Shooting the Messenger

Larry Craig and Merv Griffin couldn’t be more different, but the response to media coverage of their sexuality was the same: How dare you? Christopher Lisotta talks to the journalists who became the controversy.

BY

September 20 2007 11:00 PM ET

A “witch
hunt.” That’s what Idaho senator Larry Craig
called the months-long investigation by his hometown
paper into rumors of his sexual encounters with men,
published August 28 when news broke that the
Republican pleaded guilty in connection with an airport sex
sting. Eleven days earlier, allies of entertainment
legend Merv Griffin were leveling similar charges at
The Hollywood Reporter for running a piece that
dared to say the talk-show host and Jeopardy!
creator, who died August 12, was gay. But in both
cases, the journalists behind the controversial
stories say they were just doing their jobs.

“I think
we were measured, fair, cautious,” Dan Popkey, the
Idaho Statesman reporter on the Craig
story, said on MSNBC’s Hardball With Chris
Matthews.
“We didn’t go with this story,
like you guys did, in October” -- when
allegations about the senator’s sexuality first
surfaced on a blog -- “so for him to, you know,
accuse us of conducting a witch hunt, that hurts a
little, I suppose, but I think we got it right.”

Instead of going
with the story last fall, Popkey spent months reporting
it, researching and interviewing numerous sources to find
out if the rumors were true. The story was in a
holding pattern until the Washington, D.C., Capitol
Hill paper Roll Call broke the news of
Craig’s arrest and plea, which gave Popkey and his
editors the final piece of evidence needed to go
forward.

The veteran
reporter became the center of intense media attention that
he “could not have anticipated,” he
tells The Advocate, since he started out
writing a story he assumed would be of mainly local
interest. Scrutiny from the likes of CNN and MSNBC was
not a scenario Popkey had envisioned, especially when
national news organizations asked him to defend his
reporting. “It was my first glimpse at how national
media operates with your little state and your little
story,” Popkey says.

In the case of
Griffin, the furor was sparked by well-regarded columnist
Ray Richmond’s August 17 piece in the entertainment
trade publication The Hollywood Reporter, which
opened with the words, “Merv Griffin was gay.
Why should that be so uncomfortable to read?”
Richmond went on to write that he worked for Griffin
in the 1980s, when he learned that the
entertainer’s sexuality was an open secret, and he
referenced two palimony suits brought by men -- facts
that some obituaries ignored. He also discussed the
power of the closet in Hollywood today and how little
has changed for gay performers since the days of
Merv’s youth.

The swift
response to Richmond’s column certainly seemed to
demonstrate that thesis. A few hours after it was
published both in the magazine’s print edition
and online, it was removed from the Reporter’s Web
site (it was posted again later), while the news
service Reuters, which had picked up the story,
dropped it from its entertainment feed. Richmond got some
nasty e-mails accusing him of being sensationalist,
self-serving, and having a gay agenda, and the
Reporter had at least one ad pulled over the
story. It didn’t help that the column ran on the day
of Griffin’s burial, which Richmond says was
accidental.

“My whole
take on this was, this was a media social
experiment,” Richmond says. “It
wasn’t about outing somebody. It was, Can we talk
about this without oh-my-God-ing? The answer is,
Probably not.” The point of discussing
Griffin’s sexuality, he adds, was to ask “Why
does it have to be this huge, shameful identifier?
I’d like to think we are further along.”

Ted Johnson,
managing editor for Reporter rival Variety who
helms that publication’s entertainment-and-politics
blog Wilshire & Washington, says the Griffin and
Craig stories are “two different
things.”

“Merv was
not out there talking about gay issues,” Johnson
says, noting that while Griffin was believed to hold
personally conservative political views, he was never
considered “overtly political,” a position
that made sense, since he interviewed a wide range of
political figures in his career.

But Johnson
concedes that Richmond’s column wasn’t that
groundbreaking for Hollywood, considering its subject
was dead. “It would be different if it was a
column about someone who was living,” he says.

The reticence to
discuss sexuality and the negative reaction to both the
Griffin and Craig stories, Richmond says, is simply based on
fear: “There’s a fear that Middle
America is not going to be accepting, and maybe they
are right. But maybe Middle America needs to be more
accepting.”

Given the chance
to do the column again, Richmond says, he would write it
exactly the same way. “I don’t have any
regrets. Usually I have huge regrets. This is a huge
anomaly.”

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