In its reporting on a federal court judge Vance Walker's decision that California's Proposition 8 -- the anti same-sex marriage law -- is unconstitutional, National Public Radio reporter Karen Grigsby Bates added an aside on Walker:
"He was appointed by the first President Bush - George H.W. Bush. He is generally considered to be very thoughtful, very thorough. And he's gay. He's gay and out," she said.
NPR's ombudsman, Alicia Shephard points out that Walker's sexual orientation is an accepted fact among many journalists, but it may not be.
"But, in a case such as this, the first obligation is to verify that the person is gay and that can only come from Walker or close personal friends or family who are quoted by name. As far as I could determine, Walker has never openly said he is gay," she writes today.
But Shepard's most illuminating revelation may be why so many journos accept it as fact:
When I asked about sources, NPR cited the Chronicle column, a dozen or so Internet links to show it was widely discussed in California and gay press - and that Walker isn't denying it.
It must not be comfortable for NPR reporters and editors to be quizzed by an ombudsman on an issue such as this, but the reporters and editors did themselves no favors by replying with an excuse that is, basically, "everyone says so."
Then there's the question of whether a judge's sexual orientation matters to the story, which Shepard doesn't really think is a question at all:
It only becomes relevant if there is a conflict of interest, and then the news media is obligated to report it.
"If the judge had actively participated in the Prop 8 debate in some fashion - fundraising for advocates or opponents - that would be significant," said Bob Steele, an ethicist with the Poynter Institute. "Such activism would likely disqualify him from this case no matter what his sexual orientation."
If the judge confirmed he is gay that might be an interesting factoid. But since we expect judges to be impartial - even though all judges have some conflict - then it's wrong to assume Walker or any judge can't be objective on a topic that may have something to do with his personal life.
It does not matter.
What if a straight judge ruled the other way? Would the fact he is straight matter? Or even be reported?
What if a straight judge ruled on a case involving straight people's civil rights? Could society survive such a conflict of interest?
Clearly the only way to try this case is with Eunuch judges.
It's the only way to be sure.
Or we could just consider that every one that has any shred of humanity is going to have a bias, Then we'd look at the court documents to find the reason for why they ruled the way they did, and unless there is something in there that calls his judgement or personal life into question, move on as though he/she were in fact unbiased...
It matters just as much as if a straight judge had decided the case -- to wit, not at all.
Some people, mostly straight, dislike the ruling and will find all sorts of reasons to dislike it. That doesn't change the basic rightness of the ruling.
Had a straight judge decided the case in favor of Prop 8, some people would be deriding the judgment on the basis of the sexual orientation of the judge. Again, such a claim has no basis in useful fact.
It's not relevant to the story, and should not be part of the reporting. That only lends credence to those who believe that it matters.
Or should I claim that blue eyed judges cannot rule on cases involving brown eyed people? If that's taken seriously, then the eye color of the judge MUST be reported. If the reporters think this isn't a valid basis for disagreement, then I don't see how the sexual orientation of the judge in this case can be valid either -- everyone has one.
As others have noted, if Judge Walker's sexuality is relevant, then no issue involving human sexuality could be fairly heard by any judge. Which is perhaps as it should be.
Since the topic is how journalists cover sexual orientation, let it be noted that "sexual preference" has long been a discredited term. It has a history of being used to mischaracterize gay and lesbian people as having a preference which could easily change.
More info: AP, NYTimes & Washington Post Style Guides
Thanks, Steve. Changed.