So a reporter walked into GOP Congressman Aaron Schock's office last month and found what seemed to be an amazing recreation of the Downton Abbey set -- very lush and elaborate, and very red.
And Twitter went nuts with questions. Who paid for it? Was this with taxpayer dollars? Why was Schock spending his time and money on such an office? Why did the designer, whom the reporter bumped into, say she was giving her services for free, and who was paying for the velvet furniture and plumes of pheasant feathers? Others made conclusions, stating unequivocally that this demonstrated the hypocrisy of a congressman who came to Washington vowing to cut spending only to live like British nobility.
Not many facts were in yet, but people had questions and made conclusions. No one was screaming back at them, "Leave Aaron Schock alone!" or, "Stop the Downton-office baiting!" or, "Until you have facts, just shut up!" Nor were reporters sitting around waiting for the facts to materialize magically -- or running away from the facts while they busied themselves with other things they thought more important. They went out and began digging into this whiff of hypocrisy and possible ethical violation -- it's called a lead, which is not yet proof -- and they did bring back some facts. The office redecoration cost $40,000. Schock said he always intended to pay for it, and then did.
Then came the report of Schock having sold his house for well above market value to a former Caterpillar executive who had been a contributor to his campaign. Proof of something? No. Some people get lucky and sell well. Usually they don't even know to whom a realtor sells their home. But people rightly asked a lot of questions, and some made conclusions. And again, no one screamed, "Stop the Catepillar-executive-bought-his-house baiting!" Reporters dug further and further and brought up more facts. And so it went, with one after another instance of hypocrisy, possible violations and possible corruption -- with the FBI now investigating -- eventually leading to Schock's resignation this week.
Yet the media treated longstanding questions about Schock's sexual orientation and how it relates to his anti-gay voting record, questions that arose shortly after he took office and only came again and again, differently from questions about his official spending and how it relates to his fiscally conservative positions. Some of those questions, similar to those about the the office redecoration, were based simply on visual cues, what some saw as stereotyping based on his clothing choices; others were based on secondhand reports of sexual encounters. Again, these were not proof of anything, but they surely were leads. Schock has a terribly anti-gay record -- he voted against repealing "don't ask, don't tell" and has said he supports an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ban marriage for gays -- prompting the Human Rights Campaign to rate his support for LGBT equality at 0 percent.
Those of us who pointed to the possible hypocrisy were met with -- and still are being met with -- cries of "Leave Aaron Schock alone!" and "Stop the gay baiting!" and "Stop the pink baiting!" Instead of seeing these as whiffs of hypocrisy and leads for a story that were OK to speculate about at that point, many people demanded that we offer "proof" or "shut up," holding this kind of alleged hypocrisy to a different standard of proof. Now, if homosexuality is supposedly so acceptable now, why, with this type of hypocrisy, was the "proof" necessary first for us to speculate -- or even come to conclusions about, as some had in the other cases? Even New York's highest court, for example, ruled in 2012 that even falsely saying someone is gay is no longer "per se defamation." So why would it be wrong to even speculate, both morally and legally?
And why did reporters, rather than look into this hypocrisy -- similar to the hypocrisy of a politician running for office on cutting spending only to design his office in a way that countered that message -- run away from the story? Washington reporters have scoured every aspect of Rand Paul's and Ted Cruz's college years looking for evidence of hypocrisy in how they led their lives back then (e.g., bong using or elitist) compared with their positions now. But no one was able to engage them to even think about actually going to Peoria -- or Dupont Circle -- to do some digging into the possible hypocrisy story. The rumors about Schock were aplenty. They went far beyond what made it onto the blogs and the media that had picked them up, like the "Style" section of The New York Times, which wouldn't mention "the congressman" by name while discussing the fact that he'd been "outed" on Facebook by a former CBS reporter, Itay Hod, who said his friend, a Washington TV anchor, had walked in on his roommate and the congressman coming out of the shower together. (To his credit, Washington Post journalist Jonathan Capehart did use Schock's name at the time in discussing Hod's claim.)
Deception is deception. And, as with Congressman Mark Foley (R-Florida), whom reporters later admitted they knew was gay even as he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act a decade before he resigned in disgrace after a scandal involving male pages in 2006, had reporters exposed Schock's deception earlier, they might have stopped the later corruption. In both cases I believe the media is implicated in the ongoing corruption by looking the other way on this particular type of deception earlier on, not seeing it as valid.
It shows that the mostly straight Washington press corps has its priorities and knows the stories that will earn gold stars from their bosses and those that their bosses will frown upon or absolutely say no to (and which they themselves still feel queasy about), seeing them as risky and wrong. It shows again that for those of us who are members of minorities fighting for our civil rights, our priorities and concerns are often not the media's. A possibly closeted gay politician voting anti-gay is a big issue for us within the context of the fight for civil rights, while to them it's a story that pushes too many buttons and isn't worth the hell they may get for publishing it. Then they get backup from gay apologists who write silly pieces about "bitchy gays" attacking politicians with a "moderately" anti-gay record.
It also shows that our battles moving forward are not just in the courts and legislatures, against sworn enemies, but even against a supposedly more enlightened media that still doesn't get it.
Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, will be published April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.