Have you heard this “new” nonsense from Focus on the Family? Using the same old fear-mongering about “teaching children homophobia,” they have a new bullying campaign called “True Tolerance.” The gist of this program is that they oppose all bullying, but don’t think anything should ever be said about sexual orientation/homophobia. In other words, their beliefs (and paranoid fear) are so important as to preclude schools even acknowledging that gay people exist.
Sound familiar? That’s because a federal judge recently stated as a finding of fact that the very tactics FOTF is using are motivated by discrimination and animus. (See the Prop 8 Findings of Fact 44, 46, 58, 62, 67, 71, 76, and 77.) Autumn Sandeen has a great rundown of all the holes in Focus on the Family’s approach that you should definitely read in addition to this post.
As a result of this new campaign, CNN covered the “controversy” last week in the 11-minute segment below. I think this report from Anderson Cooper is demonstrative of the weak state of mainstream media coverage and the real damage that CNN’s “equal time” philosophy does to our community. In fact, I’m going to make the case to you in this post that Cooper is actually enabling FOTF throughout the whole interview. This is a sad reminder of how little support we get from having a gay man as one of the mainstream media’s most popular anchors. Get it buffering and I’ll walk you through this disaster of fact-finding.
The opening of the segment is deceptive. AC is talking to us about kids who commit suicide because they were harassed for acting gay. We also get to see Carl Walker-Hoover’s mother testifying before Congress. This is powerful because 1) it shows us how serious a concern anti-gay bullying is and 2) it reminds us that lots of straight kids are hurt by this kind of bullying. It’s a great opening to the segment, but you can forget about it, because it never comes up in the conversation. Not once.
In fact, the whole point of this segment is to put Focus on the Family’s point of view on a pedestal. It’s not really a controversy; it’s just an extremist group voicing their same-old dissent based on their same-old beliefs. And no journalism is taking place here, because there is no scrutiny. It’s just sensationalism. It’s 11 minutes of television that amplify the dissenting voice without offering any critical analysis. Focus on the Family is not held to any accountability for what they say or believe.
In addition to being poor journalism, it’s also an upholding of religious privilege. It’s the respect meme, the foundation of all religious belief. We have to respect the beliefs and that’s that. Why? If we ever find out, it sure won’t be from CNN. I’m going to give you a blow-by-blow, because I want you to see how much Anderson Cooper protects Focus on the Family throughout the discussion. I’ll sum it up at the end so you can see how bad it is.
AC segues to the discussion (1:26) by saying (paraphrased for effect), Here’s what the Safe Schools Improvement Act would do, but Focus on the Family objects, so let’s hear them out! So we meet the players. Candi Cushman is FOTF’s talking head, while Eliza Byard speaks for GLSEN, and Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote the book that inspired Mean Girls, is there for color commentary. You’ll note that Cooper stumbles over both of the latter two ladies’ names. Then, AC gives Cushman the first word (1:54). This sets up Focus on the Family to take the offense and make their case first, meaning the other two will be stuck playing defense most of the interview.
Cooper sets up his first question by paraphrasing FOTF’s policy in his own words (thus validating it with his authority as a respected reporter) and then asking the following about anti-gay bullying (2:13):
How do you suggest stopping that if you can’t mention anything about gays and lesbians?
This question is terribly weak, and kind of stupid when you think about it. It gives FOTF’s point of view the benefit of the doubt, when there is actually plenty to be doubtful about! It doesn’t really scrutinize their stance at all, though Autumn will be the first to show you there is plenty to scrutinize.
After Cushman spews her nonsense about wanting “to protect any child for any reason” as a cover for just not talking about gays, Cooper pushes her, but not in any way that challenges what she has said, merely to help her further clarify her point of view. It’s not so hard to watch it and perceive it as if he’s actually helping her get it all out. It’s odd to see it in that light, but that’s the effect of his “pushing.” This is most evident around 3:20 when Cushman gets out her other talking point about “not focusing on the characteristics of the person victim because it doesn’t matter why the victim was targeted. “
Now (at 3:30), Cooper puts this on Byard of GLSEN. He says that FOTF has challenged GLSEN of “promoting the gay agenda” as if 1) FOTF is a respectable authority on gay issues (though the Southern Poverty Law Center says otherwise) and 2) the “gay agenda” is a real thing, a legitimate threat, and something GLSEN has to answer for. This is quite different from a moment ago when he uncritically reiterating FOTF’s stance. What gives?
Byard is great, though. She points out that the Safe Schools bill does everything Cushman wants plus pays special attention to specific characteristics because the data shows it makes a difference. This frames the argument well, because it shows that FOTF wants to do less than is possible and that there is data to show why they’re wrong in wanting that.
What does Cooper do? He ignores this point with another weak question for Cushman (4:20), designed to be perceived as a challenge without echoing the legitimate points Byard just made. He asks if FOTF would be opposed to talk about race, disability, or other traits that kids might get bullied for. This isn’t an awful question, but it protects Cushman from having to respond to Byard (and Byard’s data).
What’s most pathetic here is that Cushman dodges the question anyway. She says she’s worried if you start specifying kinds of bullying, you might end up leaving some kids out. I’m sure she prefers not talking about any of the Presidents specifically in U.S. History because if you spend too much time on Washington and Jefferson you might leave out Millard Fillmore.
