Why Public Radio Host Warren Olney's Apology Wasn't Enough

On Friday, Gawker broke the story of a horrifically ill-conceived installment of Warren Olney's current affairs show on public radio, To The Point. Using the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal as its jumping-off point, the show somehow drew a dotted line to the topic of gays and lesbians' suitability as foster and adoptive parents. The thinking behind it (and there wasn't much) was that Sandusky was ostensibly a heterosexually married man who had access to foster and adoptive children he could prey on. "With 500,000 children desperate for loving homes," Olney's intro went, "we'll look at efforts to widen the pool of available parents. Should gays and lesbians qualify?" I don't know, Warren. Should they?

Olney is not one to rush to conclusions. And so he embarked upon an exploration of this subject in typical public radio fashion. On one side, he brought in John Ireland, a gay parent and activist, and Sari Grant, a representative from the LA County Department of Children and Family Services. For the other, he brought on Jerry Cox, whose Arkansas Family Council unsuccessfully petitioned the state to ban foster children from entering same-sex-parent homes. (The state Supreme Court unanimously shot down the measure as unconstitutional.) Cox was given a generous platform to preach his particular brand of hate, referring repeatedly to "studies" that proved the "gold standard" for any child was a household headed by "one man and one woman." He also deftly used Olney's lead-in of the Sandusky case — if not to outwardly accuse gay parents of being predisposed to pedophilia, to at least align the two topics snugly: "In both cases," he said, "the children's rights get put in second place." And why not? This was how Olney chose to frame this discussion, after all. But never did Olney challenge Cox's falsehoods or bigotry, or even attempt to establish a delineation between gay parents and pedophilia. In his wildest dreams, Cox couldn't have asked for a more generous platform — not here of all places, in the supposedly liberal bastion of public radio.

After our post went up, and word began to spread, listeners were not pleased. Daily Kos and Think Progress picked up on the story, and GLAAD demanded an apology and full retraction. Public Radio International, syndicators of Olney's show, told GLAAD:

We share your concerns. Although PRI does not have editorial control [over] To The Point — we distribute the program and KCRW produces — once we heard the program yesterday, we began having discussions with the editorial staff of To the Point, and those discussions will continue.

Olney posted a clarification the same day to the show's website and Facebook page, which stated:

Thank you for all the feedback. There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of today's "To the Point." We had no intention of confusing the issues of child abuse and same-sex adoption. We apologize to anyone who drew that conclusion.

It then went on to regurgitate everything discussed on the show, and concluded, "The mission of To the Point is to conduct frank and timely discussions of controversial issues. Thank you, Warren Olney."

Message boards and Twitter users grew incensed over what they felt was a thumb of the nose from Olney at their concerns. Today, at the end of the To The Point broadcast, Olney issued this, far more contrite announcement. It read, in part:

"With hundreds and thousands of troubled children in need, we thought it was a good time to point out that gay and lesbian couples are often prohibited from both fostering and adopting, even though they can provide loving homes. we failed to point out explicitly that pedophilia and homosexuality are not connected, and that led some listeners to think we were buying into an infamous falsehood. Over the weekend, we received a lot of critical comments from people that by discussing both topics in one show, we had equated the two. We respect our listeners, and we want to respond. There is no connection between pedophilia and homosexuality, and we never intended to say or imply there is. But our failure to make that crucial distinction explicit was a serious oversight. We regret it, and we apologize."

Listen to it here:

So, thank you, Warren. We asked you to apologize to your listeners, and that was definitely an apology. But it was insufficient. What it didn't address was what Cox was doing on the show to begin with, and why you never once dared contradict his propaganda.

Then again, I didn't really expect Olney to apologize for that. Because to do that would be to shine an unflattering light on the shortcomings of his show, and of himself, as its host. I agree with New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen on the matter of "he said, she said" journalism, of the sort that runs rampant across most of public radio: It's one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence. Writing to the NPR ombudsman in September about their coverage of a hearing in Kansas to impose stricter regulations over abortion clinics, Rosen wrote:

"According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims. It is obvious to me that there's something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. 'He said, she said' does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks."

I think the same applies to this case: Olney's approach is irresponsible and lazy, because it assumes the journalist's work is done once the two sides of the debate are chosen and given the microphone; then it's up to the viewer to discern which side "sounds more right." It's a convenient way to fill an hour, yes, but responsible journalism? No. If the producers were aiming for even-mindedness in their coverage of LGBT issues, it's safe to say they've strayed into hostile territory when they had to schlep to Arkansas to find a bigot to fill some perceived rhetorical gap in a program.

Olney claims the point of the show was to promote gays and lesbians as suitable foster parents. So why not frame the conversation — first of all, far, far away from the Sandusky case — and put it thusly: "Today we speak to the children of three same-sex-parent families, all of whom are happy and excelling in every aspect of their lives. This is the new normal." Is that not balanced enough for public radio? Are they worried it might be too positive and friendly and supportive of the thousands of children currently being raised in same-sex families? How does a decision to legitimize a man like Cox do anything but wind progress backwards 30 years, to when Anita Bryant made the same, ugly arguments in her attempts to ban gays from working as educators? We live in 2011. Not 1977. Just as it would be unheard of to question the fitness of African-Americans as parents to white adoptees, it's equally as offensive to debate the same about gays and lesbians.

I think there's an unspoken presumption here that gays and lesbians will politely endure these debates, because "those opinions are out there." But it's a critical miscalculation. I don't think gays and lesbians, particularly those raising loving families, are willing to put up with this kind of backdoor bigotry anymore. Maybe it took a case as shocking as Sandusky and its juxtapositioning to their parenting capabilities to do it, but I feel like this particular report represents a turning point in what constitutes acceptable conversation on public airwaves. The apology may have left me wanting, and the damage may already be done, but I accept it nonetheless. Now, together, we will collectively move the middle ground.

[Photo credit: Getty]