By Wayne Besen
Originally published on Advocate.com March 17 2011 12:30 PM ET
COMMENTARY: If a con artist were selling Florida swampland to vulnerable senior citizens, would the media give a sympathetic portrayal of the swindler? If a doctor were selling bogus cancer cures to desperate patients, would a television show try to help the quack by offering an image makeover?
Of course not.
Unfortunately, when it comes to coverage of the "ex-gay" issue, reporters routinely minimize the experiences of the "ex-gay" industry's victims and provide kindhearted depictions of the cruel and fraudulent victimizers.
The most recent example of such incompetent reporting came from the Oprah Winfrey Network's Lisa Ling, who produced a segment called "Pray the Gay Away?" for Our America With Lisa Ling. In her zest to appear "balanced," Ling forfeited the higher journalistic value of accuracy. By doing so, the reporter inadvertently made an infomercial for the "ex-gay" group Exodus International, essentially slapping this group's many victims in their faces.
Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus, was so happy with the puff piece that he euphorically gushed about Ling on his group's blog.
"I would like to extend my thanks to Lisa Ling for the courtesy, sensitivity and respect she demonstrated during our interviews and the filming at our 35th annual conference," wrote Chambers.
Several weeks prior to the airing of this show, I personally offered to fact-check Ling's segment. She declined by saying that there was nothing to worry about because she had gay friends.
The truth is, Ling had an agenda and not one that was necessarily antigay. What the reporter wanted to do was humanize a group of activists dedicated to dehumanizing LGBT people in an effort to soothe the sensitivities of religious viewers. To accomplish this, Ling had to whitewash the facts and sweep the devastation caused by Exodus under the rug. Better to produce a tearjerker for Oprah than shine a spotlight on the antigay jerks causing tears for their victims.
The goal of a reporter should be to tell a story as accurately as possible and paint a realistic portrait. Facts should be vigorously checked and follow-up questions asked. Unfortunately, the Oprah Winfrey Network's Our America With Lisa Ling produced an indulgent, shallow piece that included embarrassing factual inaccuracies resulting from a lack of research and lazy reporting.For example, Ling allowed Chambers to appear tolerant and suggest that openly LGBT people might possibly get into heaven. But this was Alan Chambers at his best, charming gullible reporters in the mainstream media who don't research how his organization speaks to Christian audiences. For instance, in the very e-mail where Chambers praises Ling, he also writes, "Remember, the opposite of homosexuality, or whatever sin struggle one brings to the foot of the cross, is holiness."
In 2007 at the Family Impact Summit, Chambers told a crowd of social conservatives, "We have to stand up against an evil agenda. It is an evil agenda and it will take anyone captive that is willing, or that is standing idly by."
Exodus also has a television show, Pure Passion, geared toward fundamentalists that regularly claim LGBT people are "sexually broken" and "perverse." For years Chambers has offered up such "red meat" and portrayed homosexuality as evil to his evangelical base but softened the message for the mainstream media. Why didn't Ling do her homework and ask the "ex-gay" activist this question: "You allow that gays might go to heaven, yet you also say that the opposite of homosexuality, which you call evil and perverse, is holiness. Does there not seem to be an incongruity in the way you speak to different audiences?"
Some of Ling's mistakes were prosaic yet annoying, such as using the term "gay lifestyle," even though the 1980s have been over for quite some time. I'm surprised she didn't regress even further and refer to gay people as "inverts." Ling's excuse was that she was trying to make the "ex-gay" activists comfortable by speaking their lifestyle lingo.
I'm curious if she would extend the same courtesy to a white supremacist group while they politely discussed other minorities in a pejorative way. Furthermore, even if the phrase was uttered within a conversation, it should never have made it out of the editing booth. The fact that Ling and her assistants did not pick up on the obnoxious "lifestyle" phrase and leave it on the cutting room floor suggests a surprising cluelessness.
However, it was not the style (or lifestyle) of the report that was so upsetting, but the lack of substance. Ling shamefully allowed herself to be used by Exodus International, an extreme "ex-gay" group that desperately wanted an image makeover after being tied to the deadly Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. Sadly, Ling never mentioned that Exodus board member Don Schmierer joined a Holocaust revisionist at a conference in Kampala to drop what was called "a nuclear bomb on the gay agenda."
The enterprising reporter also omitted any reference to the spiritual warfare commonly known as the exorcism that is a major part of "ex-gay" programs. Exodus president Alan Chambers has said, "One of the many evils this world has to offer is the sin of homosexuality. Satan, the enemy, is using people to further his agenda to destroy the Kingdom of God and as many souls as he can."
Why did Ling conveniently overlook such disturbing views? Couldn't she at least have asked Chambers why many of his inflammatory statements in support of spiritual warfare were at odds with the milquetoast image Exodus was peddling in the mainstream media?
Ling was completely uninterested in Exodus's nefarious lobbying efforts, including the group's work to pass Proposition 8 in California and enthusiastic support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would ban marriage equality in the United States Constitution. Could Ling not have taken a moment to explain how Exodus vigorously opposed federal hate-crimes legislation, was in favor of sodomy laws, and is still fighting against all efforts to protect students from bullying in schools?
Speaking of fairy tales, Chambers audaciously portrayed his marriage as true bliss and told Ling, "It [sex with his wife] felt natural, absolutely, and has every day for our entire marriage."
What? You've got to be kidding me.
Chambers admitted that it took nine months to consummate his marriage and said at a 2007 Love Won Out conference in Phoenix that to remain "ex-gay" he must "deny what comes naturally to me."
Why didn't Ling ask Chambers, "If your experience with your wife was so natural, then why are you saying that you deny what comes naturally to you?"
The most inexcusable mistake in Ling's report came when she portrayed Exodus as a group that no longer makes false promises of heterosexuality to clients. She contrasts this allegedly more honest Exodus with the harsher ministry run by Janet Boynes, who unabashedly claims she helps people go from gay to straight.
It is amazing that Ling had no idea that Boynes is listed as a referral on Exodus's website, meaning her intolerant message offering false hope is actually the message of Exodus. Ling also was duped into believing that Exodus does not try to "pray away the gay." She obviously did not do her homework and review substantial evidence to the contrary. Exodus regularly creates videos in which "ex-gay" activists give testimonials on how they prayed and God made them into heterosexuals. Did Ling not bother to examine Exodus's website? Or did the harsh truth not mesh with her feel-good approach?
There were a few positive moments in her segment, such as the interview with Michael Bussee, a founder of Exodus who later renounced the "ex-gay" ministry. However, Ling made it appear as if Bussee were an exception to the rule. Why didn't she bolster his case by pointing out that former Exodus chairman John Paulk was photographed by me in a gay bar? Why not mention George Rekers, the antigay therapist caught last year with an escort he met on RentBoy.com?
The fact is, "ex-gay" ministries are a cruel fraud that exploits people who just want to be loved by their families and accepted by society. Instead of a promotional piece for Exodus, the focus of Ling's story should have been on the harm the group causes its victims. The Oprah Winfrey Network should take Ling's embarrassing segment off its website and not re-air it until factual inaccuracies are corrected.
If you are as disappointed by this segment as I am, please contact the Oprah Winfrey Network and send it a clear message about Ling's subpar reporting by signing Truth Wins Out's petition.