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The Insider Is
Out

The Insider Is
Out

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In 2006 a blog announced to the world that Thomas Roberts is gay, and the then CNN anchor instantly became the poster boy for a very rare breed: the out news anchor. But as Sean Kennedy reports, the success of Roberts and other out anchors and on-air talent may finally shatter their industry's glass ceiling for gays -- and usher in the future of broadcast news.

It's the first hot day of 2008 in Los Angeles -- upward of 90 degrees, and it's only April -- and I'm hiking in dusty Runyon Canyon in the Hollywood hills with Thomas Roberts, the former CNN anchor turned Insider correspondent. Halfway up a moderately rugged climb, both wheezing a bit, we spot a secluded ridge off the main path, safely removed from the dogs and owners and shirtless runners enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine. We stand still for a moment and take in the commanding view from downtown in the east to the Pacific in the west. The vast metropolis, bustling with kinetic dreams up close, lies before us in a state of startling clarity. The only thing moving is an airplane in the distance.

The peaceful tableau is a good match for the calm, confident demeanor of Roberts, a major talent who's weathered some career turbulence of late. It started in 2006, when his appearance on a panel of gay broadcast journalists was picked up by a blog. The "news" quickly turned into a coming-out of the first order -- even though Roberts was already out at CNN. Never mind: He was now an official gay celebrity, and along with the affection came the opposite -- the rumors, innuendos, and downright trash talk hurled at anyone in the public eye these days. When Roberts left CNN a year ago this May, people speculated that the cable news behemoth parted ways with him because of his sexuality. Then, when he started on the air at The Insider a few months later, in September 2007, a blogger posted pictures that were purportedly from Roberts's Manhunt profile -- a nasty hit that was splashed across the top of the New York Post gossip column Page Six.

A tall, muscular, classic hunk of a man, Roberts is the all-American matinee-idol version of a broadcaster, as opposed to, say, Anderson Cooper's effete, almost European vibe. But Roberts isn't talking to me today to name names or speculate about other people's careers and choices. He's here simply to talk about his own experience being gay in broadcasting -- which, for the most part, has been positive, despite what you may think.

"It's funny that people think I got fired from CNN," he says, addressing the prevailing rumor about him. "I left CNN on my accord: I resigned from my contract because of personal reasons." During his six years at the channel, he says, "I never dealt with anything but respect and kindness. There's a great misconception."

Indeed, Roberts says, being gay has never held him back. "I've worked my ass off, I've been fortunate, and luck doesn't hurt either," he says. "If people don't like that I'm gay or that I talk about being gay, I'm sorry. Because that's not my problem."

The glaring absence of openly gay television anchors at the networks, on cable, and in local markets across the country is most obvious in the case of the CNN and 60 Minutes silver fox, who delivers the facts on everything except his sexuality. But when you turn your attention away from him and scan the ranks of America's newsreaders, you notice Cooper has lots of company.

According to longtime industry talent agent Mendes J. Napoli, there are only two openly gay main news anchors currently working in the top 20 U.S. television markets: Randy Price at Boston's WHDH and Craig Stevens at Miami's WSVN. On cable news there's one: Jason Bellini of CBS News on Logo. And on the networks? None.

In the correspondent and reporter corps, the numbers are higher -- NBC News's John Yang and ABC News's Jeffrey Kofman and Miguel Marquez are a few of the big names, though there are countless others at all levels of TV. (And -- let's get this out of the way -- there's CNN's Richard Quest, recently busted on charges of loitering in Central Park after hours with meth in his pocket.)

Yet when it comes to being the face of a news division, the glass ceiling is barely smudged. "You can be a morning anchor, a weekend anchor, an afternoon anchor, a reporter -- they love gay reporters now because they're so animated, they're not stiff," says Napoli, who represents Stevens. "But a primary male anchor who's gay? It's an issue."

The reason, he says, is simple: The decision makers are middle-aged white men. "Ninety-nine percent of main anchor decisions end up on the desk of an older white male manager, who is not going to view gay men the same way other people might." Plus, Napoli says, "There's a fear that the audience will reject them."

