There are two lesbian opinion makers whose insights I turn to a lot in any given 24-hour news cycle: Pam Spaulding and Rachel Maddow. Pam is the blogmistress, as she calls herself, of PamsHouseBlend.com, a popular blog where she and her contributors discuss LGBT issues and general politics. Rachel, of course, is the cable news overnight sensation, host of MSNBC’s ratings-busting Rachel Maddow Show, and an Air America Radio host.
I’ve known both of them for several years. Rachel guest-hosted on my radio program on Sirius XM a few times in the early days of the show. Pam often comes on my show as a guest.
So when Pam criticized Rachel one day recently on her blog, my ears perked up.
Why, Pam wanted to know, didn’t Rachel ask Mike Huckabee about his views on LGBT people when he appeared on Rachel’s MSNBC show during his book tour? Commenters on Pam’s blog then wanted to know why Rachel didn’t ask Huckabee about the comments he’d made a few days before on The View, dismissing the fact that gay people are victims of violence.
Pam actually had picked up on criticism of the interview first made by ThinkProgress.org, the blog of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which remarked that “Maddow was notably silent on the issue of gay rights” with Huckabee. (Ali Frick at Think Progress later told me that she didn’t look at it from the perspective of Rachel being an out lesbian but rather viewed her as an “open progressive” who should have grilled Huckabee.)
Something tugged at me upon reading the criticisms, something I hadn’t wanted to face but that I realized I knew deep down shortly after Rachel began her MSNBC show: This lesbian superstar is informed and witty on the twists and turns of the election campaign, astute on issues regarding highway infrastructure, illuminating when turning to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and brilliant at skewering the Republican agenda. But she’s lacking and, perhaps inadvertently, sometimes dismissive when it comes to focusing on the very big civil rights movement of our time, LGBT rights.
That certainly was underscored by the response Rachel sent to Think Progress about Huckabee.
“I really don’t care about [his views on gay issues] very much,” she wrote, noting that Huckabee is “a doctrinaire antigay theocratic social conservative whose views are well-known.” She went on to write, “I probably wouldn’t bother asking Sarah Palin about her antigay views if I had the opportunity to interview her -- it’s just not the most interesting or newsworthy (or ridiculous) thing about either of them.”
That was pretty jaw-dropping.
“High-profile figures like Huckabee and Palin too often get a pass for beliefs (ones held by too many Americans) that result in a measure like Prop. 8 passing,” Pam responded. “IMHO, these views must be challenged as often as possible -- and Rachel Maddow has a platform most of us do not have.”
By virtue of who he is, of course, Mike Huckabee’s homophobia is unfortunately always newsworthy -- particularly since he’d just put a new spin on it on The View. His bias is also quite interesting in the sense that, with a little sly questioning, it can be drawn out and exposed, as Jon Stewart did on The Daily Show last December, helping advance the discussion in a respectful, funny manner -- and certainly without all the yelling and theatrics that I am sure Rachel wants to avoid on her show.
The problem with having someone as dangerous as Mike Huckabee on your show and giving him a pass on these issues is that it gives him another opportunity to put a smiley-face mask over his ugly evangelical conservatism as he prepares for a 2012 run for the White House.
Rachel’s statement that these zealots’ homophobia is well-known seems inaccurate to me as well, particularly in the case of Sarah Palin. The scary vice-presidential candidate coasted through the entire political campaign with much of the media allowing her to push herself as practically gay-friendly, such as when she told Katie Couric about her unnamed “gay best friend.” Meanwhile, few in the media reported the truth about Palin’s having been a member of a church that supported a dangerous conversion therapy conference. And none of them grilled her on it.
All of this raises some interesting questions: What is the role and responsibility of an openly gay or lesbian liberal commentator of Rachel Maddow’s level -- a level of political punditry never achieved by another openly gay person? Why are a few straight liberal men on TV, like Keith Olbermann or Jon Stewart, often better on our issues? Why are some of the closeted gay TV personalities more inclusive of the important gay debates? Why are the hosts of fluffy daytime TV shows -- such as Joy Behar on The View, who pressed Huckabee, or Ellen DeGeneres, who took on John McCain on gay marriage -- more willing than fearless and unabashedly liberal Rachel Maddow to take on the issues?
“I did, like, 11 interviews about [Prop. 8],” Rachel told me when I interviewed her on my radio program and asked about coverage before the election, although she then clarified that all of those interviews were for her radio program -- not MSNBC. On TV, in fact, her coverage of Prop. 8 (the most expensive political campaign outside of the presidential race) was just as poor as the rest of the media’s.
After the proposition passed, other commentators and networks, perhaps realizing they had dropped the ball, were all over the issue, focusing on the protests and interviewing married couples, gay activists, gay pundits, Christian religious leaders, lesbian celebrities, Mormons, and just about anybody else involved in the issue of marriage equality. Everybody, from Keith Olbermann to Anderson Cooper, from Larry King to Bill O’Reilly (with his own right-wing attack spin), jumped on the story.
But where was the highly watched Rachel Maddow? She did a few short reports and quick updates on the protests and, as far as I can tell, interviewed only one person on the topic: an African-American scholar who discussed the black vote a few days after Election Day. By mid December, however, she still hadn’t, to my knowledge, had anyone else on the show to talk about it, gay or straight, even during a trip to California with her show. She offered nothing original from her own experience either. And yet she’s in a unique position to give her viewers -- liberals and progressives, a great many of whom really do see the gay rights movement as part of their agenda now and others of whom need a gentle challenge -- a perspective that none of these other hosts can give, as an openly gay pundit. And as an openly progressive pundit, she has the responsibility to clarify the distortions being asserted by the rest of the media on these issues.
Even after speaking with her in a sometimes difficult interview for both of us, I’m still not sure what’s keeping Rachel from treating this issue equally with other big issues -- why she continues to marginalize it by doing only obligatory, lackluster updates every now and then.
“You’d be happier if I was doing a sort of a gay rights show,” she said to me after I criticized her lack of coverage, explaining to me that this was really just a question of her news judgment versus mine. (She did confirm that “nobody gives me instruction,” shooting down assertions on the blogs that she can’t cover Prop. 8 because NBC is muzzling her).
But “a gay rights show” is hardly what I or anyone criticizing her have asked for; that’s a straw man that Rachel and some of her devoted fans who swamped my own blog with comments have created. What I want, and expect, is that she treat this issue with the weight with which most other media treat it, even if -- and precisely because -- they often get it wrong.
Actually, I expect Rachel’s coverage -- like her reports on every important issue -- to be more incisive and informed, more substantial and in-depth, and to slice through all of the conventional wisdom in the whip-smart way that only Rachel Maddow can.
Note to the online edition: Two days after this column went to press, and a week after my radio interviews with Pam Spaulding and Rachel Maddow, the controversy over Barack Obama's decision to have the evangelical reader Rick Warren give the invocation at the inauguration erupted. Rachel rose to the occasion, not only with thorough coverage of the story for days, but zeroing in on Warren's history of homophobia. I commend her on a job well done.