Inside the Mind of the Oregonian

Over at the Editors' Blog at the Oregonian, there's an interesting discussion shaping up. The topic: should newspaper articles specifically mention an individual's sexual orientation when giving their background information?

On Oct. 1, the Portland School Board announced it had chosen Carole Smith for the superintendent job. She had been chief of staff to Vicki Phillips, the previous superintendent. As a box with the two articles in the Oct. 2 paper noted, she was 53 years old, had been born in Boston and held degrees from Oberlin College and Harvard.

One of the articles also mentioned she had moved to Portland as a child, graduated from Sunset High School and lives in Northeast Portland with her female partner of 27 years.

Is the information about Smith's personal life relevant? When should the newspaper include personal life details in news articles? When, if ever, is sexual orientation relevant?

However, after being contacted by a reader protesting the inclusion of Smith's sexual orientation in the article, the editors responded:

The Oregonian understands that being "out" as a gay person in one's private life is different from having that fact included in a front page news article. Some public officials, such as Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, are comfortable with that level of attention. Others may demur at having some details in the public domain.

Public figures who lead significant departments or institutions have little if any expectations of privacy on the primary facts of their personal lives. If a high level policy or political official whose decisions affect many people is the subject of a story, then naturally their family situation might be mentioned. Sexual orientation does not stand as a separate question from this unless the person in question raises a privacy issue that demands further consideration.

In this case, though, readers might have been more interested in a question the article did not address: whether Smith has children and, if so, whether they attend Portland public schools (she does not have children).

For Smith's part, she did not mind having some personal information in the article. Her main concern was whether the fact she is gay would be the focus of the coverage or detract from the work she would be doing.

Read the rest. Should the newspaper have included Smith's sexual orientation in the article? Even more importantly, how much of a right to privacy do public officials have?

Discuss.

Comments

  • genop (unverified)
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    As long as the info is true it becomes more a question of whether it's newsworthy. Personally, I could care less about her private life, nor do I have qualms with her orientation. What bothers me is if her orientation is considered newsworthy, then is a straight person's orientation equally so. How many articles begin with the subject's name and mention their orientation. Devisiveness ends when we stop drawing such distinctions which have nothing to do with the substance of the public position being filled.

  • Steve R. (unverified)
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    If it had said she "lives in Northeast Portland with her spouse of 27 years," that wouldn't have raised any eyebrows.

    Personally, I think her sexual orientation is irrelevant, but the fact that she's been in a committed relationship for 27 years is notable.

    The real trouble is with mainstream media not knowing what to call committed relationships that aren't recognized by the state. Witness all the hullabaloo about Paul Wolfowitz' "girlfriend."

    If Smith were straight, but not married, would they have said "boyfriend," or would they have said "male partner"?

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    I agree with the fact that if the article had said spouse, or even partner (I know numerous heterosexuals who refer to their significant other as "partner) it wouldn't have even been an issue. Why exactly did they specify female partner? In that case, the next time they refer to someone's personal life (and I do understand the fact that a public figure needs to assume some loss of privacy) than they need to specify "male" or "female" partner, depending on the facts. If gay folks' partners are going to be identified by gender, than everyone needs to be identified in that way. Even though her 27 year relationship is notable, and a great thing, the inclusion of gender has now subliminally put the fact that she is gay into the reader's mind, and is now a label that will be attached to her, whether intentional or not.

  • James X. (unverified)
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    I don't think it particularly matters, but if she'd had a long-time male partner, I doubt The O would have specified, "with her male partner of 27 years." Adding in "female" implies that everyone is presumed to be heterosexual until otherwise specified, and that there's some importance to specifying otherwise.

    I think there's a difference with prominent elected officials, especially those who are, for a lack of a better phrase, "officially gay," such as those who work with GLBT advocacy groups, participate with pride events, etc. It's not relevant to every article on the person, but there's some historical and informational value to minority representation in government.

    Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to ask oneself, "Would we mention it if it they were black?"

  • James X. (unverified)
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    Hm, thinking about it more, maybe the rule of thumb should be more like, "Would we mention it if they were Jewish? Disabled?" There's no "same thing," but in the particular case of a superintendent being black, that actually is relevant to a school district that has a starkly segregated racial makeup. I was thinking more about how it wouldn't be mentioned if the superintendent lived "with her African-American partner."

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
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    There are all kinds of outcomes of a 2 tiered system, here we have it with marriage, we will have it with Driver's Licenses, and other such. It is unfortunate.

    Had I been the editor I'd have struck 'female' and let it go.

  • John Adams (unverified)
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    In the two short years I've been in Portland I've gagged so many times while reading the O's junk reporting that I've lost count. Clearly they are getting desperate and are scrambling to hold on to their readers. Unfortunately they continue to further blur the lines between news, entertainment, and editorial.

    However I don't understand why this particular discussion is about whether a public figure's sexual orientation is important in the context of a "news" article like the one in question. That ship has already sailed. We know there is an intelligent answer to that question, and it is "no".

    Instead I think we should be discussing why the O's reporting is slowly going the way of the Enquirer and what effect it is having on the weak-minded in the community that can't or won't think for themselves.