"It's uncharted territory," says "Jake," an anchor in a major media market who, in exchange for anonymity, spoke to me candidly about his experience being gay but not out. "Maybe I should have the attitude of 'I am gay -- take it or leave it.' But in the back of your mind, there's always that thing: the culture of the industry." The business is rife with gay talent, from executives on down -- "tons," according to Jake. But television is also a fundamentally conservative, risk-averse world. "It's OK if they know within the company," Jake says, "but you wouldn't do a cover story with The Advocate without warning your media-relations person."

Indeed, when I first inquired about an interview with Roberts before he started at The Insider, a spokesperson for the show instantly said no. When I followed up two months later, it was no dice again. Roberts says he doesn't recall being contacted either time.

This January, though, he got involved directly, when I learned through a mutual contact that he was interested in talking. Yet when he ran the idea up the flagpole, he too was denied. Roberts won't cite the reasons on the record, but he was clearly disappointed by the decision. When I asked him how he felt about it, there was a long pause while he considered his response. "I won't attach a negative to it," he finally says diplomatically, "but I will say that I was flattered by the offer and thought that it would be great to be included." It wasn't until this February, when his contract was unexpectedly optioned -- meaning he was cut from the show -- that he was free to talk.

Roberts doesn't want to knock anyone. He's not that kind of guy. "Quote me: I am flawed! I make mistakes! I do things that are stupid! Hopefully this interview won't be one of them!" But he also knows he's making a difference, as hackneyed as that sounds. "I heard this phrase the other night: You can always tell the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back," he says, chuckling. "It's not that I want to be a pioneer -- I'm certainly a reluctant role model -- but it's like, Come out already. There's just no reason not to."

"I can state unequivocally that we would be a thousand percent supportive of any employee who wanted to come out publicly," says ABC News senior vice president Jeffrey Schneider, who is gay. And yet, none of the highest-profile gays on the air at ABC News (think Good Morning America, which is reportedly called "GayMA" by its rivals at Today) wanted to come out for this story, since they declined to be interviewed. Nevertheless, Schneider says, being openly gay isn't a career breaker: "Are people good broadcasters? Are they aggressive and great journalists? How do they do their job? Those are the things that people talk about in terms of the on-air talent."

For Roberts, 35, and Jake, who's around the same age, it wasn't always that way. "When I went into this business 14 years ago, I had the sense that coming out would probably hurt my career," says Jake, who like many broadcast journalists got his start in a small market and worked his way up to a network. (He stepped down from that gig to take his current job at a prominent affiliate for another network, where he's being groomed to return to the big league.) "There were no openly gay news anchors or reporters," he says. "You don't want to be judged before you've even had a career. You don't know what the personal bias of a general manager or a news director is. I thought, It's something I'll feel more comfortable being open about down the road."

Now he does: His colleagues, including his executive producer, all know he's gay, and he assumes the executives who hired him know--though they haven't mentioned anything to him. "I know the people who hired me are not stupid. You can Google my name and stuff pops up all over the place." It makes him a little paranoid. "I hate to bring up the 'don't ask, don't tell' thing, but I've been hired by middle-aged, conservative, married men. You think, I know you accept the fact that I'm gay, but you don't want me to be out. I'm just going to keep that private."

What's actually said is far more coded. "They'll tell you, 'You're playing to Middle America. Our stories are going to be built around what a housewife in Wichita would want to see.' " Translation: Don't let it show.

Roberts too was skittish early in his career. For one thing, he wasn't out at all. "I didn't know how best to deal with that professionally, or personally for that matter," he says, as flies buzz around us and the occasional dog trots by. "I thought it would be a roadblock -- or a brick wall -- to advancement." So whenever he arrived in a new market, like San Diego or Lincoln, Neb., "I would automatically date a girl and have everyone at the station see it. We'd date for a little while and then I'd break up with them or do something to make them break up with me." Later, when his friends would offer to set him up with another girl, Roberts would say he was "too hurt." "That would get me out of the whole meet-my-sister thing."

He didn't make his first gay friend until he was almost 26 and working at WFTX in Fort Myers, Fla. The guy worked at a rival station, and Roberts met him through journalist friends. "It was great for me because I finally had somebody I could talk to or josh around with," he says. "He knew that I wasn't out and he made no big deal about it. He didn't go blabbing. He respected the fact that I wasn't in a place emotionally or psychologically" to come out.

