How do you do fair coverage of the homophobes?

Back in my Rocky Mountain News days, I covered a liberal Catholic conference on the subject of homophobia. Speaker after speaker defined homophobia in religious terms, stressing that it was a sinful condition in which people acted in ways that showed they feared or hated homosexuals. Then they stressed that people who advocated the Roman Catholic Church's doctrines on this subject (especially the "objectively disordered" concept) were guilty of homophobia. I thought this was pretty clear. Homophobia is sin. Orthodox Catholic teaching is homophobic. So I went one step further: This means Pope John Paul II is a sinful homophobe. When I asked the leaders of the conference questions based on this logic, and then wrote a story about their answers, all heck broke loose. They insisted that they had not called the pope a sinner, even though I had them on tape saying precisely that.

What's the point? I learned that people inside and outside the gay-rights movement are not precisely sure what the word "homophobia" means. It is one of those punching-bag words for people on both sides of this debate.

I thought of this again when reading Jeff Sharlet's fascinating reaction to George W. Bush's victory, over at The Revealer. Sharlet has been known to refer to this side of his personality in Hulk-like terms, but I actually think there is content to his anger that has serious implications for journalists in the mainstream media. Here is the thesis statement of his piece:

... (No) get-out-the-vote strategy can ultimately explain the vote itself, nor the plurality of voters who told exit pollsters that "moral values" were their number one concern. Moral values -- visible faith, anti-abortion, and, this time, anti-homosexuality -- are a real and powerful force in the American public sphere.

In 2002 and 2003, my friend Peter Manseau and I spent about a year traveling the United States, reporting a book called "Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible," a sort of spiritual geography of the nation. When we published the book earlier this year, interviewers asked us time and again: What is the common denominator of American faith? What is it that most of us share?

We lied every time. We offered up sincere but misleading tributes to freedom of speech as the American devotion. We avoided the answer that had made itself as plain as the two-lane roads we drove on: The greatest common denominator of American belief is anti-homosexuality.

Before readers start yelling about this, they really need to read to the end of his article. Sharlet is mad, no doubt about it. But his anger is widespread and is not merely an expression of anti-evangelical paranoia. No, his point is that all kinds of religious believers -- red and yellow, black and white -- are united in this irrational hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. He comes very close to damning all traditional religious believers -- period. It's like he's channeling the New York Times editorial page or something.

According to Sharlet, all of those television commentators who are talking about the "values gap" in this election, all of those newspaper pieces that are noting that moral and cultural issues were at the heart of Bush's win, all of those reports are missing the point. The point is that the majority of American religious believers hate homosexuals.

Wait, is "hate" the right word? Is "irrational" the right word? Is "sin" the right word?

This is going to be hard for the media to handle. Sharlet knows that. He is being honest about that.

... (At) one a.m. this morning, TV pundits left and right shook their heads and talked about gay marriage, and values, as possible explanations for why the overall vote failed to follow pollsters predictions. If that ís true, why exactly do so many people believe that homosexuality is an issue as important in determining one's vote as the economy, or healthcare, or war?

Since I don't share that view, it's hard for me to know. But I suspect that most of those who do hold it don't really know, either. ... So I'm proposing a story for some brave journalist, or novelist, or scholar. Tell us why so many of us build our understandings of the world around opposition to homosexuality. We'll want to know about the various theologies. We'll need to know about psychology, biology, sociology. But what I'm really waiting for is a full account of the faith that underlies this opposition. It's neither simple nor shallow. My travels -- and this election -- suggest to me that it is deep, and profound, made up of many meanings, spiritual, physiological, political, metaphorical.

After finishing his commentary, I wrote Sharlet with two questions:

Q: How are you defining "homophobia"? Normally, this means hatred of homosexuals. You seem to be defining it more broadly, as simply opposition to homosexuality itself (even among people whose personal behavior toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals might be quite tolerant). Are you saying that any public opposition to changing the basic definition of marriage and family taught -- as you note -- by the major world religions automatically equals vile, even sinful, hatred?

Q: If your new definition of "homophobia" catches on as the norm in mainstream media (if it has not already), what is the implication of this for the American model of the press, in terms of accurate and fair press coverage of the traditional and progressive sides of this debate? Is getting an accurate, fair report on this sexual revolution issue going to become an event as rare as, let's say, a fair and accurate Focus on the Family documentary about the life and times of Elton John?

Sharlet has already replied, saying he believes he is using the dictionary definition of the term. What I am saying is that this is going to have to be addressed by the Associated Press Stylebook. This is a journalism issue. We agree on that part.

Now, before GetReligion readers start raging at each other on the theological issues involved in this issue (once again), let me be clear about one thing. Forget Sharlet's anger for a minute. What are the journalistic implications of this debate? How can mainstream reporters cover both sides of this conflict with integrity?

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