Lou Chibbaro Jr. on Gay Marriage Initiatives, What the Mainstream Press Misses, and Gay Journalism in Red States

Lou Chibbaro Jr.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. is the senior news reporter at the Washington Blade, one of the nation’s leading gay and lesbian newspapers. He’s written for the Blade for more than twenty years, and spent the last decade covering presidential elections and other local and national news for the paper. Chibbaro was one of the first reporters with the gay press to receive an award from Society of Professional Journalists for local news reporting, and was given the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Victims of Crime Award for his coverage of gay bashings in Washington, D.C. He spoke with Campaign Desk as part of our ongoing series of interviews with reporters, editors and commentators who covered the presidential election.

BM: Did journalists understand the potential impact of the gay marriage initiatives on the final results of the election?

LC: That’s something that’s still resolving. A lot of analysis needs to be done. I know we’re reporting that the gay community itself and all of its organizations are mulling over this in great detail, and there may be some recriminations on the part of the community itself, as well as the Democratic party. We’ll be covering it very closely to see how it turns out.

BM: I didn’t read a whole lot about the potential impact of this. I heard a lot about the get out the vote stuff, and I heard a lot about young voters being energized, but I didn’t hear a whole lot about the possible importance gay marriage initiatives. Were you guys writing about this, maybe more than the Times and the Post and places like that?

LC: Yes. We were reporting about the initiatives from the moment they were being proposed in all the states. We did several stories on the potential impact of them. I think the states and cities where these initiatives cropped up, those local papers probably did cover them. But the national press, the press outside of those states, possibly didn’t grasp the impact they might have collectively.

BM: Why do you think that might be?

LC: I think part of it is that there are so many other issues surfacing across the country, and they might have had their attention diverted to that. What is somewhat disappointing to me is that while the gay press and our paper tries to focus on these issues, when they do break nationally, the mainline press throw all their vast resources to cover those. I don’t begrudge them for that. It’s terrific they have the resources to do that. But then some people might say, “well, why isn’t the Washington Blade or some of these other gay papers giving this vast coverage?” They say that without realizing we’ve covered them all along. Long before the mainline press. But we don’t have nearly the resources and the number of reporters and editors to throw everything at it at the same time when something breaks nationwide.

BM: Do you think people at gay papers and activist groups were surprised at how all this played out? Or is it something that people saw coming?

LC: We saw that coming. Realistically, no one expected any of the initiatives [to ban gay marriages] to be beat back, except possibly Oregon, where they were hoping there might be a chance. Oregon tends to be a little more of a progressive/moderate state and they threw all their resources into Oregon and quite a bit of money and field workers from other places. And that lost of course too.

BM: Do you think there are things that journalists at non-gay newspapers miss when they’re covering gay issues? Are there general topics where if you’re talking to some reporter at the New York Times who’s just been put on the beat of covering issues, that you would say, “You need to make sure you keep this in mind,” or “You need to make sure you do this?”

LC: I think you see that in some cases when they don’t have a chance to follow breaking developments outside their home territories, their home states. For example, I don’t know if there was widespread reporting outside of Ohio — I think there was in some of the main papers — that, for example, while Ohio voted overwhelmingly to ban gay marriage, the city of Cincinnati voted to repeal an antigay law that barred the city council from adopting a nondiscrimination policy based on sexual orientation. And that seemed like a little bit of a contradiction, but it was something that might show that while there’s hostility towards the marriage issue, there might be more sympathy growing in the nondiscrimination area.

BM: And that’s the kind of thing that might be flying under the radar for a national reporter?

LC: That’s right.

BM: Do blue state journalists have trouble thinking and reporting about red staters? Are they able to grasp where they’re coming from on a lot of these issues? It seems like you always hear about the liberal media elite, and that’s obviously something of a construct, but there is something to the notion that a lot of these reporters are from Washington and New York and California and New England and maybe don’t — well, you tell me. Do you think they understand the motivation of voters in Kansas?

LC: It’s hard to say. I think the reporters outside of those areas perhaps might. That’s the one thing about the gay press — we have reported reportedly, the strong — I don’t know if hostility is the right word for it, but the strong feeling of opposition to some principles of gay civil rights that has manifested itself in the south and in some areas of the Midwest. We’ve seen instances of that repeatedly over the years. So I don’t think this surprised many of those who really focus on it. But the fact that it inserted itself in a presidential campaign in an unprecedented way — I can’t think of any past presidential campaign where a single gay civil rights issue such as same-sex marriage has ever played such a predominant role.

BM: I live in New York, and I think here people were maybe a little surprised that that issue was such a wedge issue. Maybe sometimes you get into a little bit of a bubble and you just don’t see it…

LC: You know, there is a potential contradiction again, even in the same polling data. The same poll that showed that 20 percent cited moral values as a predominant factor in deciding who to vote for found that something like 26 percent favored same sex marriage and a higher percentage favored civil unions. I don’t have the figures in from of me, but it came to about 61 percent favoring some form of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. And a number of the activists that I talk to are citing that as a major breakthrough, though of course it contradicts the way the vote turned out for president.

BM: Isn’t that term “moral values” frustrating? We did a piece about this. It’s such a vague categorization — we didn’t find it all that helpful. If someone says “moral values” is the basis of their vote, I don’t know that I know what that means.

LC: That’s another clear area that I think needs to be explored. Some I interviewed said they believe the people who cited “moral values” were referring to issues other than human sexuality and something other than gay rights. The morality of caring for others who are less privileged and so forth.

BM: Finally, is there a gay press and/or gay reporters in red states? Are these discussions taking place in Oklahoma and places like that?

LC: There are gay papers in many of the red states. Our company has papers in Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta, as well as Houston, and there are others in Oklahoma, Missouri, many of the red states. The question is how broadly they may be read outside their own community. I mean, to some degree they’re preaching to the choir, because they’re writing to a gay audience.

BM: Do you think that they’re impacting the more mainstream papers in those areas or do you think that the gay papers are still somewhat ghettoized?

LC: It’s unclear. I think that in some cases the mainstream press may read the gay papers in their local hometown. There is an association — the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association — which had its annual convention in New York earlier this year. They try to alert their colleagues in the industry to at least be mindful of the gay press as a possible source or a lead for a story, as opposed to seeing it as something trying to advocate for one position over the other.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.