    These folk work, drive cars, they vote and even sit on juries, and it scares me to think the 'O' might actually be encouraging them to form medieval opinions and develop anti-social values with such irresponsible journalism.

    So, why does the 'O' put out such articles? Watching too much Jerry Springer? Perhaps they have a staff shortage, and there are simply not enough hours in the day for proper editorial oversight on each and every story? Or maybe they are just giving in to competitive pressure from YouTube?

  • ellie (unverified)
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    I agree that noting that her partner is female is unnecessary. Just say "partner" and leave it at that.

    On the subject of that word though... it seems that some people do equate it with homosexual relationships, but I use it interchangably for all committed relationships.

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    Since simply living with a female partner is not probative of the presence or absence of children .... what's the point?

    Can it really be that the Oregonian is so uncomfortable and/or inexperienced in these things?

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    It's legitimate. If it's appropriate to include other elements of her personal life--where she's lived, where she went to high school--then it's appropriate to mention that she's lived with her female partner for 27 years. That phrase definitely would have been included if she were hetero, so what's the rationale for leaving it out if she's gay?

    Sometimes I think we get into a bizarre double standard on the left. I and most liberals hold a larger sense of "family values"--we do not distinguish between committed relationships that are gay or straight. The fact that is valuable here is the 27 years. Hiding the secondary fact--that her partner is a woman--abets bigotry and suggests there's something wrong here. There's not. The O got it right.

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    I disagree. If she lived with a male partner, I would still say that "partner" was sufficient. Why does her sexual orientation matter at all?

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    It doesn't matter any more than the name of the high school matters. You could always put things in the oblique. Rather than this description:

    "she moved to Portland as a child, graduated from Sunset High School and lives in Northeast Portland with her female partner of 27 years."

    It might have read:

    "she moved to the Portland area as a child, graduated from a local high school and lives in Portland with her partner of 27 years."

    But why would you? The Oregonian's goal should be to give us worthwhile background into this public figure. Concealing information--perhaps the fact that she went to Sunset might be taken as a slight by those who went to Cleveland--doesn't do anyone any favors. And what's the motivation? It's a desire to avoid information that may be used by bigots. But that's the bigots' problem, not the Oregonian's.

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    Now that we've legalized domestic partnerships in this state, I think we should call the people in such partnerships "spouse". No reason to identify gender unless it's otherwise newsworthy.

  • ws (unverified)
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    It's very important that everybody knows that the school superintendent is gay. Even though many people do not consider sexual orientation to adversely affect job performance, if this information were not freely made known, fundamentalist reactionary individuals or groups would likely have made every effort to eventually drop a bomb based on this issue, so to speak.

    With the revelation of Carole Smith's orientation and long term partnership in conjunction with her being hired as School Superintendent, there seems to have been zero negative reaction to her personal life. That has to be quite an encouraging thing.

  • genop (unverified)
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    So it's "very important" to know the sexual preference of the School Superintendent because not revealing that in the newspaper would leave her vulnerable to attack from homophobes. Sheesh, leave it neutral and let the homophobes be the devisive ones,not the newspaper. Neutrality in journalism is as important a value as factual specificity. Except, of course if your FOX news in which case this revelation would per se disqualify her.

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    It would definitely be a problem if she asked that it not be publicized. The level & specificity of information suggests that she is "out" about it in a low-key way, as a background piece of her identity in a situation where her identity as an educationist is primary. As a strategy for defusing a potential issue and putting her kind of relationship in the range people accept as within "normal" variation, it seems kind of sensible -- fitting with the overall persona she has projected.

    It is not more than 15 years and perhaps less since a ballot measure that would have prevented lesbians and homosexuals from being schoolteachers and would have censored teachers from saying anything except condemnatory words about homosexuality got a large minority vote. It may be that Ms. Smith's orientation is newsworthy not exactly now, but may become so as she carries on and does her job effectively & gains public approval, in showing the bigotry behind the OCA's old measures for what it is.

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    Interesting facts about the lives of public officials always seem to be fair game. I don't even think the Big O. meant anything by it other than regular biographical info on PPS's new Grand Poobah. Thing is, very few people in Portland attach any stigma to same-sex couples (there are three on my block and many more in the PTA). The Oregonian must realize this to have mentioned it in such an offhand way.

    Welcome Carole! We've been waiting for someone of your caliber for too long!

  • JDA (unverified)
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    Don't think Portlanders are "attaching stigma" to this issue any more? Have a look at some of the bizarre comments on the Editors' Blog at the Oregonian.

    Now I feel all weird since they brought religion into the discussion, cuz that just reminds me of the stories about Priests and Altar Boys, Senators and Pages, Boy Scout Leaders and......

    But hey, if I WERE in that (conservative) camp I too would be looking for any old thing to divert some attention from my own sad closet full of skeletons.

  • tim (unverified)
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    In spite of Oregon's "progressive" and "tolerant" reputation, some consider homosexuality to be immoral and have adequate justification for the view; therefore, it may indeed be a "newsworthy" part of her biography, but not necessarily disqualifying for the position.

    <h2>If it had been reported that Ms. Smith owned 10,000 shares of Halliburton stock, would this blog site have been so "tolerant" about her personal finances?</h2>
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