THREE YEARS AGO, there were four major national players in the gay and lesbian media biz: Out, the Advocate, PlanetOut, and Gay.com. The good news is that they are all still with us. The bad news is that soon they may all be owned by the same company.
Three weeks ago, these developments prompted an extraordinary letter from Henry Scott, the former publisher of Out. “Please forgive the intrusion,” he wrote to just over 200 gay and lesbian activists. But his apologetic tone quickly gave way to dire urgency: “I am writing because, as a leader in the lesbian and gay community, you have an opportunity to help halt an effort to create a dangerous monopoly among gay media.”
“Dangerous monopoly”? Well, it’s not Standard Oil, or even Microsoft, but Scott’s letter contained facts that were sobering. Last April, Los Angeles–based Liberation Publications, Inc., which publishes the Advocate, bought the magazine’s biggest competitor, New York–based Out. The Advocate’s circulation is 88,000, and Out’s is 112,000; even assuming a fair amount of overlap, the combined circulation of LPI’s two front-line magazines now dwarfs that of the nearest competitor, Genre, which has an estimated circulation of 40,000.
And LPI, which since 1996 has also owned the Los Angeles–based queer-book publisher Alyson Publications (formerly of Boston), could soon be swallowed by an even bigger fish. PlanetOut, a major Internet company that targets gay and lesbian viewers and readers, announced in February 2000 that it was going to buy the company. The deal is still in the works. PlanetOut has already merged with former rival Gay.com: in a November 15 press release, the two firms stated, “The services of the two largest businesses serving the LGBT market will create a global media and services company that immediately reaches more than 3.5 million unique individuals a month and counts more than 1.6 million registered users.” Gay.com had already subsumed OnQ, a large queer online service, in March 1999. Last August, it bought into Gay Financial Network (gfn.com), and they’re now selling advertising jointly. And PlanetOut recently bought Out & About, a gay print and online travel publication.
The happy gay marriage of PlanetOut and Gay.com leaves Gaywired.com, with 500,000 monthly users, as the next-largest gay media outlet. This type of monster-merger scenario has become unnervingly common in contemporary journalism. Time Warner and American Online recently joined forces. Viacom and CBS have done the same, as have Disney and ABC. And then there was the “partnership” between the Washington Post Company and NBC News. Only the Post and NBC News have remained distinctly separate — AOL has gobbled up Time Warner; Viacom did the same to CBS, as did Disney to ABC. Likewise, when LPI bought Out, it reduced the magazine’s existing staff by half, let some people go, offered others jobs in the LA office (which were, for the most part, not accepted), and named a new editor in chief. Both publications are now overseen by Advocate editor Judy Weider, who carries the title “Corporate Editorial Director and Editor in Chief.” Gay people may be “everywhere,” as the old slogan goes, but their editorial voice is beginning to emanate from a single place. And critics worry that this voice will end up watered down, self-censored, and preoccupied with celebrity fluff at the expense of serious journalism.
SCOTT’S SOLUTION is to bring in the big guns of antitrust legislation: he urged anyone concerned with an independent gay and lesbian media to contact the US Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to complain. He has also filed complaints with the attorney general’s offices of California and New York. But although Scott says the Department of Justice has contacted him, what are the chances of the Feds stepping in to ensure a free market for all queer voices? If the Time Warner-AOL merger didn’t bother them, who is going to care about this?
Even many gay media consumers may wonder whether there’s anything wrong. After all, the Web sites of the Advocate, PlanetOut, and their subsidiaries — with their articles, links, personals, and chat rooms — provide gay people with more forums than they have ever had before in the history of the universe. So who could complain?
