South Florida Sun-Sentinel profiles a gay saint

McnaughtIn the mid-1990s, I had a chance to speak to some editors gathered in a Bible Belt city — let’s leave it at that — about how to improve religion coverage at their newspapers.

The morning of my talk, the local daily carried a long feature about a lesbian couple that was experiencing tension with neighbors in their middle-class community. It had a large, lovely photo of them in their perfect living room. The story was totally positive, with the exception of a very stereotypical quotation or two from predictably blunt fundamentalists (in the accurate sense of that word).

I used this as a case study in my presentation. I told the editors that I predicted the newspaper switchboard was getting lots of angry calls from readers accusing the editors of liberal bias. Bingo, said one editor, with a “What can you do?” shrug. I said that I thought the story was perfectly valid, while I might have had some questions about the witless, straw-men quality of the traditionalists who were quoted.

Now, what would happen if you ran this story on one day and then, on the next, did a matching story on a conservative who had left her lesbian past behind and was now married, with kids, and working in ministry with people in the area who were struggling with issues of sexual identity?

Well sure, one editor said, that would be great if such a person existed. Expecting this reply, I offered a name and number. It took a few minutes that morning for me to find such a woman in the area. If they ran this second story, I predicted that they would get more angry calls — from a totally different part of the community. This would be a good thing, I said.

I bring this up because of a story in my local newspaper this morning entitled (here is the whole headline), “The gospel of Brian McNaught: The South Florida resident who has been called the ‘godfather of gay diversity’ has a humble quest: a world of mutual respect.” McNaught is a former Catholic altar boy and progressive Catholic journalist who has evolved into a Buddhist gay activist and business consultant.

The story is, in every sense of the word, hagiography. It is amazing that, while McNaught is immersed up to his eyebrows in some of our culture’s hottest controversies, he has no enemies. It is clear that he is brilliant and has lived a strategic, productive life. But there is no one who can be interviewed who is critical of his ongoing work with American Catholic colleges, major corporations, etc.?

One of the few times a conservative point of view is mentioned, reporter Margo Harakas does something that, when I was in journalism school, was a mortal sin. She prints the views of this famous, but strangely anonymous, conservative leader second hand — trusting McNaught’s own account of the story. Here is that part of the story, with only one tiny edit:

In his presentations, McNaught says, “The most powerful thing I do is tell my story.” … He likes to tell of the man who sat next to him on a plane, a high-profile, born-again Christian businessman and recipient of a presidential Thousand Points of Light award. He was from Cobb County, Ga., which McNaught knew had an ordinance declaring homosexuality incompatible with community values. The man and his wife helped finance the opposition to civil rights for homosexuals.

“So, tell me about you,” the man said. “Are you married? What do you do for work?”

McNaught responded politely and calmly. He and his partner had been together more than 20 years, he noted. And his work was helping corporations address homophobia in the workplace.

Digesting that information, the man slowly began to probe more. McNaught shared the feelings of fear and isolation that gays and lesbians grow up with. He told of his life, of his devout upbringing, how he was a model child who yearned to be a saint. He explained that while he dated girls throughout his school years, he knew he was different. “The horror of growing up gay,” he explained, “is having a secret you don’t understand and are afraid to share with family and friends for fear of losing their love and respect.”

All that he was advocating, he said, was for a world that was mutually respectful.

As the plane readied for landing, the man declared, “Brian, as sure as I’m sitting here, I believe that God had you sit next to me.” He admitted he had never met a homosexual before. “You put a face on this issue and I won’t ever forget that.”

OK, I want to know. Who was this person? How would he describe his side of this encounter?

And what about the views of traditional Roman Catholics believers on the American Catholic campuses on which McNaught speaks as an authority on issues of sexual morality and health? It would probably be easy to locate a few and reach them by telephone.

Now, South Florida is South Florida and I know that. Let me stress that this was a valid news story, while I believe it could have used some sane, clearly attributed material from this man’s critics. Perhaps the Sun-Sentinel also needs to consider finding a second story. You know, perhaps there is another valid news story that would tweak minds and tempers on the other side of this cultural divide. Maybe?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Brian Lewis

    Who knew that hagiography would have a growing spot in 21st century newspapers?

