By Matthew E. Berger (NLGJA board member and vice president of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm in Washington, D.C.)
It’s been a pretty big week so far for LGBT news, with the much anticipated two days of hearings before the U.S. Supreme Court on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. But I was also struck by the other LGBT media news of the week, how it was handled and what the headline was not.
Jenna Wolfe, the weekend anchor of NBC’s “Today,” announced on air Wednesday that she was pregnant and having a baby with fellow NBC News correspondent Stephanie Gosk. In the segment, Wolfe bantered with Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie about buying strollers and breast pumps, and said she’d be blogging about her pregnancy adventures. Then they went to commercial.
It was typical for a morning program, and not unlike what had happened several months previously when Jenna Bush Hager announced her pregnancy on air (although George W. and Laura Bush didn’t call in this time).
Here’s what wasn’t said: Wolfe and Gosk, who was not in the segment, never mentioned the previously undisclosed news that they were both gay.
While not a household name like Anderson Cooper or Sam Champion, Wolfe is seen regularly on television, yet hadn’t been the subject of rampant rumors. She was choosing to make an announcement of her pregnancy, not of her sexual orientation, and she did it not because of outside pressure or as an act of advocacy, but because she had something exciting to share, and presumably because her audience was going to notice.
Wolfe, Gosk and NBC News didn’t shy away from the fact that the two women are lesbians. But it was never said, not because of shame or embarrassment, but because it wasn’t a big deal. By focusing on the pregnancy and the impending birth of their daughter, they skipped the “coming out” step, as if they’d been out all along.
(Disclosure: I worked for NBC News in 2007 and 2008 as a campaign reporter, but do not know Wolfe or Gosk).
I have always been very conflicted about the public coming out of any celebrity, but particularly of journalists. On the one hand, I am a big believer that having out LGBT people in the public eye is essential for raising a bright light to the civil-rights issues we face and providing role models for the next generation. That’s why I am part of NLGJA.
But at the same time, there has to be a middle ground between being in the closet and announcing you’re gay on the front page of a magazine. Many people live openly gay lives without making headlines. They are out to their family, friends and colleagues, but either do not warrant a public announcement of their sexual orientation or leave that type of advocacy to others. That’s certainly true for some LGBT journalists, who take their role as an objective arbiter of facts seriously and shy away from disclosing personal views and details of their private lives.
We should not assume that the only options are “closeted” and “gay icon.” Many actors, politicians and journalists are out, but just haven’t told you. It was as if Wolfe and Gosk were saying, “I never told you I am straight, so why should I tell you I am gay?”
Wolfe, Gosk and NBC are perhaps making a bigger statement in their handling of this news than if they had the two women on the couch announcing that they are lesbians. What they are saying is that having two gay correspondents shouldn’t make headlines. But that doesn’t mean anyone is ashamed of who they are.