That soon changed. "I was 26 -- you can only lie to yourself so long," Roberts says. During his next stint, at Virginia Beach, Va.'s WAVY, he met his current partner, Patrick. Then, right before he was called up to CNN, he came out to his colleagues. "I had already come out to my family by that point, so the next logical step was work," he says. And everyone was "so cool. They started to meet Patrick and they loved him. I mean, they're some of my dearest friends still today."

Former colleagues were next, a long list of people who had moved on to bigger and better things just as he did. "Broadcasting is a small world, and news travels quickly -- I wanted everyone to hear from me," he says. "And I never lost a friend."

In 2001, Roberts joined CNN as an anchor for its Headline News channel, part of a revamp aimed at attracting younger viewers. Altogether, the new Hollywood-ready faces -- NYPD Blue star Andrea Thompson, Miles O'Brien, and Robin Meade among them -- were like Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Roberts jokes. But the pressure was considerably greater than in high school.

"I remember getting to CNN and the place is just ginormous -- there's so many people," he says. "I didn't know how I would be received -- you kind of catch p

yourself. But my comfort level grew and grew, and then I told people." Again, the reaction was unremarkable. "They weren't a gossipy bunch, like, 'Oh, did you hear about Thomas?' It just wasn't that type of place."

He never felt unwelcome at CNN because of his sexual orientation. In fact, six years later, when Patrick was offered a great job in Washington, D.C., and Roberts decided to quit to be with him--a transfer from Atlanta wasn't possible--his bosses tried to talk him out of it. "They were like, 'Are you sure you want to do this? We'd love to have you stay,' " he remembers. "They were fantastic."

Miguel Marquez, Roberts's friend and former colleague at CNN, says his experience in broadcasting has also been uniformly positive. The dapper Los Angeles correspondent for ABC News often reports from Baghdad for the network. When he called me from his office outside the Green Zone last fall, I asked if he ever worried about being out in the biz. "I'm not that smart," deadpanned Marquez, every bit as handsome and dashing as the late Peter Jennings. "I guess I figured if someone didn't want to hire me because I was gay, then I probably wouldn't want to work for them. There's a lot of people who are worried about that, and to me it's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Jane Velez-Mitchell would say much the same thing. A veteran anchor at prominent affiliates in New York (WCBS) and Los Angeles (KCAL), the youthful, sexy 51-year-old is best known these days for her stint as a correspondent on the now-defunct syndicated crime show Celebrity Justice, for which she covered Michael Jackson's 2005 child-molestation trial. (That and other cases are the subject of her 2007 book Secrets Can Be Murder.) She also guest-hosts for Nancy Grace on her CNN Headline News show and appears as a commentator on radio and TV. While doing such a gig on L.A. radio station KABC last September, Velez-Mitchell decided to come out. She had been inspired by financial guru Suze Orman's acknowledgment earlier that year that she's gay, and she was looking for a convenient opening to announce her own news. She found it with a toe-tapping senator from Idaho.

"Opinionating about Larry Craig and his apparent hypocrisy, it would have been hypocritical for me not to be honest with the listeners about who I am," she told me a few weeks after the fact at the home she shares with her partner, Sandra, in Marina del Rey, Calif., just south of Venice and less than a block from the beach. "So I just came out and said it: 'I want to be honest. I live with a woman and have been in a relationship with a woman.' "

No one she knew blinked an eye -- though on the air, a listener called in and asked if she was a "hypocrite" for not revealing her sexual orientation during her two decades as an anchor. In fact, Velez-Mitchell had been in relationships with men until she met Sandra five years ago, though she says she always had "gay tendencies." "My answer was, 'Probably,' " she says. "I really like those kinds of questions. Let's move society forward by having a dialogue about this."

Of course, Velez-Mitchell would be the first to point out that she had a certain freedom to talk about her sexuality, given her freelance status and role as a pundit. She concedes she sometimes noticed unease about out talent during her anchoring days -- "like, 'We don't really care, but we don't want you leading the parade,' that kind of thing" -- but she also gives the public "a lot more credit" on this issue than most broadcast folks seem to. "I've always found that people in the 'liberal' areas aren't quite as liberal as they say they are, and people in the 'conservative' areas aren't quite as rigid as they say they are," she observes. "Everybody in America knows somebody who is gay: They have a family member or know somebody who knows somebody. The vice president's daughter is gay. Who cares?"

