Media crossed line in Haggard 'outing'

Radio, dailies, TV yielded to their basest instincts in abetting attack on privacy

Nov. 18, 2006

by David Kopel

Was the Colorado media acting ethically when it "outed" the Rev. Ted Haggard? Is outing usually ethical, as long as the media have sufficient evidence? I suggest that the answer to both questions is "no."

One justification for the Haggard outing is that it involved not just homosexuality, but also crime, because Haggard was both patronizing prostitute Mike Jones and using him to procure drugs.

But does anyone really believe that if methamphetamine was still legal in Colorado, and if Colorado had Nevada-style legal prostitution, the media would have ignored the Haggard story?

Homosexual journalist Michelangelo Signorile is the ayatollah of outing. He asks "How can being gay be private when being straight isn't?" Rejecting Signorile's neo-Maoist argument that no one has privacy rights, gay writer C. Carr responded: "Everyone - gay, straight, and in-between - has an absolute right to decide that their intimate lives are nobody's business" (Village Voice,March 19, 1991).

Signorile writes, "by outing we do not discuss anyone's sex life. We only say they're gay." Actually, on Signorile's radio show, and on Peter Boyles' talk show on KHOW, the hosts encouraged Jones to provide explicit information about particular sexual acts with Haggard. Properly, the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Post refused to repeat Jones' tales.

Today, threats of outing are used as blackmail, and might amount to criminal extortion, depending on the jurisdiction. Last year, Washington, D.C., homosexual blogger Mike Rogers warned that a vote for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito would result in the outing of a senator. Several weeks ago, Rogers followed through on his blackmail, although the claim was so bereft of evidence that it received little attention from most media, other than Air America's Ed Schulz.

One justification for media participation in punitive outing is that it exposes the hypocrisy of the victim. This justification could theoretically be true, but rarely is. For example, if a senator says "All homosexuals are evil and no homosexual should be allowed to participate in public life," and if the senator is a practicing homosexual, then the senator would be a hypocrite.

But much more often, the charge of hypocrisy, and the grossly overused charge of "hate," are thrown at public figures whose actions are neither hypocritical nor hateful. For example, the Defense of Marriage Act was signed by President Clinton after being enacted by an overwhelming majority of Congress - a majority that included, probably, some privately gay legislators.

It is not hypocritical for a legislator to both engage in homosexual conduct and, at the same time, support federalism by voting that the Constitution should not be interpreted to force a state where gay marriage is not legal (e.g., Kansas) to recognize a gay marriage contracted in another state (e.g., Massachusetts).

Likewise, some privately gay legislators might believe that the best way to improve the position of homosexuals is through evolution of social attitudes, rather than using coercive laws to force change on private persons who are not yet ready. The centrist/libertarian Independent Gay Forum generally takes this view.

In the contemporary gay press and blogosphere, a person can be outed or blackmailed if he or she, or a relative, is an apolitical celebrity, entertainment executive, journalist, businessperson, Republican, or Democrat who is guilty of even small deviations from the agenda of the anti-heterosexist vanguard.

Whether outing helps gay rights is questionable. Mike Jones might have accidentally helped defeat Referendum I (News, Nov. 11). The original outers, the journalists who exposed German government leaders in the early 20th century, provoked a backlash that doomed efforts to repeal the Second Reich's law criminalizing male homosexuals.

In the 1993 New York Times Magazine essay "Who Killed Privacy?" Roger Rosenblatt wrote: "The practice of 'outing' homosexuals implies contradictorily that homosexuals have a right to private choice but not to private lives."

Respect for privacy is a public virtue, but that virtue is much harder to cultivate when it is under media assault. In Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court adopted the doctrine that how much legal protection the courts would give to the right of privacy (in interpreting the Fourth Amendment) would depend in part on social expectations of privacy. More media intrusions into privacy lead, in the long run, to more government intrusions into privacy.

During the Inquisition, the private lives of homosexuals were subject to public exposure in order to bolster a policy agenda, and the same is true today.

For the record, I thought The Miami Herald'sspying on Gary Hart was despicable, and that there were many good reasons to impeach Bill Clinton, but adultery was not one of them.

The media can hold themselves to higher standards than their most salacious and malicious audiences. Media cooperation with outers usually amounts to complicity in attacks on the privacy to which every human being is entitled.  

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