Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media

Article excerpt

Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media. Edward Alwood. NY, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996. 368 pp. $29.95 hbk.

The treatment of lesbians and gay males by the news media has changed immensely since World War II. To those accustomed to the contemporary media's relatively benign depiction of homosexuality, the homophobic images of lesbians and gays in the news media of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are chilling. Edward Alwood's book explores those images and how they changed.

Alwood's account begins with the intense homophobia and ignorance of homosexuality of the post-war mainstream news media. Homosexuality was a growing "disease" and "social problem"; describing a homosexual as a "pervert" or "deviate" was objective news reporting. Time magazine in 1966 described homosexuality as "a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life." Even the progressive alternative newspaper Village Voice used phrases like "forces of faggotry" and "limped wrists and primed hair" to describe the June 1969 Stonewall Riots which marked the beginning of gay liberation.

These images were not simply a reflection of society's profound misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality, but were also the end result of a news production process infused with homophobia. In newsrooms gay males were routinely called "fags." Iphigene Sulzberger, mother of the New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, wrote complaining notes to her son when "homosexuality, like prostitution and social diseases" was given too prominent coverage in her family's newspaper. Reporters found tobe gay or lesbian were either summarily fired or, more "compassionately" as in the 1963 case of Time's Andrew Kopkind, required to seek psychiatric counseling.

Activists both in the homophile and gay liberation movements of the 1970s recognized the power of the media. The bulk of Alwood's book focuses on the efforts by lesbians and gays to challenge these inaccurate and damaging images. Actions ranged from politely picketing newspapers to organizing large angry protests outside news office and conducting "media zaps," or disrupting live news broadcasts. While such protests got the media's initial attention, lesbian and gay media activists followed up with more organized efforts such as meetings with the editorial staffs or complaints to the Federal Communications Commission. …