Political and social advocates often grouse in common frustration while watching TV or reading the paper; they’ll recognize one of their opponents, and the advocate will slap his hand on his forehead and moan to the TV or newspaper, “Why did you talk to that guy?”
It doesn’t matter what the issue is or what side you’re on – you could be against abortion, or in favor of birth control, or worried about global warming – inevitably there will come a time when the media will look for someone to argue against your point of view and come up with a self-proclaimed expert known for making provocative statements.
The problem is these aren’t real experts and they bring false balance to a story.
This month, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) came up with a response for frustrated gay rights advocates: the Commentator Accountability Project.
The concept is amazingly simple. GLAAD has assembled a list of 36 commentators who are frequently called upon to offer the other side of the story on gay rights issues from military service to marriage. With each name and photo is a list of partial quotes and links. A quick scan of the material gives the user a primer in the most radical statements the commentator has made.
This is not a blacklist, said Aaron McQuade, director of news and field media for GLAAD, although that’s exactly how critics interpret it. Instead, McQuade calls it a resource for harried producers and reporters. He wants to help them vet their sources, so they know what they are getting into.
McQuade sees two big problems with the commentators on his list. Sometimes they lack any experience that would make them an expert. But more harmful, he says, are the commentators who offer up borderline hate speech to a sympathetic audience, then go on mainstream cable television and tone down their comments for a more diverse audience.
“If you are going to offer vile, hateful rhetoric in one forum, then show up on MSNBC as a scholarly expert, we want the audience to know the full context of who you are,” he said. And he hopes that anchors and reporters will challenge such commentators on things they say in other forums.
One of the commentators on the list, Kevin McCullough, a syndicated radio host, told Politico GLAAD was trying to silence him.
“I find it ironic that GLAAD’s exclusive goal in all of this seems to be the idea that shutting people’s voices down — who oppose them — will somehow make their arguments more sound,” he said.
Not true, says McQuade. “If anything, I’m trying to amplify his voice. I would like more people to know what he has said.”
Many of the profiles link commentators to illogical arguments, but not all do. Alan Chambers appears early in the alphabetical list. He’s head of Exodus, a Christian organization that teaches gay and lesbian men and women to live a straight life. Here’s GLAAD’s Accoutability entry:
- Now identifies as a so-called “ex-gay.” Recalling his youth: “I was a teenager, you know the bulk of my struggle was during my teenage years, from about 11 to 21 or so, and I understand feeling like the only way out is you kill yourself. In fact one of the things that made me want to die — was when I heard, there is no way out of this, this is your only option, there is no other choice, in fact there is no choice – you are who you are and that won’t ever change. And I thought, that can’t be the truth, and if it is, I can’t live this way.”
- “The people who are transgendered, the people who are in homosexuality, I would venture to say from personal experience that they’re not at peace,” he said, “and that true love isn’t able to be found in those types of relationships.”
While you could argue the accuracy of his generalizations, his rhetoric hardly approaches hate speech. With others, it’s pretty clear. Also on the list is Bryan Fischer, from the American Family Association. Here’s a portion of his entry:
- “Ladies and gentlemen, they [gay people] are Nazis (see video at :24). Do not be under any illusions about what homosexual activists will do with your freedoms and your religion if they have the opportunity. They’ll do the same thing to you that the Nazis did to their opponents in Nazi Germany.”
Of course, the danger is that journalists will use lists like this in the same way they would use a black list. If GLAAD is sincere about its intentions, the organization could add a short, instructional paragraph to the site, offering up some ideas about the best way to use the database. Because there is a range of egregiousness, such language would be helpful to journalists and to citizens who might come to the site looking for more information about a voice they heard. GLAAD also might include names of people who do “accurately represent the ‘other side’ of those issues,” as they say these commentators do not.