Under the Gaydar

Judging by the shock-and-awe reactions of folks in bars and restaurants across the country, James McGreevey's revelation in August — “I am a gay American” — was just as dramatic as it played on TV. But one group of people wasn't so impressed with the New Jersey governor's big news. Journalists, it seemed, had known all along.

On Nightline, Charles Webster of the Trentonian said, “The context for reporters was that this was nothing new.” On The O'Reilly Factor, Steve Adubato, a CN8 talk-show host and columnist, went even further. “I interviewed him 10 times over the past three years, never had the guts to say, 'Governor, let me ask you,'” Adubato said. “'You put Golan Cipel [the ex-aide reported to have been McGreevey's lover] in this position to head up homeland security. Please tell me what his credentials are and what your relationship is.' And I didn't do it. And no one else did it … because we were afraid of being accused of being homophobes.”

Adubato is making two serious charges here: one, journalists pulled punches; and two, they did it because of the gay angle. The first charge is false. Adubato might not have asked McGreevey about Cipel, but other journalists did. Repeatedly, in fact. But Adubato's other accusation is more interesting. Did the media give McGreevey a pass because he was gay? What did reporters know, and when did they know it?

Start with the rumors, because everybody heard those. They date back to at least 1997. “It's been around so long that it's kind of like most rumors,” Republican operative Tom Wilson told me last summer, as I researched a 7,000-word profile of McGreevey for this magazine. “It's kind of comical.” While running Christie Whitman's '97 campaign, Wilson had fielded calls from “great old venerable metropolitan institutions” whose reporters were looking to hit gaydirt. But let's say a reporter had nailed down McGreevey's homosexuality in '97. No responsible journalist can out someone unless it achieves some public good. You need a corruption hook.

In February 2002, the press found it: Golan Cipel, an Israeli with a résumé heavy on PR. Inexplicably, McGreevey appointed Cipel as his homeland security adviser; then, when that didn't fly, the governor shifted him to a $110,000-a-year sinecure. It didn't pass the smell test.

And the Trenton statehouse reporters — some of the toughest anywhere — pounced. The Bergen Record broke the story, and the Associated Press, the New York Times, Gannett and the Newark Star-Ledger all followed suit, investigating the rumors by way of investigating Cipel. In compiling a massive Cipel takedown, Gannett had reporters walk to Cipel's office every day for months to ask for an interview. The one time they found him in, Cipel said he couldn't talk; immediately, reporter Sandy McClure got a call from a flack accusing her of “stalking Golan,” says Bob Ingle, Gannett's bureau chief. McClure's story ran four months later, in August, and 10 days later, Cipel resigned. Ingle wrote in his weekly column that “Cipel suddenly became uncloseted.” It was a curious turn of phrase that echoed the Washington Post's sly treatment of rumored George H.W. Bush paramour Jennifer Fitzgerald, who, according to the Post, “served President-elect George Bush in a variety of positions.”

Also in August 2002, the Ledger's Josh Margolin published a story that came close to outing McGreevey. It quoted the person who'd sold Cipel his West Windsor townhouse. The seller said McGreevey had done a personal walk-through of the home. “I thought it was highly unusual,” the seller told Margolin.

Bam. After the story hit, Eric Scott, VP of news for Millennium Radio Group, which owns New Jersey 101.5 FM, asked McGreevey directly — but not on the air — if he was gay. McGreevey denied it. One or two reporters have done the same, with similar results. One reporter who's covered the guv for 15 years says he's asked McGreevey three separate times. Once, McGreevey tried to throw the reporter off the scent by comparing himself to another New Jersey pol known to be a ladies' man; the guv claimed they used to “go out and cruise for women together.” (In a similar vein, Democrats had spread a counter-rumor about McGreevey getting caught with a female prostitute, according to the Times.)

McGreevey was always good-cop polite, with one exception. Back when the Cipel story first broke, McGreevey lost his cool. “He summoned one of the reporters to his office and carried on for a good half-hour, screaming much of the time,” according to a recent Record story. The Record had pointed out that the guv and Cipel “frequently travel together.” As “tears welled in his eyes,” McGreevey “screamed,” “'You implied something was there that is not!'”