Indeed, Velez-Mitchell sees her coming-out as part of a trend. "I think the logjam has opened," she says. "We're at a point now where, in a couple of years, everybody's going to come out. It's a trickle, and it becomes a stream, and it becomes a river."

No one is more responsible for that rising tide than Boston's Randy Price, the first openly gay anchor in America. He came out publicly in the early 1990s in an interview with a New England gay periodical, and a mainstream paper picked it up. At the time, people in his professional life questioned his choice to be so open, but it has only paid off for Price: In 1997 he was hired at WHDH, and in 1998 he began to co-anchor the evening broadcasts, which regularly top the ratings. Today he's not only Boston's most popular news anchor but one of its most admired public figures.

"Wouldn't you rather be a little distinctive even if it's unpopular in a few quarters?" Price says about coming out. "Is it really going to hurt you? Is your career going to erode? Honestly not. We've been watching gay-friendly entertainment for years, Will & Grace and this and that. It's not a big deal." He offers a pointed question to those gay journalists who claim they don't want to become the story themselves or risk access to sources who may not be gay-friendly: "In a business based on honesty, when do you eventually become yourself?"

Steve Kmetko, the longtime E! anchor, saw no damage to his career either when he came out publicly on the cover of this magazine in 1999. Though he left the channel in 2002 after an acrimonious contract dispute, he says he had a great experience there and has never regretted the decision. "Quite frankly, age is more of a hindrance at this point in my career than being gay," he says.

But instead of following the lead of Price or Roberts, Jake and his closeted peers seem to be taking their cues from the Coop, whose publicists -- no surprise -- did not respond to interview requests for this story. "When CNN hired Anderson, especially among the industry, it was just known that he's gay. I guess nobody cared. He made the choice, much like I have, not to talk about it," says Jake, who in the past has worked in proximity to him.

The most celebrated anchor of his generation, Cooper is also the object of intense fascination vis-a-vis his sexual orientation. Media critics, bloggers, viewers, my mom -- people are dying to penetrate his opaque exterior and find out what makes him tick. Whom does he date? Why won't he come out? Has he discussed strategy with CNN? Is it all just a deliberate ruse to keep the buzz going?

Indeed, his glass closet may well be a canny marketing move, judging from the informal advice that Jake himself once received from an executive during a business dinner. "He said to me, 'It's better if people don't know one way or the other,' " he recalls. " 'Let the people who think you're gay think you're gay, and let the people who think you're straight think you're straight. Then we have it both ways. A little mystery never hurts.' "

No one begrudges Jake -- or Cooper -- if he feels hemmed in by forces beyond his control. "To talk about reporters and anchors--I'm not doing that anymore, so I can't put myself in the shoes of someone who is," Velez-Mitchell tells me. "They have all these other variables that I don't have to contend with." But Jake is an interesting proxy for the silver-haired one, given their similar circumstances, and he's watched his predecessor's rise with keen interest. "It presents an interesting conundrum that I haven't been faced with yet, which is: You give an article to Vanity Fair, you talk about every single personal thing, and [your sexual orientation] is the one issue that's skirted," says Jake. "Did he think, OK, now I'm really in a star position, I'm doing all these personal articles, but I'm going to omit that?

"I'm not there yet -- I may never get there. But if you want to be judged by your work, then how much do you share?" He pauses to consider the question. "I don't know if I'm ready for that."

But Jake is worried about more than that -- he's also scared of the hawks in the gay community who circle celebrities with killer intent, none more so than their own. By pure coincidence, I interviewed Jake in his apartment on the very day that Roberts's Manhunt "scandal" hit. It was clearly on his mind--he brought the subject up unprompted. "What is it the community says it wants?" he asked rhetorically. "Well, it would be nice to have some role models in various industries: lawyers, doctors, anchors, reporters, actors, whoever. Well, Roberts came out. He's open. He's landed another job. In your mind, you think, OK, people know and they don't really care.

