Sunday, June 24, 2007

Homophobic and Black and White and Read All Over

I am getting back in the blogging game. I have not posted in more than a month because I have been:

1. Preparing my late mother's house in Garland, Texas, for sale.

2. Packing up most of our belongings in Bastrop so our home here can be "staged" for perspective buyers.

3. Looking for a house in our future home in Plano, where I will be teaching at the Spring Creek Campus of the Collin County Community College District. (Please note that my wife and I are involved in a three-way real estate deal. We feel like impoverished versions of Donald Trump with infinitely more class, though that's a low bar to clear.)

4. Preparing for my new job.

5. Writing reviews of two books for two different scholarly journals and four entries for the upcoming Oxford University Press "Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896-Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century."

6. Making a presentation on anti-Semitism to the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Jewish War Veterans in Dallas earlier this month, speaking to history teachers in the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in Houston a few days later, and preparing another talk, this time on modern anti-immigrant politics, to the First Unitarian Church in Dallas this July 8.

7. Working on a film version of my first book "White Metropolis."

8. Researching a future book, this one on Houston.

9. Being a dad, a husband, and a general nuisance to the world.

Oh, and I took a week off with my family in Mexico. That said, I have had little time to write entries for this on-line journal, but I am determined to start again. I am taking the easy way out by posting the last talk I gave at the University of Texas as an adjunct professor, delivered to my "History of Journalism” students the first week of May:


We end this semester with an unplanned tribute to a brave and dogged investigative reporter, David Halberstam, who died in a car crash eight days ago at age 73.

Halberstam represented what journalists like to think their profession is about. As a young reporter in Vietnam, Halberstam became one of the first American journalists to question the story put forth by the Johnson administration during that war, namely that American was winning against the communists and that our allies in South Vietnam were partners in democracy. Halberstam’s work for the New York Times exposed to the mass of American readers for the first time the corruption and incompetence of the South Vietnamese government and suggested that the American military might not be able to win against a popular communist insurgency backed by North Vietnam.

Halberstam’s reporting enraged President John Kennedy so much that JFK suggested to Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger that the journalist should be replaced. Unlike too many of his later peers covering the American invasion of Iraq, however, Halberstam was willing to sacrifice “access” in order to get closer to the truth. He won recognition for his courage, winning the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 1964. He later wrote a powerful account detailing the multiple failures of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early days of the Vietnam War in the famously titled book, "The Best and the Brightest."

Halberstam did not practice the careful type of journalism built on artificially constructing two “opposite” sides of an argument and, after precisely balancing quotes, declaring that he had arrived at some version of the truth. Halberstam recognized that official sources sometimes lie, that the truth is multi-dimensional, changing and complex, and that outraging the powerful is sometimes the price one pays for being an honest reporter.

If only Halberstam represented the journalistic norm, even at his former newspaper, the New York Times. But over the years, the Times more often has pampered the comfortable and bedeviled the afflicted. During that horrible time from the 1880s to the 1930s in which more than 4,000 mostly African American men, women and children were lynched by Southern mobs, New York Times coverage was scrupulously balanced and morally blind, the newspaper balancing black outrage at an ongoing act of genocide with white Southern assurances that the crime of lynching was a natural, justifiable reaction to the alleged tendency of black men to rape white women. The claim that lynching stemmed from black rape was a lie, of course, but the Times, ever-committed to its version of objectivity, gave equal weight to the words of criminal white mobs and their black victims.

Similarly, in the post-World War II world, journalists satisfied themselves with the role of stenographer as they transcribed the alleged “two sides” of the Cold War issue, in this case the nearly identical cant of Republicans and Democrats regarding the Russians, nuclear weapons, and the spread of communism. The mainstream media in America religiously reiterated Cold War dogma: that communism represented a monolith directed from Moscow aiming at world conquest through military invasion and subversion. The Times and other media outlets exaggerated Soviet military strength, and the supposed unity of the Russians, the Chinese and smaller communist states like Vietnam. The press also grossly inflated the power and influence of the communist movement in the United States. Only later did we discover, no thanks to the media, that the Soviet military was patched together MacGyver-like with spit and scrap, that communist nations were deeply split against each other along racial, ethnic and nationalist lines, and that the American communist movement was small, weak and internally divided.

