May 7, 2010 | by Kevin Naff
WaPo botches Betts murder story

The Washington Post has made tremendous progress in covering overtly gay issues since its new editor took over. When same-sex couples walked the aisle in D.C., the Post was there, flooding the zone with a multimedia extravaganza of marriage coverage.

But when the LGBT angle isn’t so obvious, the Post continues to cling to 1950s-era notions about sexual orientation — namely that it’s something to suppress or hide.

This lingering problem with honest reporting at the Post surfaced again in recent weeks as the tragedy of the Brian Betts murder unfolded. Betts, a nationally respected educator, was principal of Shaw Middle School in D.C. and a hero to his students. The Post has devoted much coverage, including front-page stories, to his brutal killing. Three teens are charged in connection with the murder; a fourth person faces charges related to alleged use of Betts’ credit card.

Almost immediately after the story broke, several of us at the Blade began getting tips that Betts was gay. Not closeted, but openly gay to a wide circle of area friends and colleagues.

Indeed, Betts was gay and the Post, even in a lengthy, prominent Sunday story about the murder, refused to report that basic fact. Post editors will tell you that his sexual orientation isn’t relevant or that they can’t prove it. Don’t believe them.

First, the Blade’s reporting staff was able to establish Betts’ sexual orientation quickly and with certainty. Surely the Post’s mammoth newsroom could have done the same.

Second, if Betts were straight, there is no question the Post would report basic facts, such as whether he was married, engaged, had a girlfriend, ex-wife or children. But because he was gay, such details are considered “personal,” “private” and “irrelevant.” It’s an indefensible double standard: If the fact of a straight subject’s sexual orientation is considered fair game for public disclosure, then the same must hold for LGBT subjects. The specifics of what you do in the bedroom: private. The fact of being gay or straight: public. It’s that simple.

Finally, and most significantly, his sexual orientation proved key to the story. Betts allegedly met his killer or killers through a gay-oriented chat line.

The Betts case is reminiscent of the story of Maj. Alan Rogers, a gay service member killed in action in Iraq two years ago. At the time, the Post covered his funeral and, despite interviewing multiple gay friends, and despite Rogers’ work for a gay-oriented organization that advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” then-editor Leonard Downie, Jr. personally intervened, editing the story to remove any reference to sexual orientation. He even excised all of Rogers’ gay friends from the final story. The Post ombudsman at the time, Deborah Howell, sided with the Blade’s take on the story and agreed with us that dealing truthfully with the issue of sexual orientation would have painted a fuller, more honest picture of Rogers’ remarkable life.

The same is true for Betts. The importance of the gay angle might not be obvious to straight editors, but fellow gay men especially understand the significance of Betts’ life story. The worst slur directed at gay men is that we can’t be trusted around children; that we’re pedophiles. It’s a cruel, baseless, despicable stereotype that has driven countless gay teachers into the closet. That Betts — a respected educator — was gay and rose to such prominence in his field is an important and, yes, relevant, part of the story.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

1 Comment
  • Welcome back! This story is a perfect example of your importance to the community.

    I just spent about a half hour at the WP site and found no inference that this was a gay related murder.

    Being certain that it was, I came to you.

    Good job!

    Roger, Chicago

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