Once again we visit the always despicable practice of punitive “outing,” when gay activists, gay advocates, or the generally self-righteous decide that some individual deserves to have private matters, that he or she has an absolute right to keep private, made public. This particular instance is especially notable, because it involved an especially odious brand of unethical investigation, followed by a series of arrogant rationalizations by the offending party that would make a good, if easy, pop quiz in an ethics exam.
Lavender Magazine, a biweekly for Minneapolis’s gay and lesbian community, reported that an outspokenly anti-gay local pastor attended meetings of Faith in Action, the local affiliate of Courage, an international program of the Catholic Church that offers support for people who want to remain chaste despite same-sex attraction.
As a result of the report, the pastor was placed on leave by his church, which is looking into the matter.
Stephen Rocheford, the chief executive of Lavender, said the magazine received a tip that the pastor attended the meetings, and that the staff “thought that [was] kind of curious given his pronouncements against the gay community for years and years and years.” For example, the pastor, who was also cable and radio commentator, once suggested that a 2009 Minneapolis tornado was a sign of God’s displeasure because it struck as a Lutheran Church body was voting to approve the ordination of practicing homosexuals in committed relationships.
After getting the tip, Mr. Rocheford said that Lavender sent freelance reporter John Townsend “undercover,” meaning that he falsely gained access to a “12 Step” program and support group in order to publicize the confidential activities there and the supposedly protected identity of one participant in particular.
There is no ethical theory that rationally supports such conduct by Lavender and its reporters. Among the grievous ethics fouls that they committed are these:
1. The pastor, gay or not, has a right to his express his opinion about homosexuality and his church, however offensive or idiotic it may be. The ethical response is to argue with him and counter his statements with logic and facts. Setting out to embarrass him personally or destroy his reputation is vindictive and cowardly.
2. There appears to be nothing hypocritical in his position, if he is indeed a chaste gay man. What anyone thinks or feels is not unethical, and seeking to punish someone for his feelings is making thoughts a crime. The pastor publically opposed “practicing homosexuals,” an admittedly offensive term, but a clear one. He wasn’t a practicing homosexual, and a chaste homosexual who believes that gay sex is sinful is not in any way a hypocrite. Indeed, his attendance at the support group proves that he was determined not to be a hypocrite.
3. Even if his sexual orientation and his public position were in conflict, “outing” is unjustifiable, as it is cruel, a violation of privacy, and a bright line violation of the Golden Rule. And yes, even those who violate the Golden Rule themselves are entitled to ethical treatment by others.
4. Gaining access through misrepresentation to a 12 Step program—any 12 Step program—jeopardizes a spectacularly successful method of treating addiction by undermining faith in the programs’ ability to keep the identity of participants private. The reporter was interfering with a process of treatment, and gaining access to private communications that he was no entitled to hear. This would be unethical journalism if the reporter was investigating a crime or a conspiracy; to commit this kind of willful breach of the confidences of people seeking emotional assistance in order to harm the reputation of a political foe is indefensible.
Considering the rationalizations and tortured arguments offered as defenses by Lavender, however, it can come as no surprise that the magazine stomped multiple ethical principles—fairness, respect, honesty, empathy, confidentiality, respect for privacy and autonomy, kindness, trust, responsibility, candor, and more—into the dust.
- “Reporters do that all the time,” Rocheford said. “Everybody does it!” The reporters that do this every time are what we call unethical reporters.
- “He didn’t do anything unethical…I consulted with our libel attorney and because this man is a public figure it’s a legitimate news story.” “It’s legal!” The last dodge of the unethical scoundrel, Marion Barry’s rule: anything that isn’t against the law is ethical. This is the height, or depths, of ethical cluelessness. No, Mr. Rochford, you won’t go to jail for this, and can’t be sued for libel. It’s just legal, rotten-to-the-core dishonest and mean-spirited conduct, that’s all.
- Absurdly, Rocheford said the magazine has a policy against “outing” homosexuals, but explained that the one exception to the rule are public figure who make public pronouncements against the gay community while being a homosexual. This was the only time that exception has been used. Translation: we don’t “out” homosexuals as policy, unless we want to because the homosexual in question does or says something we don’t like, in which case we will make “an exception.” Integrity is not on Lavender’s list of valued principles.
- As his final excuse, Lavender’s leader argued that Faith in Action was not a legitimate 12 Step program, and thus was not due the same respect for it members confidentiality, saying “Those are there to help people with addictions and since when is homosexuality an addiction?” To begin with, he is factually wrong: 12 Step programs are used successfully for emotional problems other than addiction, such as victims of incest, neurotics, and especially the friends and family members of addicts. He is also presumptuous to decide that a method of treatment that is regarded as helpful to those undergoing it isn’t “legitimate.” What gives Lavender the right to make an uninformed judgment that a support group doesn’t deserve the same anonymity as other 12 Step? Nothing—nothing but arrogantly and selfishly putting its own interests over the welfare and needs of others.
This is an easy ethics verdict. The publication’s conduct, both in “outing” the pastor and in dishonestly gaining access to a 12 Step program to do it, violating the legitimate confidentiality of the meeting and everyone in it, is professionally unethical, and just plain wrong. It would be encouraging if members of the Twin Cities’ gay community would put their political passions aside and show that they recognize this. The ends don’t justify unethical means, especially when the end is unethical too.