Thursday, November 14, 2013

Press Releases: Getting spun

Published in the Portland Phoenix

News is far more than just what government officials say. That’s hard enough for many of Maine’s daily papers to remember on a good day, much less late on a sleepy post-Halloween Sunday production night. Which is when 2nd District Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, who is running for governor in the 2014 election, submitted an opinion piece to the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald declaring that he is gay.
The sequence of subsequent events shows not only how good Michaud and his team are at co-opting the news cycle, but also how vulnerable Maine’s mainstream media is to a professional operation.
The reaction was almost exclusively political — talking about the significance of Maine’s first openly gay member of Congress, the historic nature of the nation’s first openly gay gubernatorial candidate, whether the move would help or hurt Michaud in fundraising and voter support, commentary from pundits about whether anyone cared about Michaud’s sexuality anyway, reaction from lunch-counter occupants that gayness doesn’t matter to them (because of course they’d tell a reporter if it did), and so on. (For a deeper analysis of the politics of Michaud’s move, see Al Diamon’s column on this page.)
Of course, some of this was unavoidable: According to Press Herald reporter Steve Mistler’s story on the revelation, “Michaud’s campaign did not take questions about his announcement or its timing . . . Terms of the embargo also prohibited reporters from seeking reaction until after 12:01 am Monday. The campaign required that the newspapers agree to the terms in advance, while refusing to disclose the topic of the column until Sunday.” With little advance notice, and agreement not to make any follow-up calls until the middle of the night, reporters were completely hamstrung.
Even in the days that followed, though, two important things were missing, both of which were no doubt just as Michaud hoped. First, even a short couple of years ago, any politician’s announcement of gayness would have merited a reporter’s phone call to Michael Heath, Maine’s loony-tunes rabid-knee-jerk gay-hater-in-chief of the state’s fringe commentariat. But times have changed in Maine’s media environment. Despite looking closely at all the reporting on the matter, I didn’t detect any attempts to find someone who might be morally opposed to Michaud’s self-identified sexual orientation. Avoiding intolerant demonization is commendable, of course, though no less noteworthy for being positive.
The other thing missing was any sense of Michaud’s humanity, or any recognition of the fact that coming out in 2013 is still an emotionally fraught process — even if the person doing the coming out is younger than Michaud’s 58 years, and even if the audience is someone more likely to be accommodating than that man’s septuagenarian Catholic mother. Sure, there were a couple of videos letting him speak his mind, but he didn’t take those opportunities to speak about himself as a person. (A November 12 Press Heraldpiece about the challenges of coming out didn’t even interview Michaud.)
The congressman/would-be governor specifically diverted any attention of that nature by asking rhetorically “Why does it matter?” and then moving right on to his policies and his legislative record. The reason it matters, of course, is not that being gay is anything bad or to be ashamed of. It matters because the process of coming out can be life-altering. It matters because voters want to elect people, not politicians.
Michaud has glossed over his own narrative, going so far as to claim that he’s “the same person today that I was last week, last year, and the year before.”
But that’s actually hard to believe. Coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and sexual orientation, and then telling family members (and the public!) is not simple or minor — particularly for someone who has spent decades in the closet and who, during that time, voted against multiple gay-rights proposals.
This is not a call for reporters to dig into Michaud’s sexual history or personal life — but it’s worth asking Michaud if he has learned anything from this process that might affect his views on certain public policies. So far, his grip on the media narrative has prevented even that basic question from arising.