The cyber mafia: gay bloggers have emerged as the most influential voice in a new wave of journalists who are redefining the way the information game is played.
These are just samples of the gay-related headlines that piqued national interest in 2006. None would have seen the light of day in the mainstream media had they not been either broken or nudged along by a group of increasingly influential gay bloggers who are changing the way we get our news about the famous and powerful
Sites like AmericaBlog, TowleRoad. BlogActive, PerezHilton, and Defamer have become must-reads from Washington. D.C., to Hollywood, where secrets--especially gay-related ones--are getting harder and harder to keep.
"They give us the opportunity to access breaking news and are very efficient for us," says celebrity publicist Simon Halls, who helped Harris craft his coming-out statement. "TowleRoad has a lot of helpful information on a societal level. I think that's the new wave of journalism.
Andy Towle. 39. rises about 6:30 A.M. most weekdays in his New York City apartment. He turns on his computer and starts scanning the Web sites of The New York Times and other mainstream news organizations as well as "about 100 blogs" to see what might be of interest to the readers of TowleRoad. his well-regarded and popular gay-interest site that serves as a digest and a link to news of the day. The topics are a mix politics and entertainment news. and just about every day there is a beefcake shot of an actor or athlete usually in some form of undress.
"I think that blogs have definitely created a greater awareness of gay culture in general, particularly because blogs have propelled political stories like Mark Foley and Jeff Gannon and celebrity stories like Lance and Reichen [Lehmkuhl, a former winner of the reality show The Amazing Race] into the public consciousness--[stories] that people watching mainstream news or reading mainstream magazines would not have become aware of so quickly. observes Towle, a Vassar graduate and former editor of Genre magazine.
On the opposite side of the country--and taking the opposite approach--is a flamboyant 28-year-old blogger known as Perez Hilton. The self-described "'queen of all media" can be found at a table at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard near West Hollywood, Calif., constantly looking for dish to post with his unique attitude and flair.
Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, is on a roll. The day it was learned that Britney Spears was divorcing Kevin Federline, PerezHilton.com received more than 2.3 million visits. But it was his aggressive postings about Bass and Harris that many believe led to both men publicly coming out. In May, Hilton published photos of Bass and Lehmkuhl wearing each other's clothes. On November 2, when a former publicist of Harris's denied to a Canadian publication that the actor is gay, an irate Hilton went into overdrive, asking readers to post about their experiences with the actor; the next day he asked them to share any photos.
"The word outing is not part of my vocabulary. I don't out anybody. I report on the private lives of public figures," Hilton insists. "We've had three [performers come out] this year and not a single one of note in 2005, and that speaks volumes. I'm not going to take credit for it, even though people are trying to say, 'Oh, it's because of you.' I will take credit for maybe greasing the wheels and maybe leading the conversation."
Hilton doesn't pretend to be modest: "I'm a new phenomenon, a new thing, a new creature, this rogue renegade character. I'm not Carson Kressley. I'm not some Queer Eye for the Straight Guy safe homo: I'm dangerous. I'm not afraid to offend; I'm not afraid to push the envelope."
Watching and reacting to Hilton's site and other blogger sites is 34-year-old Seth Abramovitch of Defamer, the Los Angeles--based site that is a West Coast version of Gawker. Defamer got over a million visits in a day when it was the first to post pictures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's new baby.
"It was huge for our traffic," says Abramovitch. "Sites like ours are setting a quicker velocity for the rest of the media just because of the nature of it, the way we're throwing stuff up. We're not waiting for a team of lawyers to tell us to do it; we're just doing it. At the same time we're saying, 'Take this for what it's worth.' We're a hub through which the Hollywood buzz can have a voice."
Abramovitch, an associate editor at Defamer who was hired just over a year ago by editor Mark Lisanti, made hay mocking Lehmkuhl's attempt at coining the word "Lanced," his term for the media's outing of Bass.
"Trying to actively out someone goes against what Defamer is," Abramovitch says. "But if there's something funny out there like [Reichen] turning his boyfriend into a word, then we're going to jump on that and maximize that and use whatever else is already out there. Are we supportive of people coming out of their own volition? Yeah. I'm gay, and Mark is as gay-friendly as they come, but we're not ever going to push somebody out of the closet."
