Today, the New York Times published an article about Israeli journalist Itay Hod outing “an unnamed Republican congressman” in a Facebook post “that might be described as the world’s most obvious blind item.”
What Hod failed to do, reporter Jacob Bernstein notes, “is actually publish the congressman’s name.” Curiously, Bernstein doesn’t name the congressman either, despite having written an entire article about his dramatic outing. That’s because his employer suffers from a paralyzing anxiety about closeted gay people, and others’ stories about them. It is both entranced and repulsed by the politics of outing, and it can’t seem to stop writing about them in spite of its institutional disdain. It’s time for the Times to get over it.
The congressman in question is Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois. But saying this plainly would violate the special Times protocol for discussing the existence of gay people who prefer not to say so—an opaque, coded system in which reporters use certain words, and emphasize otherwise benign biographical details, to signal a person’s homosexuality. Times reporters appear to be forbidden from saying “So-and-so is gay” unless so-and-so explicitly says they are. Even if the reporter knows they are!
So instead of stating that Schock is gay, or is commonly understood to be gay, Bernstein obliquely refers to “the congressman’s Instagram account, which included photos of him lifting weights at the gym and following the newly out diver Tom Daley.” Just as chief television critic Alessandra Stanley noted that Anderson Cooper refuses to “talk about his love life” despite “building a confessional talk show wrapped around his good looks, high spirits and glamorous adventures.” Just as political correspondent Mark Leibovich described Politico reporter Mike Allen as “a never-married 45-year-old grind known as Mikey.” (Leibovich’s column is often cited in political-media circles as an especially notorious example.)
Most recently, the Times has hint-hinted that future MSNBC host Ronan Farrow “prefers not to address rumors about whom he’s dating,” “is guarded about his private life,” and that he shows up at a lot of parties with former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, who is gay. (The New York Post, by contrast, is now perfectly comfortable reporting that Farrow likes guys and girls—which hasn’t always been the case.) The entire topic of gayness seems to suspend the Gray Lady’s basic commitment to clarity.
At the same time, the Times has taken a heightened interest in outlets who report, whether in passing or in a standalone story, that a public figure is gay. After Gawker reported in October that Shepard Smith was dating, in public, a 26-year-old boyfriend who worked under him at Fox News, the Times printed three different columns about how we had “outed” him. Yet the paper’s panicked reaction—it’s not newsworthy! it is newsworthy! we’re not sure!—suggested that its coverage up until that point had been guided less by reason or principle and more by visceral fascination.
Indeed, David Carr, who wrote the first column, confessed that he was “obsessing over someone obsessing over someone else’s sexuality.” Which was undeniably true. But the obsession is institutional. The Times seems to understand itself as a paternal guardian of closeted celebrities, both when it dances around their sexuality in its reporting and when it writes multiple stories about big, bad, unrespectable outlets like Gawker who name those celebrities’ boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s a really odd pose in either case. After all, the most effective way of protecting a celebrity’s closeted life is to write nothing about him.
To contact the author of this post, email firstname.lastname@example.org
[Art by Jim Cooke]