Politics

06.29.13

Would More Gay On-Air Talent Change Fox News?

Served by a sole ‘out’ contributor, the conservative cable channel’s LGBT coverage has been sparse and divisive. David Freedlander on the newsroom’s gay gap.

Polls and social scientists say that having a gay person in your family, your office, your social circle dramatically increases your acceptance of homosexuality.

Witness Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio who announced his support of same-sex marriage after his college-age son came out of the closet. Witness Dick Cheney, whose views on the matter were far more progressive than his views on anything else. Editorial pages around the country have been further out front than many of their readers on issues surrounding LGBT equality, a position influenced in part by newsrooms staffed by gay and lesbian journalists.

The gradual acceptance of homosexuality in society has been mirrored on cable-TV news, where recent years have seen a spate of on-air talent announce their sexual orientation, a reveal that was often met with kind of a shrug. CNN has Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon. After the Supreme Court announced that it was striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act , a series of gay and lesbian hosts and commentators took to the airwaves of MSNBC, including Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, Pete Williams, and Thomas Roberts.

The rainbow flag hit a black hole, however, when it came to Fox News. The third of the triumvirate of major cable-news networks only has one on-air talent who has come out of the closet, and that is Sally Kohn, a liberal analyst who is also an occasional—and unpaid—contributor to the network. (Shepard Smith, an weekday afternoon anchor, has long dealt with rumors that he is gay, but has not publicly addressed the matter.)

While a hint of celebration crept into some other networks’ coverage, Fox News was largely restrained in the immediate aftermath of the DOMA decision. Bill Hemmer, who was hosting America’s Newsroom as the decision was announced, quickly turned to Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano, who mostly pooh-poohed the significance of the decision: “I am not surprised at this outcome, Bill. From the way the oral argument went, from the fact that the federal government refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and the House of Representatives had to hire outside lawyers to do so. I am also not surprised given Justice Kennedy’s track record … this was a very difficult case for the court to uphold.”

Compare that with, say, Napolitano’s counterpart on CNN, Jeffrey Toobin, who said: “DOMA is gone. This is a major, broadly written opinion which strikes down the law on the grounds that it discriminates against gay people.”

Previously, Fox News has mostly ignored the wave of victories that marriage-equality advocates have celebrated, spending scant air time while state after state approves of referendum measures. According to BuzzFeed, on the day the court heard oral arguments on the case last March, Fox devoted only 60 minutes to the subject, compared with CNN, which spent 159 minutes on the case, and MSNBC, which spent twice that amount of time and devoted at least two segments to the issue on every show.

Which raises the question—would having more LGBT on-air talent at Fox News bring these issues to the forefront?

Carlos Maza, a writer at the Equality Matters, the companion website to the liberal media watchdog site Media Matters, said that when Fox News covers the gay community at all, it tends to broadcast lurid stories, or pieces about sex education that seem to suggest a “gay agenda” that includes a healthy dose of “gay indoctrination.”

Citing the examples of CNN and MSNBC, he said, “In both of those cases, the presence of openly LGBT employees has shaped the way the network has approached LGBT issues.”

When Fox News covers the gay community at all, it tends to broadcast lurid stories, or pieces about sex education that seem to suggest a “gay agenda.”

Former employees at Fox News say there are very few behind-the-scenes staffers who are openly gay; those that are, they say, have a tendency to mostly keep quiet about it, as they would regarding their political preferences—if those preferences happened to not tilt toward the Republican Party.

Others, though, are more skeptical.

Greg Lewis, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied issues of LGBT acceptance, said that knowing a gay person makes someone around 10 percent more likely to support any kind of issue of LGBT equality, be it workplace discrimination, adoption, or marriage. The paucity of “out” on-air talent, he said, was more likely because of the fact that, by and large (and Log Cabin Republicans aside), gay men and women tend to be liberal, and so would be a bad fit at Fox.

But even if the on-air talent is exclusively straight, it doesn’t then mean that they haven’t been around gays and lesbians in their careers. Lewis cited Census data that showed gay men are three times more likely than straight men to have studied communications as undergraduates or in graduate school, and that LGBT men and women are disproportionately represented in the field.

“I doubt they want to hire gay folks unless they are willing to stay in the closet,” he said. “Working with someone gay tends to make you more supportive of gay rights. But these are media people. They have worked alongside gay people for people for years.”

A spokesperson for Fox did not respond to a request for comment.