Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Gay Bashing, 12 Step Privacy, and Journalistic Ethics

Lavender, "Minnesota's GLBT Magazine," recently created a firestorm of ethical controversy when it published an article outing a Lutheran Pastor known for tirades against homosexuality as a gay person struggling to remain chaste.

Reverend Tom Brock, Associate Pastor at Hope Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, regularly denounced homosexuality on his daily radio program. Last summer, when another branch of the Lutheran Church began to discuss the possibility of ordaining gay and lesbian clergy in committed relationships, a tornado tore off the roof of the meeting hall. Reverent Brock interpreted this as a message from God, condemning the idea of ordining non-chaste gays. Until recently his preaching about the tornado could be seen on youtube.

When it was rumored that Reverend Brock was attending a support group for men struggling against homosexual desire, Lavender sent John Townsend, an "undercover" reporter, into the group. Townsend reported on what Reverend Brock said in the group - most notably, about his experience on a preaching mission to Slovakia: "I fell into temptation. I was weak. That place has this really, really weird, demonic energy. I just got weak, and I had been so good for a long time. Things had been going so well for a long time. There’s a lot of gypsies there."

Clearly Brock is one of the many hypocrites who publicly attack the rights of homosexuals while secretly living a homosexual life. He's entitled to deal with his own sexuality in whatever way he chooses (as long as he is not harming others), but once he takes a public anti-gay stand and claims to know God's will his own conduct is fair game. The Lavender article was exposing a duplicitous public figure, not outing a private person. I see no basis for faulting Lavender's revealing these facts about Reverend Brock.

But what about going into a 12 step meeting on false pretenses and reporting on what transpired? Lavender published where the meeting occurred, what time it started, the name of the priest who led it, and unattributed comments from other participants. This was wrong. The participants are entitled to privacy, which is part of the ethos of 12 step programs.

The Lavender article is a vintage good versus good ethical dilemma. Scrutinizing public figures who denounce others is valid journalism - a public good. But privacy for a support group turned to in good faith by people doing the best they can in their lives is also a good thing.

The situation calls for a nuanced moral response. We should thank Townsend and Lavender for taking the issue of the integrity of public figures seriously. But we should chastise Townsend and Lavender for violating the legitimate expectations of the participants in the support group.

It's much easier, though, to see situations as all black or all white. That, alas, is the direction public and political discourse are taking.


Mark said...

Thanks, Jim, for this thoughtful posting. I wonder how you are doing?
Mark Moran

Ken K. said...

How wrong you think the reporter and magazine were depends on whether the "ethos of privacy" in 12-step programs is explicit or not. If the reporter stated explicitly that he would not share anything heard in the group, he did something a lot more wrong than if he just walked in and pretended to need help from the program.

On the other hand, it's hard to have sympathy for a public hypocrite, especially one in a (clearly undeserved) position of apparent moral authority, who uses that position to hurt people. However nuanced the setting in which that hypocrisy came to light.

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Mark and Ken -

Good to hear from you! I'm sorry for the delay in responding - I've taken a July 4th holiday.

Mark - all is well with and for me. I admire your writing at Psychiatric News, and may do a post that keys off of your recent story about how managed mental health organizations are bringing suit against the parity law. I'll send you an email off line.

Ken - I agree with the way you parse the degree of "wrongness" in the reporter's writing up his observations from the 12 step meeting. If he made an explicit pledge of confidentiality it would indeed be a greater wrong. But an assumption of anonymity and privacy is generally assumed by participants in a 12 step group. It looks as if you end up where I did on this issue - unhappy about violating the 12 step "ethos of privacy," but highly critical of a pastor who claims to know that God is as homophobic as he is. If he said "I hate homosexuals" he'd simply be displaying his own distorted outlook. But when he speaks as a pastor and says "God hates homosexuals," he's pulling rank and authority, and warrants the kind of scrutiny Lavender gave him.