When I was in high school and college, I was watching TV news and reading newspapers and magazines during a Golden Age of journalism — the civil rights movement in the South, the Vietnam War, student uprisings. I was intoxicated. I wanted to be a reporter, where the action was, dealing with “big issues.” Correspondents were voices of authority and I wanted that.
My first job out of college was at the National Journal in Washington, D.C. I was writing about 50 “back of the book” items each week about every federal department and agency, every congressional committee, the courts and the White House. How lucky was I? I’d go to a White House briefing and President Nixon would stroll in. I attended the Supreme Court hearing on the Pentagon Papers. I soaked up every ounce of detail and I lean on that memory bank to this day.
But I really wanted to be in New York City and in TV, so I grabbed a job offer as an associate producer on a local women’s talk show at WCBS. More great training. Over the next 17 years, I worked in more technical TV jobs, wrote for Ms. Magazine and the Ladies Home Journal. Finally, I became a writer/producer for “Good Morning America” and then “CBS Morning News.” The networks. Heaven, right?
By the mid-‘80s, the Golden Age was over. Now I was producing segments for network morning TV on how to choose the right puppy. Even when the subject was more serious, I was allotted only 5-6 minutes. One of my lowest moments was when I was asked to call the families of Marines blown up in the Lebanon barracks in 1983 and get them to travel for 24 hours on buses and planes to be in our studio for five minutes of on-air crying.
When the Morning News went to San Francisco in 1986 for a week of shows at the Democratic National Convention and I realized we weren’t going to do anything gay (!), I volunteered to book some gay and lesbian people for an eight-minute discussion. Begrudgingly, they agreed. After it went really well, the executive producer said: “Leave it to you, Northrop, to book gay people who don’t look gay.”
Yes, I’d been out at all those jobs. But it’s not like that was seen as an asset or a resource.
In 1987, I quit. No plans. But I ended up at the Hetrick-Martin Institute for Lesbian & Gay Youth. My job was to go around to NYC-area schools to do HIV/AIDS education to students, teachers, administrators, and parents. And pretty quickly, education on homosexuality, too, (Hi, I’m your local lesbian), because you can’t educate about HIV without addressing homophobia. Turns out it was much more fascinating to talk to 8th graders than Henry Kissinger.
Here’s what I discovered: journalists don’t have a clue.
I’d been following HIV/AIDS news at the networks since the first CDC announcement in 1981—but I had no idea. By late 1987, I still didn’t understand the virus, the people, the political, social and personal issues. Nothing.
I got educated fast and it was amazing. Turns out the AIDS epidemic was just like the Vietnam War — people in power sending others off to die, not caring and not lifting a finger to help. There were—and are—issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. What an eye-opener!
I quickly joined the activist group ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). That led to hundreds of demonstrations, about 20 arrests, and the trial for the St. Patrick’s Cathedral “Stop the Church” action, televised by Court TV with my old CBS News colleague Fred Graham as the primary correspondent.
But here’s the punchline: I started training activists on how to deal with the news media. I’d been on both sides and I could tell them exactly how to understand the system. I taught them that journalists think they know everything but actually know very little. I taught them to be kind to reporters; to interview the reporter before the reporter interviews them; and to find out what a reporter knows and doesn’t know and gently fill in the background and details.
I taught activists to make themselves indispensable to reporters, because it’s not the sound bite you have to worry about— it’s the 90 percent of the story the reporter tells around your quote. Make sure they’re educated enough to tell the story correctly.
That’s what I’ve learned in almost 50 years as a journalist and an activist.
The two worlds couldn’t be more different. And that’s a real shame. I don’t think most (repeat: most, not all) journalists have the slightest idea what real life is like. They don’t understand and don’t try to understand real people and real issues. They’re too busy “defending” themselves from “special interests” trying to “manipulate” them. They don’t think that maybe they have something to learn. It’s tragic.
I’m now a strange hybrid of journalist and activist, which are not mutually exclusive. I am the co-host (for 23 years) of a weekly TV news program, “Gay USA” (gayusatv.org), with co-host Andy Humm. We have a very informal way of reporting the news, explaining and discussing it as we go along. When our viewers send us stories or correct mistakes we make, we talk about it on air.
And we talk about the ways we’re still involved as activists. Our goal is not to create artificial boundaries. Our goal is to get to the “truth,” as best we understand it, and to be utterly transparent along the way.
I wish the news business was more like that.