During the Cold War, the voices of pacifists, those favoring a non-confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, and those skeptical of the so-called domino theory by which the establishment of a communist regime in one country meant its virus-like spread to neighboring nations, were marginalized or silenced. Reporters could do this and remain true to the dominant “fair and balanced” dictate because the American journalistic model of objectivity has less to do with presenting a spectrum of views on controversial issues than about packaging artificial conflict between fabricated opponents for the sake of entertainment. All a story needed was two sides, even if the supposed polarities simply echoed each other.

Halberstam’s courage clearly is the exception and not the norm in the American media. Certainly the media obsession with artificial balance and neutrality, with telling “both sides of the story” even if such an approach obscures larger truths allowed unsubstantiated or discredited rumors about AIDS and the gay lifestyle from anti-gay activists to receive prominent coverage. Such a supposedly objective approach has fed the career of one disreputable scientific fraud, Dr. Paul Cameron, for nearly two decades.

The ugly career of Dr. Cameron has been exhaustively documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and I urge you to look up this information on their website. The 66-year-old anti-gay activist received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1966. Homosexuality would prove a Cameron obsession. In 1982, while he served as a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska, he became chair of the Committee to Oppose Special Rights for Homosexuals, a group organized to fight a proposed gay and lesbian civil rights ordinance in the city of Lincoln.

During his campaign against the ordinance, he gave a speech to the University of Nebraska Lutheran Church that a local 4-year old boy had recently been dragged into a shopping mall bathroom and castrated by a homosexual. The story was a product of Cameron’s imagination with the Omaha Police Department and local hospitals unable to find any record of such an attack.

The story, however, became a popular urban legend and Cameron defended the story to reporters as "an example of what could happen," even after admitting he had no direct knowledge of the incident but only heard it from a friend of a friend who'd supposedly heard the story from a police officer. Cameron’s widely publicized anti-gay libel may have had an effect on the election as voters rejected the gay rights ordinance in a referendum by a four-to-one margin.

Shortly after the Nebraska referendum, Cameron named himself head of a scientific research group he named the Institute for the Scientific Investigation of Sexuality (ISIS). He announced that ISIS’s first research project would be a national sex survey. In a front-page interview, headlined "Poll Will Help Oppose Gays," Cameron declared that his survey would provide "ammunition for those who want laws adopted banning homosexual acts throughout the United States." Cameron made this statement while he was still collecting responses from his surveys, making his ideological biases all too clear. One question further communicated the anti-gay agenda embedded in the survey. Cameron and his assistants asked gay respondents how they had developed their sexual orientations. Respondents were supplied a list of 44 loaded answers, including "I was seduced by a homosexual adult" and "I failed at heterosexuality."

Numerous methodological flaws mark Cameron’s 1983 survey. The study only had a 23 percent response rate at a time when quality surveys had a 75 percent response rate. Critics charge that the survey was too long, causing a “respondent fatigue” among those completing the survey negatively impacting the accuracy of the results. Furthermore, the wording of questions was often confusing, which would make responses less reliable. Finally, loaded answers provided in multiple-choice questions that reflect anti-gay stereotypes, Cameron’s stated strong bias against gays even as he was conducting the study, and his declaration before the study began that his work could be used to oppose gay rights, all raise nearly fatal questions about the reliability of the project.

Nevertheless, these cooked statistics often were presented as facts by sources quoted in news accounts, sometimes without balancing quotes from gay rights groups. "Whenever frightening claims about homosexual sex habits or child molestation are reported in pamphlets, videotapes or other materials, chances are the information has been taken from this single study," notes David Williams, director of the Kentucky Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives. The same year he released the ISIS survey results, Cameron announced to the press a separate study purportedly showing that homosexuals are "10-20 times more likely than heterosexuals to molest children," a statistic that repeatedly surfaces in Christian Right sermons and anti-gay rights political rallies.

Cameron derived his numbers from a 1978 study by Nicholas Groth, director of the Sex Offender Program at the Connecticut Department of Corrections. In a study, Groth interviewed 175 convicted child molesters and discovered that more of them had molested boys than girls. Cameron arrives at his statistic by defining men who molest boys as gay, even though Groth's original study found that none of the men identified as molestors of underage boys described themselves as homosexual. Instead, the pedophiles defined themselves as heterosexual outside of their criminal behavior or were what Groth described as "fixated pedophiles with no interest in sex with adults."

