When the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association ( NLGJA ) invited three of the country's most vocal anti-gay activists to speak on a panel at its annual convention earlier this month, some in the community accused the group of aligning itself with the enemy.
The NLGJA defended the decision, with President Robert Dodge telling Bay Windows, "These people are part of the story. ... I know that we are being accused of inviting the enemy into our camp. As journalists, we have to step outside of that. They have opinions about being covered just like other people at the convention. They need to hear us."
Those who came to the well-attended session expecting fireworks were likely sorely disappointed; the afternoon was more Oprah than Jerry Springer.
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The panel, entitled Are We Guilty of Bias in Covering Critics of Gay Rights?, included three gay-rights foes, a moderator and two openly gay journalists.
On one side sat "ex-gay" activist Michael Johnston, president of Kerusso Ministries, Brian Camenker, president of the Parents Rights Coalition ( PRC ) , and Peter J. LaBarbera, director of Kerusso's Americans for Truth Project and longtime publisher of
the anti-gay Lambda Report.
On the other side sat Chris Bull, Washington correspondent for The Advocate, and Mark Miller, chief of correspondents for Newsweek magazine.
Geneva Overholser, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, served as moderator.
Overholser was largely applauded for keeping the discussion on topic. What could easily have digressed into a he said/he said on the moral merits of homosexuality turned out to be a calm and only occasionally catty discussion of media bias.
Generally, the three anti-gay activists accused the mainstream media of being out of touch with the majority of Americans on homosexuality and of advocating a gay agenda rather than just reporting the news.
"I don't think that the media is riding the train," Camenker said. "The media is driving the train."
LaBarbera specifically called on mainstream journalists to leave the advocacy journalism to the gay press.
The three took issue with mainstream coverage of the pro-family movement, noting the tendency to lump every organization into the same category. Camenker, who is Jewish, said he finally joined the Christian Coalition after reading so many stories that assumed he was a member.
Bull responded to some of the claims by noting that the positive evolution of media coverage of gays issues likely has less to do with journalists' potential agendas and more to do with society's increasing tolerance and understanding.
"Peter's argument is not with journalists but with their sources," he said of LaBarbera.
Bull and Miller were not initially part of the session and were added after the convention programs were printed.
One of the session's most contentious points came when the anti-gay activists suggested that journalists seek out opposing viewpoints for every story having to do with gays, even if those stories concern something as mundane as the census.
Both sides agreed, however, that reporters should seek out opinions and perspectives from a range of people and not just from activists and community leaders.
Johnston, of Kerusso Ministries, said he was happy with the discussion. "I think it went well," he toldWCT afterward. He said that he and his colleagues made a pact the night before the session that they would stay away from arguing the issue of homosexuality and would focus on the topic at hand.
The three anti-gay activists weren't the only gay-rights foes at the NLGJA convention. The three-day meeting, held from Sept. 6-9 in Dallas, also drew the Rev. Fred Phelps and several of his followers.
The Phelps contingent notified Dallas police of their intentions before they arrived, and set up just outside the convention's host hotel.
His group was largely ignored by the 250 journalists, activists and allies at the convention. In addition to the bias panel, the convention included a job fair, an awards ceremony and workshops.
Visit www.nlgja.org .