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Media Bias
With William McGowan
Author & Journalist

Thursday, April 25, 2002; 2 p.m. EDT

Is the media biased? Has the crusade for diversity hindered the quality of journalism by restricting debate on such subjects as gay rights, race, affirmative action and immigration? Has it brought racial and ethnic hypersensitivity and group favoritism at the expense of journalistic candor?

Author and Journalist William McGowan was online to discuss media bias and his new book "Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism."

McGowan in the author of "Only Man is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka" and has reported for Newsweek International and the BBC. A regular contributer to the Wall Street Journal, he is currently a fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center and at the Manhattan Institute.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Maryland: Do you feel that the Catholic sex scandal has been blown out of proportion? What is the motivation behind this? Thank you.

William McGowan: I generally think that the AMOUNT of coverage this story has generated has been ok, tough some days, on some stories, front page treatment may not be warranted. My problem with the coverage of the Church's sex scandal is the deliberate and consistent resistance to the role that homosexuality plays in the problem. Most of the press -- particularly the NYT and the broadcast news -- have played this story as involving pedophilia, and have done so in a way that challenges traditional notions Church positions on celibacy and the bar on ordaining women. But the majority of cases - 90 percent in fact -- involve priests -- some openly gay, others closeted, preying not on "children," but on teenage boys. The proper description of the scandal here is not pedophilia but homosexual sex harassment. Although the press has rightly slammed the Church for its cover-up, news organizations have been engaging in their own cover-up.
This is not to say that gays should be scapegoated, or that all gay men are more likely to hit on underage boys. But it does mean that gay priest in the Catholic Church are more likely to abuse minors and this is a sad reality we need to discuss.
The reason I think they are avoiding this story is that it violates strong internal party lines on protecting gays as a group. There are also a lot of editors and reporters in the newsroom who are gay and don't like the implications such misconduct on the part of gay priests has for other gay issues, such as gays in the military and gays in the Boy Scouts.
It is very sad to have to face these facts. As a lifelong Catholic, and someone who has seen three priests I know from growing up -- a former pastor and two high school priests -- be splashed across the pages of the New York tabs in the last month, I am not happy to have to acknowledge that gay priests are a problem. But this is the reality and our discomfort with that should not make us pretend that reality is not what statistics in this case say it is.

Laurel, Md.: One of right-wing critics favorite issues has been the coverage of the murder of Jesse Dirkhising (sp?) vs. Matthew Sheppard. (For readers: Dirkhising was a 13-year old murdered by two adult homosexuals after having a sexual liaison with them.)

Generally speaking, major national media did not report this because it was just a local crime story, not a national societal issue, like gay-bashing.

Well, who decided that gays recruiting teenagers isn't a societal issue? For a lot of conservatives it IS a major issue. Isn't judging it NOT an issue a kind of liberal bias, not in DETAIL selection but STORY/ISSUE selection?

William McGowan: The Dirkhising case is one I go into in COLORING THE NEWS, and the one that has attracted lots of criticism. I do not think the Shepard case and the Dirkhising case deserve parity coverage, but the Dirkhising case should not have been ignored either, as it was.
I agree with you that gay adults hitting on teenagers (13 years old!) is a story, though news organizations who wanted to do that story would have had to find more than one example to use to do it.
I would wager than if the Dirkhising murder took place now, in the shadow of all of the coverage of Church sex abuse, it would probably have a greater chance of getting the attention it deserved. Again, this should not cast aspersions on all gay men. The trick is to tell the story and contextualize it so that you are true to the facts, without advancing pernicious stereotypes. Not easy, but not impossible either.

Nashville, Tenn.: Doesn't it violate their diversity principles for liberal-dominated news organizations to say that racial/sexual diversity is good but political diversity is bad? Are they really that threatened?

William McGowan: In COLORING THE NEWS I don't say that news organizations actually admit that political and ideological diversity is bad. I say they operate in such a way that they are unaware of how important they are to encourage, both in hiring policies and in acknowledging more conservative perspectives in covering the news.
I don't know if newsrooms are "threatened" in any conscious way by perspectives that transgress a PC party line. But they are often unconsciously biased against them, and do not welcome people who challenge the reigning leftish orthodoxy on issues of race, ethnicity and gender. Even if you are not a conservative -- and I don't think conservatives I know would welcome me as one of them, even if I do share similar positions on certain specific issues -- to even ask a question that is deemed "conservative" often gets you labeled as such in a newsroom, which can carry consequences.
As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has noted, journalism should require a religious belief in absolutely nothing. Too many journalists are "believers" in terms of political agendas and don't seem to be able to filter their beliefs out of their coverage.

Washington, D.C.: How long did you research this book?

