walk into every situation wearing their difference. Many go through life presumed to be straight, going to the right schools, advancing in their careers. Once they’ve attained a certain stature, they often decide they want to come out of the closet. At that point, for these individuals, the struggle really is not about fighting prejudice against those who are visibly different and can’t even make it up the ladder. Rather, it’s about keeping their status, social and otherwise. In that respect, a cocktail party goes a long way.
Perhaps that was why the organizers of the event had no problem making Michael Huffington, the newly out-of-the-closet millionaire and former right-wing politician, a sponsor of the event, gracing the top of their invitation.
It was enough to cause several prominent lesbian members of the group to stay home in protest. It also raised the hackles of members of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, who rightly pointed to Mr. Huffington’s leading the charge on California’s infamous anti-immigrant statute, Proposition 187. It would be one thing if Mr. Huffington explained himself, but he in fact has yet to clarify his past right-wing positions, including his individual votes against gay rights when he was a U.S. Representative. At the party, he offered only a terse “no comment.”
That, however, didn’t stop starstruck N.L.G.J.A. board members from sending around effusive e-mails in the days following the event, lauding Mr. Huffington, relaying their experiences of sharing a dinner of salmon and green beans with the illustrious, and claiming they’d attained “influence and reach within this industry.” It was this same hunger to be near big names that had the group make Ed Koch a “special guest” of the event, despite his controversial status among New York lesbians and gays. Mr. Koch’s sexual orientation has been speculated about for many years among the New York media, which for a long time couldn’t get a straight answer out of him, making many gays dislike him for not being honest. (In what some saw as a desperate campaign tactic, Mr. Koch finally addressed the issue during his losing bid to be re-elected mayor in 1990, telling Newsday , “I’m heterosexual.”) Regardless of his sexual orientation, Mr. Koch’s policies, particularly around AIDS, raised the ire of a great many gay activists, and he was the target of numerous demonstrations throughout the 80’s.
Certainly, choosing Mr. Koch to be a “special guest” took a lot of chutzpah, as did highlighting Mr. Huffington and allowing Time Inc. to simply throw money at a problem (and get a puffy item out of it from the Post ‘s Page Six to boot). The organizer’s zeal to hobnob with the media elite blinded them to their larger mission. All money is dirty, and groups can’t afford to be pure when it comes to fund raising. But if you’re going to give people a platform to remake themselves, you’d better get something more substantial in return than a few bucks and a masturbatory ego rush.