LA gay center denounces TV station’s sex bust coverage

ImageLos Angeles’ LGBT community has a long history with being targeted  by undercover police stings and raids of gay bars. One such incident the night of New Year’s 1967 at the Black Cat Tavern sparked a riot, demonstrations, a legal case and gave birth to what became the Advocate, the national news magazine.

With that history in mind, it was no surprise to see the swift backlash that erupted today (Wednesday, April 4) after a local TV station published the mugshots of 18 men arrested due to a police sting at a public restroom at a local beach.

According to the story posted to the website of KCBS/KCAL, the undercover investigation occurred after lifeguards at Manhattan Beach noticed unusual activity at a public bathroom located at Marine Avenue at The Beach. They alerted the police, who used information from an online site for sexual encounters and surveillance of the restroom to conduct their operation.

What has infuriated LGBT leaders and residents was the station’s decision to publish the mugshots, date of birth and hometowns for all the men police arrested. One commenter on the website for gay LA publication Frontiers, which re-posted the local TV station’s story but did not include the men’s mugshots on its own website, wrote, “Reminds me of the gay witch hunts on gay bars and on gay men meeting up in the woods in times past.”

The LA Gay and Lesbian Center issued a statement denouncing the disclosure of the men’s personal information and identifications, saying center officials were “surprised and outraged to learn” about it.  The center is calling on the local CBS affiliate to remove the mugshots and men’s names from its website.

The men were reportedly charged with victimless crimes ranging from loitering to engaging in lewd conduct in a public place.

When contacted by the Center, KCBS/KCAL Assistant News Director Paul Button (News Director Scott Diener is out of town) said he would look into the issue, but he has yet to follow-up with the Center.

“It’s shocking that any news operation, but especially an affiliate of a major network like CBS, would choose to publish the mug shots, names and birthdates of people charged with victimless crimes, simply because the charges are salacious or related to gay sex,” said L.A Gay & Lesbian Center Chief of Staff Darrel Cummings. “Naturally we don’t condone illegal activity of any kind, but these men haven’t been proven guilty and historically, charges such as those leveled against them have involved police entrapment. Publishing their photos serves no purpose other than to humiliate and destroy their lives. We call on KCBS/KCAL to immediately remove the images and names from their website.”

As of 5:17 tonight the mugshots of eight of the men could still be seen on the station’s website, and anyone could download a PDF file containing all 18 of the mugshots.

Now it is normal for reporters covering the police beat to request mugshots of alleged suspects in the course of their crime reporting. But the issue of whether to publish those of men caught engaging in public sex with other men remains controversial.

NLGJA’s Stylebook for those covering LGBT stories does not give any guidance on the matter.

Last month after a Florida publication published a slideshow of mugshots of men arrested during a similar beach sting, my fellow RE:ACT blogger Michael Triplett had this to say about it:

But going a step beyond that and publishing names, addresses, and even a slideshow of mug shots for men arrested for a misdemeanor is without journalistic justification.

Perhaps it is time for NLGJA to take this issue up and issue a statement or guidelines about the usage of mugshots in news stories covering stings of men having sex with men at public locales.

For what is clear is that 45 years after the Black Cat incident, the public shaming of men arrested for engaging in such activities is still taking place in the mainstream media.