When it comes to reporting on the sexual preferences of public figures, the New York Times has a long history of dancing around the subject, often to the point of absurdity. While the paper has no written policy against outing gay public figures who would prefer to keep their sexual identities private, it has taken a very conservative approach to the subject over the years, and has in fact loudly denounced outlets, like Gawker, that have followed a different set of rules. Which is why a recent report in the Times about corporate goings-on at Disney caught my eye: It blithely, and without further context, published a claim that IAC chairman Barry Diller is “a homosexual.”
The story, by Columbia University journalism professor James B. Stewart, was about the palace intrigue surrounding the Walt Disney Company’s ongoing search for CEO Robert A. Iger’s permanent successor. To illustrate just how fractious previous searches had been, Stewart quoted a letter sent by former CEO Michael Eisner to Disney’s board of directors in 1997:
Pressed by the board to name a successor, Mr. Eisner cited the entertainment executive Barry Diller, but then wrote a confidential letter to the board saying that “the fact he is a homosexual should have no weight,” which, at the time, all but guaranteed Mr. Diller would never succeed him.
Stewart first reported the contents of this letter eight years ago, in his 2008 book Disney Wars. But this is the first time Eisner’s description of Diller has appeared in the Times; Stewart offered no elaboration on the claim and does not appear to have sought comment from Diller. As far as I can tell, it is the only instance in which the Times has reported, without any qualification, that an ostensibly straight public figure is gay.
Diller was single and unmarried at the time Eisner wrote the letter. Today he is the 74-year-old chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp, a publicly traded company which controls dozens of media and technology brands—including the Daily Beast, the Princeton Review, and Tinder—and posts annual revenues upwards of three billion dollars. For the past fifteen years, he has been married to the Belgian-American fashion executive Diane von Fürstenberg. Both Diller and von Fürstenberg present themselves to the public as a happily married couple.
But since their nuptials, Eisner’s private assessment of Diller’s sexuality has become very public. Writing in New York magazine in 1999, Michael Wolff described Diller as “gay,” adding that Diller had once threatened to “kill” him if he reported on his personal life. Gawker has reported on Diller’s sexuality on more than one occasion. He has repeatedly been featured in Out magazine’s annual Power 50 list of “the most influential voices in LGBT America.” Even the Times coyly remarked on the occasion of their marriage that it “came after years of speculation about a relationship widely assumed to be platonic.” (The same announcement described the ceremony as a “merger.”)
In 2013, von Fürstenberg criticized former New York Times Magazine contributor Andrew Goldman after he inquired about her husband’s appearances on the Out list. “Do I ask you how many times you’ve slept with your wife?” von Fürstenberg asked Goldman. “It’s just unbelievable, I don’t understand.” (Shortly after that interview took place, the Times terminated Goldman’s contract, in what Goldman believes was an act of retaliation requested by von Fürstenberg.)
The debate over whether, and under what circumstances, it is appropriate for news organizations—not just the Times, of course—to out public figures without their consent has shifted in recent years. Prior to the advent of gay marriage and the precipitous advancement of gay civil rights, some outlets—Gawker included—took a view that deliberately hiding the fact that a given celebrity was gay (especially those who were out to those “in the know” but straight to the wider public) served to ratify the false and harmful notion that being gay is shameful.
But the line seems to have moved. As the late Times columnist David Carr argued in a column castigating Gawker (and me) for mentioning Shepard Smith’s male companion in an item about the Fox News anchor’s misbehavior at a bar, “now that gay marriage is a fact of life, a person’s sexual orientation is not only not news, it’s not very interesting.” Gawker’s attempts to navigate this changing environment have sparked outrage, and last summer, drew a rare apology from Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton, following a highly criticized post about a heterosexually married media executive’s attempts to set up an assignation with a gay escort.
The Times itself doesn’t appear to have ever viewed these issues as worth wrestling with in its own reporting: It has a long history of either winking at or completely ignoring the sexuality of its subjects, no matter how obvious or well-known. When the cultural critic Susan Sontag died in 2004, the Times’ obituary mentioned her short-lived heterosexual marriage but made no reference to her decades-long romantic relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz. When television journalist Itay Hod published a Facebook post alleging that an unnamed GOP congressman was gay, the Times covered the post and the ensuing debate, making clear that it knew who the congressman was but declining to name him (it was Aaron Schock).
This tendency pervades the paper’s coverage of media figures in particular. When Times editors deemed Ronan Farrow’s rise at MSNBC worthy of a profile, the paper noted that he is “guarded” about his private life and “prefers not to address rumors about whom he’s dating,” but not that both the New York Post and Vice had reported that he has dated men. When the Times Magazine profiled former New Republic owner Martin Peretz, it saw fit to mention the “infidelities and explosive temper” that broke up his marriage, but was stoically incurious about whether those infidelities were with men. And when columnist Alessandra Staley reviewed CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s talk show debut in 2011, she argued it was “obvious and awkward” for Cooper to meticulously avoid any discussion of his romantic life on “a confessional talk show wrapped around his good looks, high spirits and glamorous adventures,” while omitting any reference to the fact that Cooper had been dating and appearing in public with an East Village bar owner named Benjamin Maisani for the previous two years.
Stewart, who is also a staff writer at the New Yorker, seems to agree with the Times’ traditional stance against outing. In a “reporter’s notebook” published a few years ago, he admitted to pursuing widespread rumors that Apple CEO Tim Cook was gay. (Cook came out in a Businessweek essay in October 2014.) Apple refused to cooperate with Stewart, so he dropped the matter: “I wouldn’t ever ‘out’ anyone without their consent, and in any case, I had no direct confirmation that Tim Cook was gay.”
All of which makes the casual disclosure of Eisner’s letter, which, to Times readers at least, effectively outs—or “outs”—Barry Diller, that much more puzzling. Has the Times altered its policy with respect to reporting on sexuality? Was it simply an oversight? Have the circumstances of Diller’s private life become such a commonplace that he no longer deserves the courtesy that the paper extended to Cooper, Farrow, Schock, Peretz, and Sontag (or her memory)? One could argue that simply quoting from an ages-old memo in the context of a corporate succession analysis doesn’t constitute outing, but it’s difficult to imagine that the Times would publish the contents of such a memo about, say, Iger, without so much as a phone call for comment.
Stewart referred my questions to the paper’s spokesperson, Eileen Murphy, who told Gawker in an email, “The use of the quote in this story was to illustrate how Michael Eisner tried to discredit Barry Diller with the Disney board, not about Mr. Diller’s actual sexual orientation. And, it comes from a document that is not in dispute.”
Diller himself did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement to Gawker, IAC wrote, “Thank you for reaching out. IAC does not comment on personal matters.”