"Dr. Cameron misrepresents my findings and distorts them to advance his homophobic views," Groth wrote in a complaint to the APA. "He disgraces his profession." Groth filed a formal grievance with the American Psychological Association, which prompted the APA to strip Cameron of his professional accreditation. After he lost his credentials, Cameron tried to join the American Sociological Association, but he was rejected for membership. Unable to get published in credible academic journals, he nevertheless continues to print his shoddy research in self-published journals like Psychological Reports.

In 1992, Cameron self-published what would become the infamous "Gay Obituary Study," in which he estimated the "average gay life span in America" as 43 years. Cameron derived his number by taking 6,000 obituaries appearing in gay publications at the height of AIDS mortality in the mid to late 1980s, adding the age of death for each deceased person and then dividing the total by 6,000, coming out with an average of 43. The flaw in this methodology is laughably obvious. The men listed in obituaries in gay publications, particularly at the height of the AIDS crisis, cannot be taken as representative of the gay population at large, especially since most of those publications aimed at a younger audience. Cameron’s concocted 43-year-old lifespan for gays resurfaced in the media repeatedly in the coming years. In 1997, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, during an appearance on "This Week" on ABC, said, "The best available research suggests that the average life span of male homosexuals is around 43 years of age. Forty three."

An example of how such pseudo-science gets transmitted by the mainstream media without challenge or correction came in April of 2005 when a proposed Texas gay marriage ban was being debated on CNN by Cathie Adams of the right-wing Texas Eagle Forum and Randall Ellis of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. (Texas had already banned gay marriage by legislation but Republican Gov. Rick Perry, himself the target of gay sex rumors, piled on by getting a state constitutional amendment placed on that November's ballot.) During the debate Adams, again drawing on phony studies by Cameron, asserted that it was “a proven fact” that “children in same-sex couple homes are 11 times more likely to be abused sexually.” Caught off-guard with an unfamiliar study, Ellis responded by saying Adams’ comments were “completely absurd,” but then said he was unfamiliar with the research.

CNN host Kyra Phillips declined to challenge Adams’ claims, instead blandly saying, “It's been an interesting debate, a good debate.” Carol Lin, her co-anchor that afternoon then said, “Yes, now I have some opinions about that story. You and I are going to share them during the commercial break.”

By the artificial rules of “objective journalism,” without knowing the source of Adams’ bogus numbers Kyra Phillips couldn’t too fiercely question the wild claims about same sex couples and child molestation. It goes without saying that Carol Lin couldn’t share with the audience the opinions she discussed with her co-anchor during the commercial break. Such is the sad state of contemporary journalism that it was up to Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," to cut to the chase on this absurdity exchange.

"Actually, you know [the gay advocate is] right,” Stewart said after running a tape on the exchange between Adams and Ellis. “The study that Adams mentions is based on the work of one knucklehead who did a Nexis search on the Internet. … It's a specious claim, and no doubt Kyra Phillips will cut through the spin and point out the facts."

Stewart then ran the clip of Phillips saying, "It's an interesting debate, a good debate. Thank you both very much." The studio audience moans as Stewart mockingly responds: "Really? A good debate? Because it kind of seemed like [Adams] was lying. Kind of seemed like she was making this shit up. Co-anchor Carol Lin, you going to let her get away with that?"

Stewart then shows Lin telling Phillips, "I have some opinions about that story. You and I are going to share them during the commercial break." The next sound bit shows Phillips saying, "We'll be talking about it. That's for sure." Stewart has the final word, shouting in exasperation, "Why don't you call them on their bullshit on the air? You're an anchor for fuck’s sake!"

Stewart’s Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert later echoed the same anger at journalists at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner. Describing the Washington news process, Colbert told an silent, uncomfortable crowd of reporters, “Let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!”

If you want to find the ghost of David Halberstam, today, it won’t be in the nation’s newsrooms; it’s more likely to be found on basic cable entertainment programs. With only a sonambulant press acting as lapdog to a White House bent on deceit, we have only comedians left to tell reporters what their proper role should be.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: