02 July 2012

Getting the Facts Straight at CNN

The ooops…

My sympathies and condolences go out to everyone at CNN involved in the premature (and false) announcement that the Supreme Court had overruled the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare, also known as Romneycare). Hearing that the Justices would not uphold the law under the Commerce Clause, CNN journalists jumped the gun: waiting just a few minutes would have given them time to understand the actual verdict, but by then their anchor and reporters were already discussing the impact of the “failure” on the President’s reelection campaign.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, but little chance that anyone in journalism will apply it. The great goal in newsrooms everywhere is to be first. A scoop means you’ve got an exclusive, at least until somebody else reports the story, and in the dominant mindset, firsts and exclusives automatically translate to success. I never fully understood this thinking when I worked at CBS, though I can confirm that it’s prevalent to the point of universality. The belief holds that readers, listeners, and/or viewers will seek out the source that reports first. Period.

… And the do-over.

Question this thinking and the chances are good you’ll be ignored — or scorned. From time to time someone will make a case for accuracy, that audiences ultimately trust the news organization that gets the story right. But journalism is a highly competitive business, with its own set of rules and intense pressures, and to put it bluntly, CNN and CBS aren’t competing with The Christian Science Monitor.

So I’m not joining in the chorus that’s caroling now at CNN’s expense. This could have happened to almost anybody, at any news organization, and of course it did happen, simultaneously, over at FOX News. Some liberal voices have claimed that FOX’s error stemmed from political bias and/or wishful thinking, but really, this is the nature of the business, and it’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

It could happen to anybody, and it probably will.

A smaller change, yet significant in its way, is CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s admission this week that he’s gay. As I noted in a roundabout way in a blog essay a few months ago, Cooper has simultaneously lived openly as a gay man in New York and yet refused to make a public statement: resisting all manner of appeals and summons to confess, he has defined what some critics describe as the “glass closet.”

Again, if Anderson Cooper looked like Wolf Blitzer, we probably wouldn’t care quite so much. But there he was, hanging with Kathy Griffin, riding motorcycles all over town with his boyfriend, giggling like a girl, and working a black T-shirt like a personal fitness trainer — while saying nothing.

Cooper may have hoped to avoid what Dan Rather used to call the Anchor Syndrome (“I have found the story, and I am it”), and yet it became clear long ago that, the more he ducked the question, the bigger the story got. Perversely, perhaps, the very privacy and neutrality he sought would have come to him more easily if he’d just spoken up and let us all move on.

Now we can. In a lengthy e-mail to columnist Andrew Sullivan, Cooper detailed his reasons for staying in the closet, and his reasons for coming out of it. I don’t agree with all of his reasoning, though he presents his arguments in a thoughtful, at times eloquent way.

Little Anderson, Gay at Last.

Among other things, he says that he preferred to “blend in” while on assignment, and I sympathize with him to at least this extent: during my time at CBS News, I didn’t go around flaunting my sexual identity, either. During my visits to Cuba, for example, I was so certain of the scrutiny of constant surveillance that I didn’t even play with myself, much less with anyone else. Fidel Castro had a history of throwing homosexuals into prison, and I wasn’t going to test my luck.

Is Cooper even more eloquent when he details his reasons to come out, or do I respond so warmly merely because I agree with him? We live in a time of greater freedoms but also of great opposition, sometimes violent. Should one man’s right to privacy (which I don’t contest) outweigh the violated rights of thousands of gay Americans? I’m as uncomfortable as Cooper is with the notion that celebrity entails a mandate to publicity or an authorization to advocacy. But because he’s a public figure, in certain circumstances — like belonging to an embattled minority — that position demands leadership. He’s also a journalist, and frankly to dodge the truth so often and so artlessly looks bad. “The fact is, I’m gay,” he wrote, and facts are his calling.

We’ll see whether or how much this announcement affects his work: very little if at all, I expect. Beyond that, there’s a chance that, by coming to the end of his evolution on this subject, he may wield a more meaningful influence — just as President Obama’s “evolution” on marriage equality seems to have led to increased public support for that issue. Moreover, Cooper says he was concerned that his continuing silence led others to believe he was ashamed of his identity. So now there’s a chance, too, that some kid watching him today will feel more confident, less alone, whether choosing to live openly as gay or choosing to pursue a crazy, nearly obsolete line of work like journalism.

The fact is, such chances are worth taking, and Anderson Cooper took his time but got it right.


Marcus said...

Not knowing the research literature and just asking off the cuff, now that more than just a few celebrities have publicly come out of the closet, has anyone uncovered a coming out sequence that either emulates or diverges from that processes found in everyday GLBT cultures?

I suspect it would be difficult to find given the bulk of the processes are private and interviews with such figures are unlikely at best.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a great piece.

Anne said...

Beautifully written.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, all.

Marcus -- I note that you both raise an interesting question and explain why it probably can't be answered. Anyway, I certainly don't have the data to make the comparison you suggest!