"But then the gossip starts: Who has he slept with? Who has he been with? Where does he hang out? What does he do? What's he like? It's like, Jesus, is that necessary? It's become this weird witch hunt."

Jake has already been burned by innuendos. Early in his anchoring career, after he'd made a guest appearance on a local radio show, someone left a message at the station outing him. As Jake remembers it, "It said, 'Hi, this is so-and-so. I don't know if you're aware. Everyone knows. He's gay and he has a boyfriend. Just thought you should know.' " That people might be out to get him was an alarming revelation. "I thought, Oh, my gosh, there's a weird thing going on here. If you're gay and want to keep it a secret -- if you're on TV -- you can't. It felt like an attack." As a public figure, he learned, one's sexuality can be used as "ammunition."

It was probably a foregone conclusion that Roberts was in for similar treatment as soon as word hit the blogosphere that he was gay. In September 2006 he had appeared on a panel called "Off Camera: The Challenges for LGBT TV Anchors" at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention in Miami Beach, Fla. A blogger in attendance wrote about the event, and though he mentioned other participants like Stevens, for some reason -- his comely appearance? -- Roberts's name ripped through the gay media (including this magazine's website).

It was a total shock to him. "It was the worst-kept secret, I guess," Roberts says about his sexual orientation. "Everyone at CNN knew Patrick, knew my life. I'd go out, I'd support gay restaurants or bars. It was no big secret in Atlanta. But sitting on a panel--people took that as some great step." He wasn't trying to come out; he did the panel to show younger broadcast journos "that you can have a career, don't be afraid. Just keep your head down and work hard. Like anything in this business, it's about skill, luck, and timing."

Roberts made headlines again the following March, when Cooper interviewed him on his show about the molestation he suffered by a priest as a kid growing up in Maryland. Given all the attention he was receiving, Roberts had become a bona fide celebrity in the gay world. It was all too predictable when someone tried to topple him from his pedestal.

It was September 6, Roberts's fourth day at The Insider, when the Manhunt photos were posted online last year. The next day, a Page Six item dripping with homophobia detailed the whole thing. The headline? "New Sex Mess Jolts Insider." Roberts had come out to California excited about the new gig -- he had spent the summer looking for a good opportunity like this -- and now he was faced with potential disaster.

His response to the incident is honest, if reticent. "I never put inappropriate pictures of myself on a public website," he says by way of explanation. "For me it was really hurtful, for Patrick and I it was terribly painful, and I'm sure anyone reading this will realize that what happened was something that we needed to deal with on a personal level. And we've dealt with it--we've closed the book on that issue and moved on."

I ask him if he was angered by what was clearly meant to be a personal takedown. "The only thing I'll say is that it is a nonissue for me anymore. It's not active in my life, nor do I want it to be. But respectfully" -- he smiles broadly -- "I thank you for asking."

A statement by The Insider called the event "a malicious personal attack," and Roberts says he was pleased with the show's response. "They handled that situation like a class act," he says. "They rallied the wagons and fought back against the allegations and did everything they could to show me kindness and respect." But although The Insider, like any celebrity-obsessed show, loves a good scandal, the team there couldn't have been happy with the development. "They said 'We are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater'" is all Roberts will say.

Does he think the incident had anything to do with his being cut from the show? "You'll have to ask them. I've heard it could be budgetary decisions -- I don't know. I was just told that I wasn't part of the future direction of the show. And I have to respect their decision."

Was being gay a factor? "They hired me knowing I was gay -- that's all I'll say to that question. They hired me knowing I was out and gay."

A spokesperson for the show concurred: "We were aware of Thomas's sexuality when we hired him and it had nothing to do with our decision to make a change."

So Roberts was out of a job -- but the blogger had made a name for himself. Funny thing is, if you go to his site now (and, full disclosure, he once discussed writing for The Advocate with me, though nothing came of it), you can't find the original item without some assiduous searching. Instead, you'll see links to the coverage it got -- and an undated photo of the blogger with Roberts at an event, both smiling. It's a paradox of contemporary fandom not unique to the gays: We love our stars, but we also love to tear them down.

