Maybe the theme here is a simple one. Journalists are human beings, they face trauma, conflict and stereotyping. But unlike most professionals, the job often offers the peculiar opportunity to, in effect, cover themselves and their communities while being at least traditionally unknown to the audience and also maybe not entirely known to themselves.
Steve Friess is an editor for our Detroit and a contributor for Newsweek. In 2015, he reflected in a piece about his coverage of cases related to gay marriage the previous year as a kind of self-examination. Welcome to the show.
STEVE FRIESS Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the summer of 2014, you found yourself sitting next to a friend and an old colleague you hadn't seen in 14 years. She saw the gold band on your hand and she said: "Oh, are you married now?" and you said, lowering your voice "That actually kind of depends on what happens in this courtroom today." And you called it an uncomfortable collision of the personal and the professional.
STEVE FRIESS So the case in Michigan became a big deal. It was an actual trial with witnesses which we had not seen since the Prop 8 case in California. And then it went up to the appeals court and eventually the Supreme Court. And it was one of the four cases that ultimately reversed all of the gay marriage bans across the country. So as this was happening, I was also a person, a human being, a gay person with a partner I wanted to legally marry. We have plans for a child, which we now have, but I didn't see any reason why I couldn't cover these cases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Did anybody else suggest that you were too close to the material you would be covering?
STEVE FRIESS No. One irony of it is that I had been trying so hard to stay out of the gay politics arena as a journalist that I didn't want to get married until it was just legal in my state. I was in Nevada and then I was in Virginia and then I was in Michigan. And every time I left the state, the state before me would make it legal. But I didn't have the right to do that in the state I was in. And to my mind, it seemed like a political act for me to go to another state to get married when that marriage license wouldn't have any force of law in my state. So I was actually trying really hard to take advantage of laws as they existed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And not to do explicit political acts. I get that.
STEVE FRIESS Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And yet, 15 years before you were sitting in that courtroom with your long-lost colleague, you wrote a piece. This is back in 1999 for the Sun Sentinel's Sunday magazine about your own wedding with your first partner. And in it, you wrote about how the guests appeared oblivious to just how radical an event this was. You were writing a piece about yourself, personal journalism.
STEVE FRIESS The fact that my first wedding was actually so ordinary felt to me like a bit of a revolution at the time. You're right. Absolutely. There have been zigs and zags in the ways that I approached these things. I just felt like when I became a point person covering the legal developments of the time, I needed to be extra conscious of what that meant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So how did you then approach the reflection you wrote in 2015, the year after you're in the courtroom with your friend? Was it personal or was it strictly journalistic? Tell me the process?
STEVE FRIESS I reported it out. I went back and I called up some of the people I had talked to. One of the people I spoke with was John Eastman. He is a very conservative lawyer, one of the architects of the anti-same sex marriage legal framework. I talked to him over and over again. He was an important source for that point of view, and I never talked about myself. I was just another voice on the other end of the line. So I called him up and I said, look well, I was just wondering, did you know I was gay? He said, no. I said, did you think that I covered the case fairly? And it was very clear that I wanted the truth. I didn't want him to just say what he thought I wanted to hear. And he said, you were fair. I felt like I was being quoted in context, I didn't have any problem with your journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what actually was the point of this return to the story of the year before and this return to the sources for that story?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think that journalists do this enough. I don't think that journalists own the fact that they sometimes run into conflicts. They can work through if they're honest about it. In this case, I had this very crystal-clear moment that made it obvious to me that there could be some reason to doubt the quality of my work. I just felt like it was a good example. I don't think that journalists need to disclose all of their personal biases in the stories while they're writing them. But I do think that it is useful to the public to know that we're real people. I really do believe that in the effort to sort through it in your own mind, you keep yourself on the right path as a journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So when you're covering the news, how much of yourself do you disclose to build that credibility and make yourself more trustworthy rather than less? What's the line you have to walk?
STEVE FRIESS I don't think you disclose it at all in that context. I don't know where you would stop if you started. If I'm covering a trial, do I then have to explain that my brother in law is a D.A. or that somebody I know is a cop or that I've been robbed once? You know, I've been in this business a long time and I remember the early 90s, that was the first wave of efforts to diversify newsrooms, which, you know, 20-30 years later really didn't go very well. But nonetheless, it was the first time we really started to talk about it seriously. Then came the conversation of, well, can they cover their own minority? Well, pick one. Do you want people with diverse opinions and diverse experiences that help the coverage because they know things and some people might feel more comfortable talking to them? Or do you want to play this ethics game that just increases people's suspicion and makes people question things that they don't need to question? If you're a journalist and you're covering a company that you own stock in, yes, you have to say that. You've chosen to buy that stock. I mean, you know, I didn't choose to be gay. The person didn't choose to be a person of color or a woman. Nobody chose to be sexually assaulted or victim of any other type of crime. So those aren't the kinds of disclosures that are, in my mind, required every time you cover something.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve, thank you so much.
STEVE FRIESS Thanks for having me. This has been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Steve Friess is an editor for Our Detroit and a contributor for Newsweek.
Coming up, how to cover reality when there is always more than one. This is On the Media.
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