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MediaWatch: September 7, 1998

Vol. Twelve No. 14

No Divisive Probe of Democratic Factions

National political reporters perform a curious ritual in election years. They break down the Republican Party into constituent groups and gravely report on internecine battling between, for example, "moderates" and the "religious right" which threaten to scare off "independent and moderate" voters. In January, MediaWatch noted that in 1995 and 1996, three national newspapers usually applied a conservative label to the Family Research Council (in 63 percent of stories), Concerned Women for America (71 percent), and Eagle Forum (75 percent).

But these reporters rarely create a story out of discord between moderate and liberal factions of the Democratic Party. In January, MediaWatch found abortion advocacy groups were labeled as liberal in only 2.8 percent of stories in three national newspapers in 1995 and 1996. So what about liberal gay groups? In mid-September, Vice President Gore will engage in his latest courting of the gay left by appearing at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a year after President Clinton made the "historic" decision to address that event.

To document the labeling patterns of national reporters on gay-left activist groups, MediaWatch analysts used the Nexis news data retrieval system to analyze every news story on five gay groups from January 1, 1995 through June 30, 1998 in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post. In 411 stories, the five groups were labeled only five times, or in 1.2 percent of stories.

The Human Rights Campaign was tagged only three times in 226 stories (1.3 percent). Only one came within a news story. In a January 28, 1998 Washington Post-Style section feature on Clinton’s post-Lewinsky State of the Union address, Frank Ahrens noted a party "thrown by several groups, many of them lefty" — including the HRC. "And, as the President appeared on the big screen, a deafening cheer went up." The other two came indirectly in headlines. A January 27, 1996 report on Rep. Ron Wyden’s successful Senate campaign was headlined "Candidate’s Backers Hope to Make Oregon a Liberal Proving Ground." The March 26, 1996 USA Today featured the headline "For liberals, Clinton only choice: President has grudging but solid support."

But two stories downplayed the HRC’s partisan leanings. On June 18, 1995, USA Today described HRC as "the nation’s largest non-partisan gay group." A June 2, 1996 Post feature on gay GOP Congressman Steve Gunderson described HRC as a "bipartisan gay political organization." The HRC often went label-free even as Democrats flocked to their side:

  • The Washington Post reported on July 5, 1998 that one HRC activist said of Dick Gephardt: "I have taken note that in the last six to 12 months he has been much more clear and forthright on gay and lesbian issues." Gephardt was keynote speaker at a Human Rights Campaign dinner in Denver.
  • The Post reported that HRC estimated "openly gay donors gave $3.2 million to Democrats [in 1995 and 1996]. Two-thirds of self-identified gay voters backed Clinton in 1996, providing seven percent of his total votes, according to an independent exit poll." The HRC itself says it gave $1.1 million in the 1995-96 cycle and dispatched staff to work on key races.
  • In 1997, Hillary Clinton headlined a Barbara Boxer fundraiser at the home of HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch.
  • Ted Kennedy spoke at their 1996 "United in Victory" convention rally in Chicago. Clinton sent a videotaped message to the group claiming his administration "has taken more steps than any other to bring the gay and lesbian community to the table."
  • The weekend before the 1996 GOP convention, HRC aired TV ads asking "Why are Bob Dole and Congress wasting our time with new laws attacking gay relationships?" HRC drew a label in none of these reports.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force drew only two labels in 72 stories (2.8 percent), both of them indirectly in headlines. On May 27, 1996, the New York Times headline on page 10 was "Many Disllusioned Liberals See No Alternative to President." In the article, former NGLTF head Urvashi Vaid said she could not vote for Clinton. On October 9, 1996, the Washington Post headline read "Despite Some Discontent, Clinton Manages to Consolidate Core Liberal Base." On July 6, 1997, the Post identified conservative opposition, but not liberal advocacy in the headline "More Companies Reaching Out With Gay-Friendly Policies; Domestic Partner Benefits Gain Momentum in Tight Labor Market, Despite Risk of Offending Conservative Customers."

Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld explained NGLTF’s view on May 22, 1996: "Unofficially, the task force sees itself as a funkier alternative to the officially non-partisan, dollar-oriented HRC." Vice President Gore spoke to their annual awards ceremony on September 15, 1997, and hosted an event for gay activists at the vice presidential mansion where Tipper Gore introduced him as her "partner." In 1995, NGLTF Policy Institute head John D’Emilio told The New York Times about conservative "pro-family" rhetoric: "Overtly, it’s a claim to defending tradition. What it in fact turns out to be is a deeply anti-feminist and homophobic message with a strong tinge of racism."

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was awarded zero ideological labels in 81 stories. GLAAD is more media-oriented than the HRC or the NGLTF, wielding a lot of power in Hollywood to insure positive portrayals of gay characters. USA Today noted on April 20, 1998 that CNN’s Larry King spoke at the annual GLAAD Media Awards banquet: "It’s all about applauding the media, TV, and movies for their efforts in presenting gays in a favorable light."

GLAAD was portrayed as the opposite of conservatives without getting labeled in a June 11, 1998 New York Times story on Internet filtering services. Reporter Pamela Mendels referred to an appeals panel that included "representatives of groups as diverse as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the conservative group Morality in Media."

The same phenomenon occurred in the September 16, 1995 Washington Post, when reporter Jay Mathews covered Coors offering domestic partner benefits: "The Christian right and the gay protesters appear somewhat disoriented at finding themselves assailing the same enemy....The move stunned conservative Christian groups that had been accustomed to Coors support for anti-gay rights efforts."

Founded in 1991 to support gay candidates, the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund drew no labels in 18 stories. Even the waning militant protest group ACT-UP (searched under its full name, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) had no liberal tag in 14 stories. The New York Times noted their decline with the headline "A Decade-Old Activism of Unmitigated Gall Is Fading."

Whether most voters (or most reporters) agree or disagree with the policy agenda of liberal gay groups, if reporters think it fair to describe the religious right as "extreme" or threatening to "moderate" voters, shouldn’t they apply the same standard to the gay left? That’s especially true when the gay left regularly describes their opponents as extreme. "All political stripes reject the extremist anti-gay agenda," HRC’s Elizabeth Birch has claimed. Reporters’ use of labels helps to place the far left squarely in the mainstream, while conservatives are placed on the fringe.