William McGowan: Too long. Off and on for five years. During the time I was working on the book, I lost both of my parents in a single year, which set me back a bit. I also lost my original publisher -- the Free Press of Simon and Schuster -- when the original acquiring editor & editorial director, Adam Bellow, left and the new regime backed away from the manuscript I delivered. They did so for reasons that had nothing to do with editorial quality and everything to do with the book's iconoclastic politics, forcing me to a new publisher, ENCOUNTER BOOKS.

Washington, D.C.:
Mr. McGowan,

I read a quick article by John Cloud in this week's Time magazine that was on pedophilia and the church. A word search of this lengthy three-page article didn't contain the word "gay" or "sex" or "homosexual" even once. Not once. How could an article about sex between men not contain "sex" or "gay" or "homosexual" in it once? You'd have to be crazy to not see the omission here.

William McGowan: Yes, you would have to be crazy not to see the omissions. It is a disgrace that there is such airbrushing going on here on this gay subtext to the Church scandal. As I said, as a lifelong Catholic who has seen the misconduct of three priests I know -- one former pastor and two high school teachers -- splashed across the pages of the New York tabloids in the last month, I am appalled by what priests such as these have done, as I am appalled by the decades-long cover-up on the part of the Church hierarchy. But as a journalist, I am just as appalled by the media's cover-up of one important dimension of the story -- the fact that something is wrong within the community of gay Catholic priests. Again, this is not to stigmatize gay men as a whole, who do not have a statistically higher proclivity to molest pubescent and teenagers than anybody else. But gay Catholic priests are statistically more likely to do this than their straight counterparts and the press's resistance to acknowledging this is a scandal in its own right.
I have tried to ask reporters and editors to account for this denial, and have gotten very little cooperation. Howell Raines at the NYT has not returned any calls I have made to him on this subject; ditto his religion writers and editors.
During the writing of COLORING THE NEWS, I saw a lot of journalistic malpractice, but never anything as blatant as the denial and avoidance marking the coverage of the gay angle in the Church sex story. It's not just journalistically dishonest. It will make it harder to solve the problem. You can't come up with the right cure if you don't have the right diagnosis.

Laurel, Md.: Re: Racial Profiling

The latest news I read, not in a major national source, was that the New Jersey traffic stops based on drug-courier profiling were EQUALLY SUCCESSFUL whether the subject was black or white. In other words, blacks are stopped more often than whites, because they're more likely to BE DRUG COURIERS.

Isn't failing to acknowledge high black crime rates the 500-pound gorilla in discussing police race-relation issues?

William McGowan: You have to be careful here. Indeed, blacks as a group are more likely, statistically speaking, to engage in criminal behavior than whites. But blacks who are not acting in any obvious criminal way should not fall under undue suspicion on a highway just because of skin color.
That being said, the coverage of the profiling story in New Jersey has been animated by the assumption that the police -- mostly white -- unjustly pull over blacks who have done nothing wrong. In fact, as a recent controversial study has shown, members of minority groups actually speed on the jersey Turnpike at a higher rate than whites do, which would make a higher rate of traffic stops justifiable and understandable. But don't look for too much empirical research like this on the part of reporters covering this story. Racial attitudinizing is so much easier.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Isn't it a major problem that the media themselves control many of the channels of criticism of the media? For example: Tom Friedman expressed justified frustration last week that many of the people talking about the Middle East on CNN simply have no idea what they're talking about. For some time, I too have felt that this is something very newsworthy. However, I don't expect CNN to run a piece on how its guests and correspondents are frequently unqualified to be expressing the opinions or history lessons they're offering.

Newspapers have letters to the editors which theoretically serve as a check on bias or inaccuracies, but since the newspapers themselves control the content of the letters page, again, where is the check on accuracy and bias?

Any thoughts on this point?

William McGowan: It is very hard for the media to criticize itself or to open up channels for outside critics like myself to express criticism and dissent. That being said, I have been surprised that the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- both targets of criticism in COLORING THE NEWS -- have been able to review the book, and to review it in a very flattering way. Unfortunately the New York Time has blacked it out. Last month Chip McGrath, editor of the Times Book review, told the San Francisco Chronicle that he didn't think COLORING THE NEWS was of enough "general interest" to merit a Times review (They reviewed my first book, about the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1992 and put it on their Most Notable Books list that year.) McGrath also said that he didn't think it was appropriate to review the book because it was too "critical" of the Times. This I think is journalistically lame, if not institutionally corrupt, and is the journalistic equivalent of the "blue wall of silence." The Times never misses a chance to tell other institutions in American life -- corporations, the clergy, the cops -- that they should be more accountable to the public and should be open to critics, from within and without. But when it comes to a book like mine, they black it out. Hypocrisy -- and arrogance -- in their worst form.
Actually, I'm surprised SFC reporter Dan Fost got McGrath to say what he said on the record. (you can find the quote on www.coloringthenews.com). Most people in the NYC literary and media worlds were shocked he would say something like that out loud and for the record. What is he afraid of?