Hilton took credit for Bass's People cover story, saying in a November 20 Los Angeles Times profile, "If I had not been talking about Lance Bass as much as I was before he came out, there is no way he would have gotten the cover." He also touts the bloggers' ability to generate enough interest in these topics to make them front page news. Which brings up the question, What exactly is the line between blogging and journalism?
"We can't go with a story unless we get it from the source," says People assistant managing editor Jess Cagle, himself a gay man. "Someone printing rumors or speculation is not the same as breaking a story. But any time we hear anything, yeah, we go check it out. The blogs are another voice that everybody hears. We definitely hear them; we definitely read them."
Towle, who reported on his blog last summer that he had seen and spoken to Bass and Lehmkuhl together in Provincetown, Mass., says he is not in favor of aggressively outing celebrities for sport but adds, "I'm all for outing legislators and figures in government who are promoting antigay agendas and living their lives in a way that is extremely hypocritical." He believes it's up to the blogs to get the ball rolling. "I think mainstream media are too afraid," Towle says. "They're big corporations, and they have much more at stake than blogs and independent publishers. It's interesting that blogs have become the stepping-stone for certain issues and how they reach the mainstream media. When enough blogs publish the same information, it creates a snowball effect for a larger news outlet to pick up."
While most media outlets go with a double-sourcing policy on stories where the source is not identified, bloggers have so far made up their own rules and criteria when it comes to breaking a story with unnamed sources.
"I don't need a double source," says AmericaBlog's John Aravosis. "I will print something where I absolutely know the source."
Hilton insists that he holds himself "to a higher journalistic standard than a lot of the celebrity weeklies in this country. [Other] people will flat-out print lies. I've worked too hard over two years to develop a pool of reliable sources and nurture and gain the respect of mainstream media to self-sabotage that by lying to my readers. I'm not stupid."
Still, there are signs that the guerrilla tactics that have made blogs so popular are starting to have a backlash. Photo rights, for instance, have become a sticky issue. Bloggers have been able to garner huge hits by posting a photo that the legal departments of established news sources and even tabloids would have to avoid. (Hilton has, on more than one occasion, posted photos of Lindsay Lohan's vagina.) Even though he has not yet been sued by any of his outing targets or arguably mean-spirited posts, photo agencies are getting litigious with him for unauthorized use of their photos on his site. He was even served with a cease-and-desist order by Splash News in November. Hilton declined to talk about the brewing legal matter.
While Hilton and others make waves on the Hollywood scene, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz says political bloggers are having a huge impact inside the Beltway. "They break stories that the dinosaurs in the mainstream media miss," says Kurtz. "They come up with fresh and provocative angles, and they hold old media types accountable for their screwups. Clearly, [AmericaBlog's] John Aravosis was hugely influential on the Gannon story. He kept breaking news, and I followed. Andrew Sullivan [see People of the Year, page 58] has been influential not just on gay-related issues but on all issues."
Kurtz, who says he personally reads about 30 blogs a day, thinks the sites are becoming more of the typical mainstream reporters daffy diet of information.
"Now some of them go too far and just churn out opinionated screeds," he says. "But I think the debate over their importance is over, and they've established an important beachhead."
And the delicate line between established journalism, like The Washington Post, and blogging is becoming harder and harder to draw. The Washington, D.C.-based Aravosis, 43, is considered a pioneer among gay bloggers, for the same reasons traditionally credited to crackerjack reporters. His AmericaBlog.org blew the cover of Jeff Gannon, whose partisan questioning as a reporter in the White House briefing room had come under fire.
While other media outlets discovered that Gannon's real name was James Guckert and that he was the employee of a wealthy Texas Republican activist who hired him to write for his Web site, it was Aravosis who broke the story about Gannon's apparent second job as a $200-anhour escort through Web sites such as HotMilitaryStud.com and MaleCorps.com.
"I got the information on a Friday that he was a prostitute; I spent four days tracking the information," recalls Aravosis, who launched his blog in the spring of 2004. "I posted a tease about it Monday night, the night before it ran. Within 15 minutes I got an e-mail from a Washington Post reporter and from CNN. This was when I only had 8,000 people a day. Now I talk to a lot of journalists who will call, and I'll get e-mails from Democratic pundits."
Aravosis--a former Democratic consultant, quite familiar with the workings of Capitol Hill--thinks that most mainstream news organizations were reluctant to cover the porn part of the Gannon story.
