Brokaw on Covering Antigay Viewpoints

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com December 07 2010 12:25 PM ET

Former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw shared his thoughts on how media should approach coverage of antigay voices, saying that while free speech makes room for even the most ignorant opinions, the displays of intolerance can be instructive.

Brokaw walked the red carpet Monday night in New York City for A More Perfect Union: Stories of Prejudice and Power, a storytelling event presented by USA Network and the Moth at the New York Public Library in conjunction with the USA Network’s Characters Unite public service campaign against prejudice and discrimination. Storytellers included Mos Def, Simon Doonan, and Sirdeaner Walker, antibullying activist and mother of Carl Walker Hoover, the 11-year-old Massachusetts boy who took his own life in response to school-based antigay torments last year.

The Advocate spoke with Brokaw about complaints against news networks that give airtime to gay rights opponents.

“I don’t think you can shut down free speech,” he said. “We’re a free speech society. They’re entitled to their positions however wrong they may be. How do you begin to censor things?”

Last month, Dan Savage of the It Gets Better campaign criticized CNN on air for interviewing antigay leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group. He said the attention legitimized the idea that there are “two sides” to gay and lesbian issues.

Brokaw argued that coverage of antigay viewpoints serves a purpose in that it can generate the kind of outrage that prompts nationwide conversations. He said the issue reminded him of his earlier years reporting on the civil rights movement, although he declined to draw a direct comparison.

“I was called a Communist, but there were people who used the n word and said, ‘It’ll never happen in my lifetime,’ and in some ways, that was useful, because the rest of the country saw how outrageous it was and how intolerant it was,” he said.

Asked how antigay views should be presented, he said, “You just say that they’ve got strong opinions. You treat like them like anyone else. You cross-examine and ask them the right questions.”

Brokaw, now a special correspondent for NBC News, mentioned the example of his friends, the Prop. 8 attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson, saying that the ideologically opposite pair had found their experience on the case to be “very instructive.”

This Friday, as part of the Characters Unite campaign, Brokaw will host a documentary on the USA Network about the status of civil rights in the United States called Tom Brokaw Presents Bridging the Divide. Those profiled include Charlene Strong, who fought for domestic partnership rights in Washington state after she was denied the right to see her dying partner in the hospital.

Brokaw said the documentary does not include the viewpoints of gay rights opponents.