Should News Anchors Come Out?

Rachel Maddow gets personal about being gay in journalism - but is it more complicated than that?

Courtesy of MSNBC

Openly lesbian talk show host Rachel Maddow was recently interviewed by The Guardian about her rise to fame (Alex Baldwin’s talking about her on 30 Rock) and what she thinks of news anchors coming out. “I’m sure other people in the business have considered reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says the host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, “but I do think that if you’re gay you have a responsibility to come out.”

The bespectacled darling of both political left-leaners and the LGBT community (not to mention a source of crushing among the oh-so smart lesbian set) Maddow, who prefers sneakers to pumps, has never not been honest about being gay. And while she didn’t dare name any names in this recent interview, plenty of pundits have already cast speculations about which news folks may be desperately clinging to their closets. Does a certain silver-haired fox come to mind?

That’s why Maddow took to her blog this week to set somethings straight, so to speak. Namely, she defends her stance on coming out, but denies having mentioned anyone by name. “I wasn’t asked about Anderson Cooper,” Maddow writes, “I didn’t say anything about him, he literally was never discussed during the interview at all – even implicitly.”

She also laid out a kind of “three commandments” for why it’s important for gays and lesbians to be honest with their readers and viewers – and why she’s also not in favor of outing most people (there’s at least one exception):

1. Gay people – generally speaking – have a responsibility  to our own community and to future generations of gay people to come out, if and when we feel that we can.

2. We should all get to decide for our ourselves the “if and when we feel that we can” part of that.

3. Closeted people should reasonably expect to be outed by other gay people if (and only if) they prey on the gay community in public, but are secretly gay themselves.

Maddow adds – with a nod to a certain self-referential corniness that has long characterized her style – that coming out also does people good, and that it’s a healthier, happier way to live in life and work.

It’s tough to argue with that. But is it really that simple?

One of the biggest concerns among anyone in media is what happens when becoming the news story interferes with delivering the news story. In Maddow’s case, she makes no bones about being opinionated, but also stands steadfast to her facts (and consistently challenges opponents to fact-check her – like recently when she showcased why Republicans are making it harder for Americans to register to vote when more than 60 percent of first-time voters helped to elect Obama).

In Philadelphia, we have seen first hand the dangers of news people becoming the news – such was the case with the Larry Mendte and Alycia Lane scandal at CBS3 that doesn’t seem to ever want to go away. And while certainly reading other peoples’ emails or making accusations against a co-worker has little or nothing to do with “coming out” as gay, often the effects of having one’s personal life exposed has consequences – for better – or worse. Once it’s out there – people do with it what they wish. We have little say about it again.

But the reality is that people in the gay community already know who’s gay and who isn’t – both on a local and national scale. There are plenty of gay news people in Philly, for example, who don’t necessarily hide their sexuality, but they also don’t publicize it either – the same way they may be loathe to discuss anything having to do with their personal lives for fear of jeopardizing their reputations or – to paraphrase Annelle from Steel Magnolias – to prevent them from doing good news.

While Maddow makes a great, incredibly important point about the overall impact of coming out for the sake of young people (“It Gets Better” and all) and for future generations (the pioneers always make it easier for the rest of us) media is a complicated business. And though we live in an era in which opinion and punditry can sometimes outpace the cold, hard facts (we’re looking at you, Fox News), there are times when keeping some personal things to oneself isn’t necessarily such a bad thing.

This isn’t to say you won’t see your favorite news guy at the local gay bar on a Friday night or that his sexuality should have anything to do with how he does his job. But when was the last time a heterosexual news professional was questioned because of his sexuality? Exactly.

It’s hopeful the same standard will eventually be applied to gays and lesbians in news. Maddow is certainly a trailblazer who’s onto something when she praises coming out – it certainly worked for her and her top-rated show – but every market, every outlet is different. In an ideal world sexual orientation shouldn’t make a difference. But for anyone who actually watches the news, we know it’s definitely not an ideal world.