Mar 1, 2011
Jeremy Bernard is the White House’s newly chosen Social Secretary, an individual charged with leveraging the institution’s prestige for political currency—or “party planner.” Bernard is currently chief-of-staff to the U.S. Ambassador to France, prior to which he raised heaps of cash for the Obama campaign. (Sometimes correlation does indeed imply causation.) Bernard is the first man to become Social Secretary. He is also the first openly gay person to do so.
This last fact was conveyed a little differently by two familiar Manhattan-based newspapers. The New York Times used the phrase “openly gay” both in the title and body of their blog post reporting the news. The Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, was not so direct. The Journal’s short article, “White House Names First Male Social Secretary,” never once mentioned the phrase or its equivalent. Instead, journalist Danny Yadron opted for implicit association, by highlighting Bernard’s work in the gay-rights community.
While we receive largely the same information from either source, the subtle difference between the pieces so wonderfully reflects a chasm between cultural worldviews. The Times points out the most “contentious” aspect of Bernard’s identity: his sexual orientation. For the Times, it is a salient socio-political fact that must be placed front-and-center, a piece of data essential to the reader’s understanding of Obama’s historic hiring decision and the context in which he made it.
Over at the Journal, Yadron (or perhaps his editor) believed that this tidbit was was either not relevant to the story or should not be mentioned for some other reason, or both. If the Journal thought it irrelevant, we have a classic case of ignoring the exotic elephant in the room. The solution to discomforting otherness is to ignore it entirely, hence the willful blindness to Bernard’s sexual orientation (not unlike “colorblind” approaches to policymaking). Another possible reason for the omission: a gender-roles story about a man taking on a job traditionally executed by women would be undermined by explicitly stating that Bernard is openly gay. The innuendo transmits the information, but the reader is not forced to acknowledge it.
A central tenet of all flavors of liberalism is that individuals are rewarded or punished for their merits rather than their immutable characteristics. However, it does not follow that said characteristics are moot. Like a woman hired as an equal at a male-dominated office, the mere presence of an “other” in a homogeneous culture can instantly rattle the status quo. As a journalistic endeavor, the Journal owes its readers the context we all need to better understand the world around us. Even if it is a throwaway piece about a glorified maître d’.