Tom Brokaw thinks there's no reason there can't be an openly gay anchor. "No," says the retired NBC News lion, and "I've been saying that for years, by the way." And yet when he talked to The Advocate in January in connection with his book Boom! Voices of the Sixties, he inadvertently revealed the kind of subtle discomfort about gays that Jake senses at high levels in the industry. "We have someone -- I'm not going to say [her] name because I haven't checked with her on this -- who is a terrific advocate for gay rights in the NBC Nightly News room. It's well-known, and she is an important voice," Brokaw said. An entirely appropriate response: He clearly didn't want to out his colleague against her wishes. But the very fact that one's sexuality requires such delicacy confirms the stigma that still exists.

Nevertheless, people like Velez-Mitchell are coming out all the time in the broadcast news business. "If it does impact my career, well, so be it," she says. "Life's short. When you're lying on your deathbed, are you going to remember that you had two more years working in a cubicle, or are you going to remember that you were true to yourself and maybe encouraged some other people to be true to themselves?"

That's already happening, as the new generation of broadcast talent coming up sees being gay as an asset, not baggage. Take Chris Saldana, the cute 31-year-old who co-anchors the weekend broadcasts at KLAS in Las Vegas. Out virtually from the start of his career, the Texas native says that his experience as a gay person is one of many areas of expertise for him as a journalist. "Whenever there's a gay issue, I'm on it; whenever there's a Latino issue, I'm on it--a Catholic issue, they put me on it," Saldana says about reporting stories for broadcast. Indeed, being gay and being involved in the local LGBT community has been a "win-win situation" for him. "It's what you make of it. Had I been reserved and so forth, then it would have been a taboo issue. But if you are who you are, you have no problems with it."

In the new world of television news, diversity is key to success. Ask Harvey Levin, the energetic force behind TMZ.com and its hit TV spin-off. Granted, the subject matter is down-market celebrity fluff, but it's well-done -- and it's attracting demographically desirable viewers by the droves. In part that's due to a young staff filled with personalities that Levin happily lets shine. "Everybody brings something to the table with their personality," says Levin, a onetime investigative reporter for Los Angeles's KCBS who can frequently be seen on Larry King Live, filling in for the host or providing commentary on the latest Hollywood scandal. "There are people on my staff who are gay, there are people who are straight, and that absolutely filters into what we do. I like that there's diversity, that sometimes you can tell whether a woman wrote [a piece], whether a man wrote it, somebody gay, somebody straight. It's all part of the diet."

Levin himself has been out for years. "Everybody I work with knows, everybody in the television business knows. We'll make jokes about it: I'll say things in meetings [like] 'That's the gayest thing I've ever said!' It doesn't matter."

Sooner or later, a household name will realize that and come out publicly. Someone will notice that nothing too bad has befallen Roberts or Velez-Mitchell or Price. Based on recent comments, even Cooper seems to be inching out of his fragile enclosure. He's made a habit of bantering knowingly with his newsreader, Erica Hill, like the time she pointed out baby blankets imprinted with the names erica and cooper in a catalog. "Did your husband get a little nervous, a little jealous?" Cooper asked, before joking, "Clearly [he] doesn't have anything to be nervous about." Of course, it could all just be more grist for the buzz machine.

One thing's for sure: Whenever he comes out -- and he will, eventually -- Cooper has lost the opportunity to lead on the issue, to be as brave as he's been while dropping in and out of war zones. He's surely aware of the stakes, and of the courage it takes to be out. If he wonders how it's done, he only has to look to Thomas Roberts.

"We are covered in bugs!" Roberts nearly shouts toward the end of our interview that warm April day in Los Angeles. Little yellow flowers surround us--along with the view and the weather, annoying insects can hardly diminish the beautiful atmosphere. And Roberts seems to be enjoying the ride. He may be out of a job with nothing definite lined up (though he is developing a secret project of his own), but the anchorman remains optimistic, almost impossibly so.

"You're so self-actualized," I say with a laugh. He quickly replies with a serious look in his eyes. "I'm just getting to a point where it's like, Who cares?" he says. "I'm getting too old. The sun is going to come up tomorrow; bills are going to be paid." About being gay in broadcast news, he says, "I think everybody's looking for somebody else to do something. Well, it's just you. All it takes is you."

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Sean Kennedy