Perhaps you’ve heard that the New York Times fired a stringer named Jay Blotcher because he’d been a member of the anti-AIDS advocacy group ACT UP nearly fourteen years ago. Perhaps you’ve heard that ACT UP founder and fiery gay playwright Larry Kramer complained to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. of “McCarthy-type blacklisting.” Perhaps you’re aware that although ACT UP did, way back when, single out the Times for what Kramer termed its “unconscionable refusal to write about us in any but the most hateful of ways, and for so long, and for your wretched, shameful early lack of coverage of AIDS,” and even marched on Sulzberger Sr.’s house, the paper’s current reputation for sensitivity to gay issues is sterling among mainstream institutions. Sulzberger Jr.’s Times is widely viewed as a corporate leader on diversity issues, as anyone who followed the Jayson Blair contretemps is well aware.
Well, I heard all this too, and the story didn’t make sense. So I decided to look into it. Here’s what I learned.
The Times is making its case not on Blotcher’s membership in ACT UP, which really would be McCarthyism, but on his role as a “public spokesperson for an advocacy organization.” Executive editor Bill Keller notes that Blotcher was identified as such in the newspaper as recently as 1998. Thanks in large measure to Blair, the Times is going over its lists of contributors with what Metro editor Susan Edgerley–who made the initial decision–admits is a policy of “setting the bar high to protect against any appearance of conflict of interest.” Somebody remembered Blotcher’s earlier role, and she made the move, she told me, to protect against “confusion about the two roles in the minds of readers.” The editors argue that such strictures are even more necessary for stringers than staffers because editors can keep a much more watchful eye on the latter.
Blotcher explains that, yes, as a volunteer, he did a press release for a friend who was organizing a commemorative march for the tenth anniversary of ACT UP in 1997 and perhaps another one in 1998, in which he was listed as the “contact person.” He distinguishes this from the role of “spokesperson,” in which he served ACT UP, and later Queer Nation, more than a decade ago. (More recently he was the public face for Amfar, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, between 1995 and 1999.)
But Blotcher and his supporters point out that many Times staffers have relationships that could “confuse” readers. Indeed, medical correspondent Dr. Lawrence K. Altman has many such professional associations with various medical establishments, public and private. Bernard Weinraub covers Hollywood for the paper, while his wife is a head honcho at Sony Pictures. Just recently, the Times found itself embarrassed when one of its culture reporters, Jesse McKinley, accepted a makeover of his apartment, estimated to be worth more than $50,000, for an Oprah program. These cases do not involve the “appearance” of conflict-of-interest but its essence. (As Abe Rosenthal famously enunciated the standard years ago, and I paraphrase, “You can fuck an elephant for all we care, as long as you don’t cover the circus.”)
McKinley has now paid for a portion of his redecoration, Weinraub has reduced his coverage of Hollywood and, as a result of the Blotcher case, Altman’s status was recently reviewed, in response to complaints by Blotcher’s supporters, and pronounced kosher, according to Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis. But the belief of some that Blotcher was singled out not for being gay but for being in ACT UP and Queer Nation continues to divide the paper internally.
Steve Reed, an editor for the NYT Regional Newspaper Group, who coordinates the Times Gay and Lesbian Caucus, thinks the editors made a reasonable decision, though he notes a division within the caucus itself. Bruce Lambert, a longtime Times reporter who covered ACT UP, complains of “an apparent blackballing” and notes, “By the premise being imposed on [Blotcher]…a long-ago former activist on breast cancer issues would be barred from being a hockey reporter.”
Keller complained to me of attempts by Kramer “to turn this into a replay of the Stonewall raid.” He cannot but be frustrated by some of the sloppy coverage of the events, particularly that which appeared in Howard Kurtz’s online media column for the Washington Post, which left out all the complicating details. (This is particularly ironic, as readers of this column will be aware, since Kurtz, who reports on CNN for the Post while receiving a paycheck from CNN, provides a daily definition of journalistic conflict-of-interest.)
Even if one accepts the paper’s argument that its only crime is a kind of post-Blair hyper-fastidiousness about appearances at the expense of fairness to one of its stringers, the story cannot be allowed to die there. First, both Edgerley and Keller declined my repeated invitations to delineate a consistent policy regarding just which kinds of associations are allowed and which aren’t. And as the Times has been perfectly comfortable in the past to hire stars like Richard Burt and Leslie Gelb, who shuttled between high-level State Department appointments while covering one another for the paper, we are left with the appearance of favoritism and inconsistency for machers as opposed to stringers. (Let’s hope Ahmad Chalabi doesn’t show up in Times Square one day, looking to formalize his role as a WMD reporter.)
Second, for all its commendable commitment to diversity, the policy is still not working. The Jayson Blair/Gerald Boyd problem is just one overworked example. A second is that, with the departure of Adam Moss to New York magazine, the Times lacks a single person in a position of significant editorial authority–or on the editorial board for that matter–who is openly gay. As one longtime and loyal Times writer put it to me, “The problem is not homophobia; it’s homo-ignorance. Nobody openly gay sits in on any of the big meetings.”
In other words, the paper still has some serious ‘splainin’ to do. Let a thousand editorials bloom.