Monday, July 20, 2009

Outrage Over "Outrage": NPR Redacts Review of Kirby Doc

Kirby Dick's new documentary Outrage is about "the politics of the closet"--specifically, the plight, and the damage done to gay rights legislation, by closeted politicians who align themselves with the religious right and the "family values" set to deflect suspicions about their own sexual orientation. In its hard line against hypocrisy, the movie is on the side of those, such as blogger Michael Rogers, who are working to "out" closeted politicians. It's a position that's designed to antagonize those who regard outing itself strictly as an unjustifiable intrusion into others' personal lives--including those in the media, which Dick specifically takes to task for what he sees as its eagerness to avoid dealing with gay issues. (In our own interview with the director, Dick describes a run-in with a reporter who told him that he couldn't write about the movie because it would violate his paper's policy against outing. ""Do you mean to say," Dick replied, "that your company's policy on outing trumps your company's policy on reporting!?" That kind of compartmentalized thinking has begun to affect the kind of coverage the movie is getting. Last Friday, the NPR website ran a review of the movie by Nathan Lee that, because of NPR's policy on outing, was subsequently "edited" to remove the names of former Senator Larry Craig, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and Florida governor Charlie Crist. The movie itself makes an elaborate case that Crist is living a strategically dishonest life that includes a recent marriage and support for his an anti-gay marriage amendment that voters have added to the state constitution. Lee subsequently asked that his name be removed from the review and added a comment to the site, lest anyone think that it was his idea to reject using Crist's name in favor of the pithy phrase "one major swing-state governor ... with aspirations to be the 2012 Republican presidential candidate."

In his comment, which has been deleted from NPR's site but can still be read at indieWire's story on the debacle, Lee wrote that "I personally disagree with NPR's policy--there is no other area of 'privacy' that elicits such extreme tact. And also feel that it is a professional affront to my responsibility as a critic to discuss the content of a work of art, and an impingement of my first amendment right to free speech and the press." Whatever you think about outing, it seems hard to argue that NPR seemed to be at cross-purposes with itself by attempting to cover a movie whose subject matter it didn't feel it could allow its reviewer to freely describe. At the same time, NPR wound up providing Dick with an example he can point to in the future to bolster his claim that the mainstream media is so queasy about gay sexuality that they jump at any excuse to avoid talking about it. After all, if a high-profile documentary film implied that Charlie Crist was a graft-happy crook or had been on the grassy knoll in Dallas, it's hard to imagine a major media outlet trying to address these charges while gingerly dancing around using the guy's name, on the grounds that he hasn't called a press conference to concede their accuracy. The New York Times articles by Jeff Gerth that suggested that the Clintons were involved in some vast pile-up of illegal acts gathered under the label "Whitewater"--the articles that led to the appointment of a special prosecutor and a four-year, multimillion-dollar federal investigation--were less firmly grounded than some of the things people talk about in Dick's movie as if they were common knowledge, which in some quarters, they are. For what it may feel are the best of reasons, NPR is signaling that it believes it's one thing to report that some people are saying that the President and First Lady conspired to have a White House counsel killed and made it look like suicide, but that reporting that some people are whispering that someone with an anti-gay voting record is himself gay is just too monstrous to contemplate.

In most respects, though, NPR's handling of the matter has just made it look silly. It's kind of insane that they felt that consistency in their policy meant that they had to delete not just Crist's and Koch's names but that of Larry Craig, whose restroom-stall arrest not only ended his political career but turned him into a punch line overnight. Worse, the site's right and left brain seemed to be warring with themselves over that very issue: even though Craig's name was removed from the review, as of this writing, the review is still illustrated with a copy of Craig's glowering mug shot. In the meantime, Movieline has pointed out that there seems to be a double standard at NPR regarding speculation about the sexual orientation of celebrities: what's a gross violation of privacy for Charlie Crist is just good fun when the subject is an American Idol contestant and Queen Latifah. This doesn't necessarily mean that fear of the truly powerful has more to do with NPR's policy than concern for people's privacy rights, but the only other plausible explanation is that NPR's attitude towards gays is actually condescending as hell.

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