Then, after plugging the True Tolerance website, she whips out the old parents-who-are-concerned-about-“homosexuality lessons presented to their kindergartners” nonsense, playing on age-old stereotypes of fear. The implication here is that kids will be taught to be gay and that that’s a bad thing. It’s exactly what Dr. Chauncey testified about in the Prop 8 trial. It’s bunk. But hey, FOTF doesn’t “think it’s necessary,” so that’s enough for a controversy.
Cooper almost doesn’t challenge Cushman, but let’s Byard jump in (5:26) and reiterate the data-driven facts about the importance of mentioning sexual orientation in anti-bullying education. She is calm and eloquent in her presentation of GLSEN’s work. Does Cooper follow-up on the facts? No, he jumps over to get Wiseman in the conversation (6:06).
Again, he shows favor with FOTF by asking “Do you see an agenda being spread?” as if Byard hadn’t just clarified what GLSEN does and has found through multiple studies. Wiseman kind of throws the whole mess under the bus by claiming you’ll only get a 45-minute assembly out of the initiative, and then oddly echoes Cushman’s talking points (about all students) to agree with Byard’s points (naming the behavior). I think she actually says something worthwhile at some point about homophobia and masculinity that could’ve been brilliant, but it’s generally lost in her meanderings.
So what does Cooper do? Invite Cushman to talk freely again about what Focus on the Family believes, of course (7:30)! Cushman goes on again about wanting to defend the gay kid without actually defending him for being gay. Her “they’re all God’s children” is just a repackaging of color-blindness for sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter that the kid’s gay, just protect him for being a kid. (Of course, by not validating the kid’s identity, the teacher would essentially be validating the anti-gay bullying. That couldn’t possibly be what FOTF wants, could it? Oh wait, yes it could.)
Now, kudos to Wiseman for jumping in here and calling out Cushman (8:08) that her perspective “does not in any way reflect the reality of what schools are like.” She makes up for her earlier incoherence with a very coherent smackdown, suggesting Cushman is oblivious to “concrete reality.”
How does AC respond to this outburst? He challenges Wiseman by reiterating FOTF’s language and saying, “What’s wrong with just that?” Now, some might say he’s just facilitating the discussion without personally taking a point of view, but he is taking a point of view. He’s offering a defense of what Focus on the Family is trying to say! Wiseman (8:50) offers a weak explanation for respecting victims at their word but is about as ambiguous in her words as the ambiguity she’s trying to describe.
Cooper then comes back to challenge GLSEN’s Byard again! (9:30):
There are certainly a lot of parents who don’t believe that being gay or being lesbian is okay and don’t want their kids—especially very young kids—exposed to that. Do you think this should be mandatory for everybody?
He’s essentially agreeing that teaching kids that some of their friends might have two mommies or two daddies might be an awful thing. He’s also validating their scare tactics—you know, the ones that demonize gay people… like Anderson Cooper.
Byard gives another eloquent response (9:43). She talks about data, findings, evidence, and facts. After she’s finished, Cooper ignores what she has said (again) to give Cushman the final word (10:25). Cushman talks about scared parents and sexual content again, but is again left unchallenged with her foundationless, stereotype-driven, fear-baiting tactics. Cooper thanks them and ends the discussion.
Now, let’s review everything Anderson Cooper, star gay journalist, did in this segment:
» He opens the segment by talking about bully-driven suicides (which he never refers to again).
» 1:26 – He introduces Focus on the Family’s concern about the Safe Schools Improvement Act as reason enough to talk about it for a full segment.
» 1:36 – He welcomes the guests, happening to stumble over the names of the two guests who will disagree with Focus on the Family.
» 1:54 – He reiterates FOTF’s position and then lets their spokesperson, Candi Cushman, speak first.
» 2:41 – He pushes Cushman to further clarify her position.
» 3:30 – He challenges GLSEN’s spokesperson, Eliza Byard, to refute the “gay agenda.”
» 4:20 – He ignores Byard’s points to throw another easy question at Cushman.
» 5:26 – He almost lets Cushman go unchallenged but lets Byard jump in.
» 6:06 – He again ignores Byard’s points, bringing author Rosalind Wiseman into the conversation by also challenging her about the “gay agenda.”
» 7:30 – He throws another easy question to Cushman.
» 8:27 – He responds to Wiseman’s retort of Cushman by reiterating FOTF’s points and challenging her to refute them.
» 9:30 – He reiterates another FOTF talking point to Byard, challenging her to defend them.
» 10:25 – He gives Cushman the last word, again without challenging her on anything.
Essentially, he protects Focus on the Family the entire segment. The segment, itself, exists solely to amplify and validate their message. They are held to no scrutiny. In just 11 minutes, two completely unequal points of view are conflated through “equal time” to having equal footing. It’s a massacre of knowledge, and a complete journalistic failing.
Now, you might have read all that and said, “Yeah, but he was just facilitating, and this is just one segment, and Zack, you’re just making a big deal out of nothing.”
No. You’re wrong. CNN does this all the time. Tony Perkins is an AC360 contributor and Maggie Gallagher is also on there all the time. They make news about Bryan Fischer’s extremist statements then give him airtime. They refer to ex-gay therapists like Richard Cohen and Exodus International. And every time, they pull this “equal time” crap that ends up validating the side that has no footing. There is no scrutiny. There is no journalistic integrity.
I’ll stop just short of calling Anderson Cooper a quisling. It’s a shame he cares more about how CNN wants him to do his job than his own community. But CNN has a neutrality suppository so far up its butt that it doesn’t know right from wrong. We need to start holding them to a higher standard. This talk show sensationalism is hurting our community. Let’s not let them call it journalism any more.