Google’s Hot Trends indicated earlier this week that people have been searching at length for information about Elena Kagan’s personal life. Many are questioning whether the Supreme Court nominee, who has kept her personal life private, is a lesbian. But they’re not finding out much, if anything, about this from the mainstream media.
While bloggers and others in the Fifth Estate have been fervently talking about the speculation, those in the Fourth Estate have contributed little to the conversation.
The difference between the fourth and fifth estates’ coverage raises questions about what role each group plays in the shifting news ecosystem: Why aren’t the mainstream media addressing an issue that the public wants to know more about?
In an e-mail interview Wednesday, The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan told me he believes traditional news outlets wrongfully see it as their role to withhold information that might affect their reputation.
“The mainstream media are squeamish on the matter of homosexual orientation and need not be when we are dealing at this level of public life at this moment in the evolution of gay visibility,” Sullivan said. “I think they mistake invading someone’s privacy with noting their public identity, and I think it’s because most of them are straight and cannot even imagine this distinction because they have never had to deal with it.”
He criticized a New York Times profile that talked at length about Kagan’s personal life but didn’t address the question of whether she’s a lesbian. Traditional media outlets, he said, shouldn’t dismiss the issue or simply leave it to bloggers to discuss. Rather, journalists and bloggers “should all be responsible and transparent and not invade the details of someone’s life but ask easily answerable questions about someone’s public orientation,” he said.
Sullivan argued that Kagan’s sexual preference is relevant and that to say it’s not is “hooey.” Though he is no longer posing the question on his blog, he said it’s perfectly legitimate to ask if Kagan is a lesbian, and that it’s cowardly not to tell.
Washington City Paper’s Amanda Hess, who writes about sex and gender, argued against Sullivan’s position in a column earlier this week. By not revealing her sexual orientation, Hess wrote, Kagan is “just expecting to be treated with the same respect afforded to the 111 Supreme Court justices who have come before her — justices whose sexual orientation was never considered a political issue.”
Mainstream news organizations aren’t as quick to argue about whether or not Kagan should reveal her sexual orientation. David Sweeney, managing editor for news at National Public Radio, said it’s not NPR’s role to initiate or reveal personal information about a public official.
“It is not germane to this story,” Sweeney told me by phone. “She regards it as a private matter. And that’s where we’re leaving it for now.”
Other mainstream media outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal, have been accused of making innuendos about Kagan’s sexual orientation. After Kagan’s nomination, the Journal ran a front-page photo of Kagan playing softball, prompting some readers to question whether the paper was playing off a stereotype. In a Politico story, the Journal denied such claims.
The closed nature of confirmation hearings hasn’t helped mainstream media’s coverage of Supreme Court justices, says Jack Shafer, Slate’s media critic and editor at large. He wrote a recent column about Kagan, advocating the nomination of a qualified homosexual.
Hypocrisy, he told me in a phone interview, is a lever that the press has traditionally used to investigate private conduct. But in this case, there is no hypocrisy.
“It used to be that the mainstream press ordinarily didn’t cover the private lives of mainstream figures,” Shafer said. “I think that started to change in the ’70s when hypocrisy was the justification used by a news organization when it started to report on the private peccadilloes of candidates or public figures who had pretended to be stalwarts of the American family.”
Shafer said there are hardly any avenues for the Senate or the public to get to know a nominee. It’s natural, then, for the public to want answers to questions about a nominee’s personal life.
Sometimes, Shafer said, good journalism is done by what some might consider “bad” or “faulty” news outlets that try to find these answers and aren’t so devoted to ethics that they miss out on an important story. He doesn’t blame bloggers for pressing the issue and wanting to find out more.
“It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s an elephant that I wish would go away,” Shafer said. “I’m not interested in making inquiries about her private life, but neither am I going to ignore that, according to Google, there are millions of people doing exactly that.”
Michael Triplett, a journalist and lawyer who has covered the Supreme Court and who’s on the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association‘s board of directors, said it’s not a big surprise that people are so interested in Kagan’s sexuality. A 50-year-old single woman who has never been married, he said, makes some people wonder, “So, is she a lesbian?”
Answering this question isn’t part of the mainstream media’s role, Triplett argued. “I think mainstream media plays a different role than the Fifth Estate. Mainstream media needs to be focused on the facts and what we know or don’t know,” he said. “I don’t really want them to have Kagan’s sexual orientation mystery as the front page story or the lead report on TV or radio. That’s just unseemly, especially since we don’t have an answer.”
Triplett, who writes about LGBT issues in the media for Mediaite, said the mainstream media aren’t shying away from covering the issue so much as they’re trying to figure out why they should care. Kagan’s sexual orientation, he said, is relevant to the extent that it affects her experience of particular laws.
“A gay or lesbian judge is going to bring a certain set of experiences that other people don’t have, in the same way Justice Ginsburg’s experience as a woman shapes how she experiences the law,” Triplett said. “It doesn’t mean that the judge is biased or can’t rule against same-sex marriage, for example, but it does mean they experience the law differently.”
Searches for Kagan’s personal life aren’t at the top Google’s Hot Trends anymore, but the question still lingers. Moving forward, both the fourth and fifth estates would do well to consider how they’ll respond if and when Kagan decides to answer this question.
Michael Triplett and Poynter’s Kelly McBride chatted with readers about this subject at 2 p.m. eastern Thursday. You can view the archive replay by clicking on the play button below.
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