But most of the time, McGreevey let his hysterical flacks play bad cop.

The afternoon DJs of 101.5 FM used to play “Karma Chameleon” when they talked about McGreevey, and once they compared him to Liberace — a comment that won their boss, Eric Scott, a scathing call from McGreevey's press aide. “I can't tell you what [the flack] was saying because she was screaming too loud,” says Scott. At one point in the conversation, McGreevey took the phone. “He very calmly said, 'Eric, I don't know what you guys think, but I'm not gay,'” says Scott. The next day, Paul Aronsohn — then McGreevey's communications director — called Scott and said, “I don't know what you guys think you have, but this is a non-issue, a non-story. Governor McGreevey is not gay.” I felt the flacks' wrath, too. Once, after an interview with a McGreevey associate in which I asked him a softball question about the governor's young staffers, the guv's surrogates called my editor, saying I had insinuated (darkly, they thought) that McGreevey surrounded himself with “young guys.” I found out later that the press corps snickered about the good-looking male staffers, calling them “the little boys.”

McGreevey's handlers were hyperprotective, sure, but reporters take pride in shrugging off spin. So if everybody — even the flacks and the guv himself — knew of the rumor, and the Cipel corruption hook looked promising, why didn't the press run with it?

It's not like politicians haven't been outed before. In 1994, Wisconsin Republican U.S. Rep Steve Gunderson found himself outed by both sides, the right (“He has a revolving door on his closet,” U.S. Rep Bob Dornan said on the House floor) and the left (gay activists). When U.S. Rep Jim Kolbe voted for the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, he learned that the Advocate was ready to disclose his homosexuality; Kolbe released the news himself.

But for a mainstream newspaper to out a national political figure without some precipitating event, like a lawsuit, would have been unprecedented. This was virgin territory, and reporters were wary. They had good reason to be, too. “If [the rumor] was in fact true,” Whitman campaign manager Tom Wilson told me last summer, “it would have found its way out of the woodwork by now.” In retrospect, says Wilson today, “These were folks who were playing for high stakes, and they had circled the wagons. Anybody who knew something wouldn't tell ya, and anyone who did know had been taken care of. There were two pieces of a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle missing, but without those two pieces it just wasn't complete.” One reporter who's covered McGreevey for years told me, “This is a nasty world, and New Jersey is nasty politics on steroids.” McGreevey was rumored to be gay, but so what? “I'm rumored to be a bad reporter,” says the scribe. Journos peddling rumors get smacked by their peers. Even Josh Margolin — whose Cipel-townhouse story stuck to the facts — got some heat from colleagues who thought he, like Bob Ingle in his “uncloseted” column, was trying to be cute. (Margolin, citing company policy, declined comment.)

That's all well and good, but if Cipel had been a woman, would we have read about this months ago? “I don't know if calling somebody gay is libelous, but I don't want to be the guy to find out,” laughs Herb Jackson of the Record, one of the deans of Trenton reporters. Some of Jackson's colleagues “believe we were not serving the public by not putting a full investigation into it,” he says. Speaking personally, Jackson continues, “When we had these meetings, I'd say it was much more important to investigate the things [McGreevey] was doing.”

There is indeed a press bias at work here, but it's not homophobia, exactly. It's what Jackson just put his finger on. Trenton reporters are process guys. They're trained to comb through boring records, not suss out the intricacies of identity and sex. In the weeks before McGreevey's self-outing, Jackson was working on a magisterial seven-part series about campaign finance called “Under the Influence.” Given the choice between a budget story and a Shakespearean drama, reporters will take the budget piece every time.

These days, every reporter in Trenton is claiming he had a McGreevey-is-gay story in the bag, which is understandable. It hurts, as I myself can tell you, to miss a big story. But 101.5's Scott argues that if reporters had printed the Cipel story, “The media would have been excoriated by the public for delving into somebody's personal life.

“We were damned if we did and damned if we didn't,” he says. “You actually saw something that you normally don't see in the media: some decency.” b E-mail: jfagone@phillymag.com