    For another example of the genre, check out this story

    about the first gay man to become a member of the Homecoming Queen’s court at Vanderbilt University.

  • Jon S.

    When raising similar concerns as Terry’s about a story, some former co-workers compared my suggestion to dropping KKK quotes in a biography of Rosa Parks.

    Look at the diversity statements from American corporate journalism. At the highest points of journalism, any stance against homosexuality is opposed as strongly as racism.

    Are the corporate diversity policies of American newspapers eroding any chance of good journalism in this and related areas? Or is it worse: Do American journalists believe such hagiography *is* good journalism?

  • Molly

    The culture and our political landscape are divided almost right down the middle so you are surprised at hagiography? This is the result of all the tomato throwing from each side; pick your poster child and pooh pooh the opposition. Until journalism throws off corporate sponsorship and writers are free to objectively tell all sides of the story, this is journalism today. I may be wrong, but wasn’t there hagiography out the wazoo in the past before newspapers became part of communications conglomerations? Or were newspapers more independent when there were more of them?

    Corporate news may not be such a bad thing because now the reading public (I know – oxymoron!) will have to parse stories, think for themselves, and learn to do a little googling to research claims.

  • Saint Dumb Ox

    You do realize of course, that what you are asking for in the mainstream media is like asking a mad bull to tip toe through the china shop. Only online blogs and news sources are open for the kind of balanced reporting you are asking for. The problem is that online sources have yet to gain the “legitimacy” of a print source.

  • Stephen A.

    What I call the “NPR” style of skewed reporting is rampant in the media today. It goes like this:

    1) set up the “bad” conservative viewpoint first, usually with a weak, poorly-articulated description of the conservative view of the issue.

    2) Then spend the rest of the story selling the more “reasonable” view.

    The other major technique used to bias reporting is to glorify one side of an issue and completely ignore the other, and this is what’s happened in the exemple cited here. It’s not journalism, it’s propaganda.

    Interestingly, the liberal counterargument that no bias exists in the media other than “corporate” bias is made constantly now that bias is being more clearly indentified by sources like blogs and they are being held more accountable.

    It rings a bit hollow, though, since this glorification of liberal religion and social values and demonization of more traditional forms occurs in the smallest of family-owned newspapers as well as the “big” papers like the New York Times.

  • George Curcio

    The original post and the comments in response point to two of the most disturbing developments now taking place regarding the media and our society.

    The first is the continuing polarization of our society in virtually all regards, in which each side stakes out its position in an entrenched and unyielding manner that refuses to seek, or even acknowledge the existence of, any common ground that can produce consensual solutions to the existent issues of our society.

    This intransigence leads to the second disturbing development, namely the disregard for standards that would mandate a desire to, at the least, seek truth and honesty in the presentation of opinion. Each side is so determined to prove the dominant value of their beliefs that any regard for truth and concession of validity to the other side is vanquished.

    In almost all aspects of our society, polarized interests are digging in and sticking unyieldingly to predetermined stances on virtually every issue of public concern. Rather than acknowledging the deliterious effect such behavior is having on our society, we are ignoring the consequences of our actions in deference to a constant spin and distortion of the truth.

    Sadly, the very institutions that were once the safeguard against such behavior are now the very institutions most greatly contributing to this downward spiral, including foremost the media, the religious infrastructure and education entities.

    No side nor view has a monopoly on the truth, as continually evidenced by each side’s fraudulent claims to possess exactly that.

  • Tim (Random Observations)

    I’m still dying to know the end of the story of the first newspaper. Did they run the alternate story you suggested, also? Especially when they’d admitted it would be “great if such a person existed”? Or did they decline?

  • Victor Morton

    I’m still dying to know the end of what Mr. Curcio is talking about. So many words. So few specific referents.

