MFE ran "Speechless: Silencing Christians," an hourlong homophobic infomercial on Saturday, June 27.2 The program reinforces abhorrent and wholly untrue stereotypes about GLBT people. The gist, from what I have seen and read about the program, is this:
- Homosexuality is a choice — and a sinful, wicked choice at that.
- GLBT people represent an immediate threat to so-called normal children and families.
- GLBT people are using force, intimidation, the courts, politics, and other unscrupulous means to silence their critics — specifically, the Christians.
MFE reportedly earned $35,000 for running this infomercial. According to Equality Florida's press release, the station's management "said they understand the show would be offensive to those who 'chose the homosexual lifestyle,' but 'not red flags' went up for them when they viewed it prior to airing."3
Freedom of speech is not the issue
Some people have shrugged and suggested that films such as "Speechless" are detestable, but will unfortunately receive airtime because we live in a country that embraces freedom of speech. Some cite the First Amendment.
The freedom of speech argument is a canard here, and the First Amendment is completely irrelevant to this conversation. The First Amendment doesn't apply because the government isn't restricting this group from expressing its message — in this case, the "Speechless" program.
The main issue here is standards. TV stations and newspapers should have policies and guidelines about what advertising they will accept. If a newspaper were asked to run an ad with sexually explicit images, they'd turn it down. If the KKK or a group of Holocaust deniers wanted to buy an hour of time for an infomercial to promote their views, they would be turned down.
The issue, put plainly, is this: MFE thought that the infomercial it ran was perfectly fine for its audience. It wasn't. It was indisputably full of lies, propaganda, and hate. Other stations across the country have turned it down. The infomercial was clearly objectionable.
To continue my point: This isn't a First Amendment issue or freedom of speech issue because the group that makes "Speechless" can get its message out in other ways. It can try to buy time on other TV stations. It can start it own TV station, if it likes. It can print its own literature. On the other hand, there was no one forcing MFE to run this infomercial. The decisionmakers at the station watched the program, felt it was fine, and let it air. They apparently had no qualms about the content. They seemed to think that it's OK to let people use their station for hate speech as long as there's payment involved.
This is why the protests are directed at MFE, not at the group that made and distributes "Speechless." MFE should not have run the program.
A former employee's view
I worked for MFE from 1999 to 2008. During that time, I received mixed signals about the company's views on GLBT people, including its GLBT employees. My recollection is that gay men and lesbians were accepted in the newsrooms4, but that sensitivity about GLBT issues — in fact, all minority issues — declined exponentially as one progressed higher up the organization chart. This is a generalization, and there were some exceptions. At MFE's parent company in Richmond, Va., I sensed a similar inverse relationship between (a) the size of someone's paycheck and (b) their level of sophistication on GLBT issues and commitment to a diverse workforce.
I'd like to point out that these are my personal opinions: my own impressions and feelings, synthesized over nearly 10 years with MFE. I speak for no one else.
I was out long before I came to MFE, and this never appeared to cause any tension among my immediate coworkers.5 I got to attend the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association conventions on the company's dime — back when news organizations still had travel and training budgets, of course. I recall an ambitious diversity training program that included GLBT issues in the curriculum in the early 2000s.
- At the time I left the company, MFE did not include sexual orientation in its discrimination policy. When I asked about this, I was told that it wasn't necessary because MFE is based in Tampa, which has sexual orientation in its discrimination policy. This didn't seem like a good rationale to me, as it probably doesn't cover people working for MFE locations outside Tampa city limits, and it doesn't send a message of inclusion for MFE's GLBT employees.
- In 2005, the year after Massachusetts became the first state in the US to adopt marriage equality, MFE mailed a letter to each employee stating that its health care plans would only cover opposite-sex spouses. I felt that MFE was trying to say that in matters of same-sex relationships, the company was so adamant about not recognizing partners that it would even trump state laws.
- When I left MFE, the company still did not have benefits for same-sex partners. I can think of no other large media company that does not offer domestic partner benefits. When I would ask about this (every year, like clockwork, at the meetings to introduce the new health care and retirement plans) I would be told that the company was concerned about the cost of domestic partner benefits. I would point out that study after study shows that the costs are negligible, and the message it sends to GLBT employees and recruits is incredibly important.
So, what will I be doing this afternoon?
After wrestling with thoughts for a few days, I have decided not to join the rally this afternoon at MFE. I think my presence might do some good: perhaps seeing a former employee might make some people at MFE realize that their decision to run "Speechless" wasn't just an insult to a nameless, faceless community, but had an impact on people they know. But I don't think that will happen.
It's clear to me that MFE make an indefensible decision to run "Speechless." I don't think the rally will actually help MFE understand what they did wrong and why so many people are offended, but perhaps bringing attention to the company will help lead to some kind of solution. I would like to see:
- A public apology, from the head of MFE, during a weekday 11 p.m. news broadcast when viewership is high.
- The money received from the "Speechless" infomercial donated to a group that helps gay youth. It's very important that MFE show that it not profit from a group that promotes hate.
- MFE develop new standards and procedures for screening materials for infomercials, and make those standards known to the community.
- MFE create a new sensitivity training course, and mandate that all of its employees take it.
I find the decision to run "Speechless" reprehensible but, in hindsight, not surprising. I haven't watched any programming on MFE since the broadcast of "Speechless," and won't until the company takes appropriate action on this issue. Still, I'd feel uncomfortable standing outside a company that signed my paychecks for most of a decade. Also, I'm friends with some people wo work for MFE. I respect and admire them. They had nothing to do with "Speechless" and I would feel awkward standing outside their office with a picket sign.
I'll feel guilty missing the rally, though. MFE needs to know that its actions aren't acceptable. I hope that today's protest leads to a dialog with the decisionmakers at MFE. Perhaps that's where I can best play a role.
1 I'll call my former employer MFE from now on. I don't see any reason to actually name the company.
2 This was the same day as St. Petersburg Pride. I don't know if the scheduling was deliberate, but I assume it was.
3 See the press release here. Also, I'd like to know if someone at MFE really used the phrase "chose the homosexual lifestyle." If so, who was it? This is the language of ignorance or bigotry, as homosexuality is neither a lifestyle nor a choice.
4 MFE has more than 1 newsroom.
5 I do recall one editor who treated me differently once he found out I was gay. Editor: "What does your wife do?" Me: "He is a professor." Editor: Long pause, followed by stunned expression of realization, followed by "ohhh."