Lesbian reporters removed from marriage beat after marrying each other
March 17 2004 1:00 AM ET
The San Francisco Chronicle removed its lead City Hall reporter and photographer from covering the city's same-sex marriage controversy after the longtime lesbian partners were wed last week. In a decision he characterized as difficult and painful, executive editor Phil Bronstein told the paper's staff on Monday that reporter Rachel Gordon and photographer Liz Mangelsdorf had been pulled from the story after editors concluded there was a potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest. A similar move was made at public radio station KQED, where Scott Shafer, host of the popular California Report program, agreed to stop reporting on gay marriage after he and his partner were wed. "Chronicle journalists directly and personally involved in a major news story--one in whose outcome they also have a personal stake--should not also cover that story," Bronstein wrote in a memo. "The issue is the integrity and credibility of the paper as well as conflict and perception of conflict." Bronstein said the decision was made after lengthy discussion and meetings with the paper's senior editors and with both Gordon and Mangelsdorf, whose professional integrity Bronstein praised. Neither Gordon or Mangelsdorf would comment on the decision, but Bronstein noted that the couple "disagreed" with it.
The same-sex marriage story has dominated headlines in San Francisco since February 12, when Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered the city clerk to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some 4,000 couples tied the knot before the California supreme court ordered the city to shut down the marriages on March 11, pending a decision later this spring regarding whether Newsom had the authority to allow issuance of the licenses. Bronstein noted that Gordon and Mangelsdorf had approached their editors about getting married soon after the wedding spree began but that the two decided against the idea after they and their editors agreed there could be a perceived conflict of interest. The couple later decided to get married after all. "We all agreed that no one was acting in bad faith," Bronstein wrote. "But with Liz and Rachel's marriage a fact, we then had to separate out how we got here and what we should do going forward."
Steven Petrow, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, said he is "troubled" by the Chronicle's decision and believes it sets a bad precedent. "Should women be prohibited from covering issues of gender? Should religion writers not be able to go to church? In each case, the answer is no," Petrow said. Bronstein told staffers that he had consulted Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, about how to handle the situation. "The issue isn't 'Can this reporter cover the story objectively?' but 'Will your audience believe she can?'" Rosenstiel told Bronstein. "What will the audience of your publication think if these folks have done things that would cause the audience to believe their coverage was not independent?"
At KQED, executive producer Raul Ramirez said both Shafer and his editors were "uncomfortable" with Shafer's covering the story after he and his partner were married. While Shafer continues to host the California Report and do an occasional on-air interview on issues pertaining to gay marriage, he will not be assigned to the story as a reporter. "It is a question of appearance and conflict of interest," Ramirez said, noting that Shafer disclosed on the program Friday that he and his partner had been married.