  • Brian Lewis

    The fact is when an editor finds that a reporter has written a hagiography it’s not that hard to improve it. Any newspaper profile that doesn’t include critical comments isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. If there’s an article about homosexuality that doesn’t adequately explain why some people are opposed, it doesn’t take much – maybe even no more than 2 paragraphs – to at least show that the newspaper realizes people with differing opinions exist. It doesn’t have to derail the whole article or take away from a positive view of homosexuality. However, if a story only celebrates homosexuality, then it doesn’t belong in a mainstream newspaper.

  • NancyP

    McNaught is a corporate diversity trainer, but this was not a business piece, it was a “human interest” story, and had some of the usual failings of such stories (fulsomeness being one). As such, I am not sure what “balance” would constitute, other than writing a second “human interest” story about David Morrison or some other prominent “ex-gay”. Either piece would be fluff.

  • Stephen A.

    I think Brian Lewis’ posting is right on the money. Any story that is overly deferrential to one position, and either ignores or trashes the other side, needs balance added.

    A follow-up of equal value that gives the readers the balance reporters and editors owe them would also be acceptable.

    And if serious issues are written about in an entertaining, engaging way, it’s not “fluff” at all, but informative.

  • George Curcio

    With deference to the above posts that call for ‘balance’ as a obligatory mandate for stories such as the one discussed here, the following question begs to be asked:

    If a newspaper were to run a glowing tribute of someone for having lived a “Christian” life, would the author be obligated to include at least one direct quote from someone with less-than-nice things to say about that person? Would the author, as the logic of the orinal post and several responses seem to indicate, be obligated to present such a view simply in the name of ‘balance’?

    It just so happens that one such story appeared in the news this weekend, and can be found at the following link:

    In all sincerity, the Christian within me asks whether this is really a fair and balanced portrayal of the subject’s life, or whether, perhaps, the reporter shirked his obligatory duty of finding and citing someone with a less-than-flattering opinion of the subject.

    Before answering, please let go of your moral pretensions, search your heart, and look for the Christ within. Once that has been done, your answer will be most insightful.

    With sincere prayers for peace and blessings to all . . .

  • Stephen A.

    Well, you didn’t say it was an OBITUARY. That’s quite different.

    Or maybe not.

    While not a religious story, as a reporter for a small weekly a couple of years ago, I wrote an obit for an 86-year-old who had been one of those “colorful” characters in town. He was witty and charming, but he had also been the center of controvery while serving on some minor town boards in his later years.

    I had written about those controversies in detail, so while I was obliged to gather stories about him from those who liked him and from those whom he had bothered.

    But even they were nice to him in death (as most people are) so I really did touch on some of the controversies in my narrative. It was part of who he was, after all.

    If this guy in the story you linked to had been controversial – say, he had urged speaking in tounges or snake handling in that small church he built, and this congregation had never done such things – the reporter would have been negligent in NOT bringing up the controversies, confusions and hurt feelings, even if most folks are decent enough not to dwell on those when someone passes.

    The point here is that what the media does, however, is they tend to pick and choose who they give the “fair” treatment to.

    Will they conveniently forget that a priest was a pedophile when they write his obituary? No, and they shouldn’t. But when they write a prominent gay figure’s obit, it invariably is a glorification of his “struggle” and when it includes his detractors’ comments at all, they are invariably portrayed as ignorant bigots.

    That’s the bias, and that’s the problem.

  • tmatt

    A few comments.

    As far as I know, the newspaper did not run a feature about the woman who had abandoned her lesbian lifestyle.

    Also, my point was not that every story needs to have some wild voice on the other side sniping away from a competing point of view. A lot depends on the subject of the story. In this case, the Sun-Sentinel was dealing with some very, very controversial issues. I dare say that if the newspaper was doing a similar profile of an activist on the other side of the issue, the story would have included quite a bit of feedback from the lifestyle left. My other point concerned the validity of featuring such a long, strong, anecdote based totally on second-hand quotations. This, to me, was out of bounds.

  • Brandon M.

    In response to tmatt’s first post. I suggest checking out the rarely reported life of a man named Sy Rogers. He lived as a woman for a couple years and is now a club musician and travelling speaker telling about his life since his encounter with God. A very rare article indeed.