Well, for one thing, some observers are worried by what happened in Australia, where a media and real-estate company called Satellite went public last year. Satellite grew quickly by buying up seven of that country’s most important print and electronic queer-media outlets. But after the initial ballyhoo, Satellite went belly-up and ended in receivership — and all seven gay publications shut down. Could such a scenario be possible here? Although financial information on Gay.com and PlanetOut is not public, the sites appear potentially shaky: Megan Smith, PlanetOut’s CEO, admitted to the San Francisco Chronicle that the merger with the Gay.com was the only way for either one to succeed. And the fact that the PlanetOut-LPI merger has been on hold for a year does not instill confidence at a time when dot-coms are folding at the click of a mouse. Worst-case scenario: LPI and PlanetOut merge, the resulting monolith cannot sustain itself, and it folds — taking all the subsumed publications down with it.
Gay-media watchers also fear that a business monopoly could lead to a monopoly of opinion. An ominous sign came last November, when Andrew Sullivan, the openly gay New York Times columnist and former editor of the New Republic (for which he still writes), complained publicly about a cover interview with Bill Clinton, written by Washington correspondent Chris Bull, that appeared in the November 7, 2000, issue of the Advocate. Sullivan, who supported George W. Bush’s candidacy and had crusaded against Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, didn’t mince words — he called it “boot licking.” Weider, who became the Advocate’s editor in 1995 after a stint as a music journalist at Creem, responded by canceling Sullivan’s upcoming piece on AIDS. She was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “if we have Andrew write while he’s tearing down the Advocate, it makes it look like we agree with his point of view.” (Weider did not respond to a request for an interview made through LPI’s New York–based publicist.)
In reality, it’s not so unusual for a publication’s staff and its contributing writers to air disagreements in public. Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein and columnist Nat Hentoff have waged all-out fights in print over Hentoff’s claim that queer activists are essentially advocating censorship of homophobic public figures such as Anita Bryant and “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger. And Katha Pollitt of the Nation has taken aim at what she regards as misogyny on the part of such columnists as Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn. It’s Weider’s heavy-handed response to political disagreements that seems out of the ordinary — in fact, outrageous. Feelings ran so high about the Sullivan incident that Dan Savage, a popular sex-advice columnist who writes for Salon and other publications, and has published a critically acclaimed memoir about adopting a child with his partner, resigned his monthly column in Out in protest. (Savage did not return e-mails seeking comment.)
The hue and cry raised by the Advocate’s action against Sullivan has since led the magazine to lift its ban on his work. “Apparently,” he notes dryly, “I was just temporarily barred.” Sullivan recognizes that while he does not need the Advocate to make a living, many queer freelance writers do, and that the Advocate flap set a disturbing precedent. “I think the implications for writers who are just trying to make their way is chilling,” he says. “I'll survive, but the effect is worrying. When all the gay media is owned by one group, and that group polices criticism of itself in its own media, then where are we? This is a situation in which Kruschev would have felt comfortable.”
The problem goes even deeper when you consider the relationship between national gay publications and the political groups that they cover. For example, both the Advocate and PlanetOut were directly involved with last April’s Millennium March on Washington, which was sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign and a host of other gay and lesbian civil-rights organizations. Many gay and lesbian businesses were corporate co-sponsors either of the March or of Equality Rocks, an independently produced concert that was a highlight of the weekend. PlanetOut gave march organizers $250,000 in cash and $750,000 in in-kind contributions; the Advocate donated color ads in 20 issues and published 300,000 copies of a special Millennium March issue — services worth a total of $425,000.
What’s more, Weider herself was on the production team of Equality Rocks, which featured performances by Melissa Etheridge and George Michael. Both Etheridge and Michael had been featured on the cover of the Advocate in the previous 18 months, and they appeared together on the March issue. Virtually any arbiter of journalistic ethics would consider this way out of line. “This is like if [New York Times publisher] Arthur Sulzberger produced a play and then expected the New York Times to cover it,” says Scott.