"It totally freaked them out," he remembers. "It was the gay angle, the porn angle, the hooker angle. A number of people refused to believe it was real because it was a blog. The papers were saying you can't believe everything you see on a blog. I wrote to one of the editors and said, 'Just do your own research.' We provided the research links for everything."
Marty Kaplan, associate dean at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, also gives Aravosis credit for "owning" the Mark Foley story after ABC News broke the news online that the former congressman had been sending inappropriate online chat messages to male congressional pages as young as 16.
"From time to time there were two or three other gay bloggers he would link to, but AmericaBlog and ABC were the places you went to find out what was going on," says Kaplan, who is himself a blogger on The Huffington Post. "There were several subsequent waves of that story involving the description of a network of gay staffers who worked for Republicans and raising the issue of whether they are hypocritical. It was certainly a level of insight into what was going on on the Hill that was not being covered elsewhere."
Kaplan thinks the Foley story and news of a subsequent cover-up by Republican officials was a real display of blog power.
"Had it not been for a robust set of gay blogs, I think the information would otherwise have been in a kind of silo that people wouldn't have been aware of," he says. "It's not just the individual sites; it's a portal to get to a range of information that in another era would have been a specialty act."
Michael Rogers, editor and publisher of BlogActive.com, thinks his mission is "to make it acceptable to talk about these antigay closet cases." He points out that, "blogs have done an amazing job of being an echo chamber. The echo chamber is wonderful. It's great to have everybody moving the same message, but a handful of us are really harnessing that power."
In Rogers's case, his postings about former Virginia Republican representative Ed Schrock leaving messages on a gay-sex phone line to arrange hookups with other men led to the congressman's abrupt resignation in August 2004.
Rogers, considers himself a "gay activist blogger" and targeted Schrock because of his antigay voting record, including support in 2004 of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Rogers also outed Idaho Republican senator Larry Craig, another antigay marriage supporter, after talking to several men who said they'd had sex with Craig in recent years. Craig's office called the reports "almost laughable."
"Larry Craig was the biggest search term on the Web for two days," Rogers says. "I was on four radio shows in Idaho and in lots and lots of print media--so much so that the senator issued a nondenial denial. It's extraordinary the change that has gone on."
Though the impact of the gay bloggers has been felt on a national scale, there have been a number of smaller victories in 2006, often by the most under-represented groups.
In July, black lesbian and gay bloggers, led by Jasmyne Cannick and Keith Boykin, among others, organized a 48-hour protest against LIFEbeat, the music industry's AIDS organization, and its plans to feature homophobic reggae "dancehall" artists Beenie Man and T.O.K. at a benefit concert in New York. LIFEbeat would cancel the concert.
"I think it's a powerful example of what can happen when we fight together," Cannick says. "This is the first instance where the black bloggers decided to work together in a common cause."
Cannick's JasmyneCannick.com site is one of the more prominent lesbian blogs on the Web, along with Pam's House Blend by Pam Spaulding. Two other popular sites, Hothouse and SistersTalk, have been inactive in recent months. Sarah Warn, founder and editor of the Web site AfterEllen.com, wishes there were more lesbian bloggers--so much so that she started a blog on her site called "Best. Lesbian-ish. Day. Ever." to help fill the female void.
"I think that lesbians are definitely interested in blogs," says the New York City-based Warn, whose site was purchased this year by the LGBT cable TV network Logo. "Our blog quickly became the most popular thing on our site. Part of the reason we launched the blog was to look at things through a female lens, because that's what's missing. There is more of a gay male lens, but I don't want this to be one of the only blogs for women. I'd love lots and lots of competition. This is one of the areas where there is room for multiple players. I wish there were more."
It seems clear that Warn will get her wish as the blogosphere continues to draw more and more players who want to go where mainstream media can't or won't. As news and entertainment become less and less separate, the bloggers' emphasis on perspective above all else marks the future of reporting. In the end, the queer perspective of gay bloggers may turn out to be the most effective route yet to visibility.
"With so many gay blogging voices out there, it's putting a new perspective on the table that I don't think necessarily was available before," says Andrew Belonsky, editor of the blog Queerty. "Someone Googles Ted Haggard's name, and it's likely a Queerty article will come up, and they will get that perspective. It's both exposing and changing attitudes."
Hernandez is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News, where he has his own blog, Out in Hollywood.
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|Title Annotation:||PEOPLE OF THE YEAR / THE BLOGGERS|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jan 16, 2007|
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