Los Angeles, Calif.: General question. Myself, and most of my peers, family and friends, view the media -- especially TV -- as totally biased and more focused on entertainment than news. In general -- a joke. Major media is to be avoided as unreliable or irrelevant. However, the media views people such as me as some sort of fringe when in reality, MANY, MANY American's are of the same opinion. I believe the news media has a crucial role to play in our democracy but due to reporting bias and quest for big-corporate profits, the media has forsaken it's responsibility in this area. To sum up, when will the media "get it."

Furthermore, I am a graduate educated, politically moderate, well-read individual, not some rube as the media "elite" likes to label those who feel as I do.

William McGowan: I wrote COLORING THE NEWS for people like you -- educated, well-informed and nonideological Americans who feel they are being sold an ideological bill of goods on stories associated with diversity -- specifically on the hot-button issues of race, gay rights, affirmative action and immigration. At this point in our historical and demographic development as a nation, when the cultural topography of America is literally shifting beneath our feet, we have never been in more need of accurate information, which only robust, inquisitive and ideologically neutral reporting can give us. But we are not getting it. Obsessed with the crusade to achieve "diversity" within its own newsrooms, the press is projecting that worthy goal out onto the way it covers "diversity issues" in the rest of society, much to the detriment of the larger conversation we as a society should be having.

Arlington, Va.: It's interesting to read your discussion about priests because while insisting that bias plays a role in how the "gay" angle is played out, you are perpetuating another "bias" -- this one conservative -- which identifies behavior as "gay" for the same of titillation when none of the players are gay.

Do any of the priests identify themselves as gay? Probably not. Hence, since there are no "gay" people involved, it really isn't a "gay" story.

William McGowan: In fact, some of the priests implicated in this story have identified themselves as gay, some publicly and some privately. Furthermore, the nature of the sexual contact involved BY DEFINITION means that homosexuality is involved. Priests are men; 90 percent of the victims are teenage boys. Adult men having sex with other males, even if they are teenagers, is by definition gay sex, last time I looked anyway.
I have to admit this is the silliest question I have ever been asked. I think it just goes to show the lengths that certain people, well-meaning even if brainwashed, will go to maintain illusions and pieties. You haven't asked for my advice but if you did I would say that I think you should concentrate on seeing the world as it is, not as you -- or the gay lobby -- might want it to be.

Arlington, Va.: Well, you certainly seem to be fixated on gays, and your little disclaimers about not trying to paint all gay men or gay priests as predators seem pretty thinly veiled. Do you have any actual facts or statistics to back up your assertions that gay priests are more likely to sexually abuse boys and young men? How do you even know how many gay priests there are? I'd say the likely cause of this problem has less to do with the fact that these priests are gay than it has to do with the fact that they are sexually repressed and probably joined the priesthood as a way to avoid their sexuality. So its development was arrested in their late teens, and now becomes manifest as we have seen. I think the media have been rightly careful in dealing with this story so as not to paint all gays as the problem. Given how much people already hate this minority, I think it's a good thing they're treading carefully.

William McGowan: For the record, COLORING THE NEWS has chapters on coverage of race, immigration, affirmative action and feminism, in addition to coverage of gay issues. I am responding to questions submitted to me in this chat, and am not at all fixated on gays. The fact that the Church sex scandals are dominating the news right now is the reason we seem to be so focused on gay issues right here and right now.

Sad you are so cynical about my disclaimers. And in fact I do have facts and stats you might be interested in.
There are 46,000 Catholic priests in America.
Estimates are that between 30 percent and 50 percent of all Catholic priests are gay now, and that in some "lavender" seminaries, that proportion is even higher. As one Catholic writer recently said, "the gay priests I know joke that when they go to a gay bar, it looks like a chancery meeting."
Of the 2000 or so sex abuse cases which have come to light, scholars like Fr Donald Cuzzens, authors like Michael Rose and plaintiff lawyers like Steve Rubino who represents 300 abuse victims, all estimate that between 85 percent and 90 percent of the cases involve priests abusing male teenagers, 13 and up.
I lament that gay priests are involved, and don't think they should be scapegoated, nor should it be assumed they are all more likely to abuse teenage boys. But I think we are trying to deny the presence of the elephant in the living room (or sacristy) by pretending that homosexuality plays no role at all here. Gay men aren't the problem, but gay priests are, and by not looking hard at this reality, we are helping to perpetuating more abuse -- the very charge the press is throwing at the Church hierarchy right now.
By the way, a perfectly reasonable journalistic question to ask would be if straight seminarians are being driven out of seminaries by the gay cliques that have come to dominate them. Instead we get pro-gay pap from clueless NYT reporters like Laurie Goodstein who seems to be taking her cues from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. As a reporter and a Catholic it has been appalling to read her stuff, especially the credence she gives those who say that looking at the gay angle to this story is akin to Catholic anti-Semitism.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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