The obvious question is whether this involvement affected the Advocate’s ability to report honestly on the event and its failures. March attendance, for instance, was far lower than what was anticipated — a result, critics claim, of inept organizing. More shocking was the theft of as much as a half-million dollars in cash, allegedly by insiders, from the march site — a case that remains unsolved even with the FBI investigating. The Advocate did cover these issues, but it did no independent investigation. And its coverage never mentioned that community groups such as Queer Watch and the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process had criticized the magazine’s own role in the events.
“Let’s face it: a minority community is very vulnerable to media manipulation of information,” says Bill Dobbs of Queer Watch, a national gay activist group. Adds Scott: “It’s true that there are still a network of small local publications, but ... if certain stories are not going to be covered by the main Internet providers or the national print magazines, this information is not going to be available.”
The conflict-of-interest problem runs the other way too. Political activity costs a lot — and the gay community comprises a relatively small group of people who are asked repeatedly for money. So the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Victory Fund, and many large AIDS groups have come to rely on a mixture of personal donations, the occasional grant, and large events that are underwritten in part by corporate sponsors. The three biggest corporate sponsors have been PlanetOut, Gay.com, and the Advocate/LPI. (Including these three, the Millennium March and Equality Rocks had 18 major corporate sponsors.) No matter what kind of job the Advocate and PlanetOut are doing, none of these groups is in a position to criticize them or hold them to a higher standard of journalism. “It’s not at all surprising that the national organizations — particularly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which monitors the media — has not made a peep about this,” says Scott. “But you have to realize that they are completely dependent on the national gay press to publicize their work and their names. They are in a very difficult situation.”
IT MAY seem ironic, but the strength of the gay and lesbian media in this country has derived from its very fragmentation and marginality. From the early 1970s on, a burgeoning national press was augmented by a thriving local media that promoted a variety of opinions, agendas, and attitudes. From bar rags to middle-of-the-road liberal publications to leftist tracts, these publications — which were generally free of national advertising — provided a necessary critique of national organizations and publications. In this environment, quality journalism thrived. When Sarah Pettit (who is now the arts and entertainment editor at Newsweek) was editing Out, from its inception in 1994 until she was dismissed by Henry Scott in December 1997, the publication was noted for its investigative reporting of “taboo” topics like lesbian battering, its edgy stories about sexuality, and its coverage of offbeat and countercultural art. The Advocate, under Richard Roulliard (who left for the LA Times in 1992), went out of its way to make news — for example, with the “outing” of Pete Williams, the spokesperson for the armed forces.
But today, although city-based newspapers such as the Washington Blade, New York Blade, Chicago Outlines, and Boston’s Bay Windows still do original reporting, many similar publications have folded. And even those that remain increasingly use AP stories and syndicated columnists. Meanwhile, many critics argue that the national publications are devolving into fluff.
The Advocate, for instance, has essentially suspended its AIDS-beat coverage and relies on short news items and a general-health column for its coverage of the epidemic. Weider has been reshaping the magazine in the mold of celebrity and entertainment culture, without much rigorous reporting even on those issues. Last year’s brouhaha over Dr. Laura, for example, received one moderately lengthy piece and almost no serious follow-up. The cover of the February 27 issue highlights the made-for-TV Judy Garland biography, the ever-pressing question of whether Ricky Martin is “running from those gay rumors,” and Vice-President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary. The 72-page issue features 10 pages of news (including the Cheney item, which turns out to be a one-source story — Cheney did not speak to the Advocate) and 23 pages of entertainment coverage. Out, meanwhile, has essentially scuttled its investigative journalism in favor of glib entertainment and lifestyle coverage. The cover story of the December 2000, issue was a puff piece about Showtime’s Queer as Folk and a fashion spread with the show’s actors.
The Advocate and Out were magazines that in their heyday were must-reads for people who cared about gay journalism. Neither they nor any other magazine fits that description today. But if the merger trend keeps up much longer, it could give the term “must-read” a whole new meaning: if you want to read a gay publication with a national audience and scope, you won’t have any other choice.
Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s Press, 1998). He can be reached at email@example.com.