The story isn’t whether MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid was homophobic a decade ago, supports the LBGTQ community now and should be commended for that growth. She should.
It’s not about whether she’s a likable person who provides a strong, necessary voice in a media landscape devoid of sufficient diversity. She does.
It’s about whether we can trust what high-profile journalists say in a world that’s too rapidly becoming post-fact. Journalists, above all else, should hold each other to account when that trust is breached, no matter how much we like each other.
Decade-old posts from her blog, some first discovered by Twitter users, then others by Mediaite, are causing headaches for Reid and MSNBC. The posts claimed “most straight people cringe at the sight of two men kissing,” said gay men were attracted to boys, and outed gay men or mocked straight men for supposedly being secretly gay. They discussed Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers’s “lesbian hair-do” and said Karl Rove was a member of the “gay Republican mafia” known in gay circles as “Miss Piggy.”
The posts are numerous. Reid walked away largely unscathed a few months ago when some of the posts were first unearthed after she apologized and said she had grown. Things changed when she claimed the most-recently discovered posts were the work of a hacker intending to make her look bad. This past weekend, she acknowledged she can’t prove the hacking but declared she “genuinely” believes she did not write them.
That’s an extraordinary assertion. It’s the kind of claim I would have dismissed out of hand had it been made by someone like Sean Hannity, because I’m no fan of Hannity, whose decision to not disclose his behind-the-scenes role in Trump-related stories he discusses on his Fox News Channel show have been roundly, and rightly, criticized. I found myself struggling to admit the obvious in the Reid case—that the hacking story simply doesn’t make sense—because I’ve long respected her. That’s the trap many journalists seem to be falling into, being skeptical of claims made by those we don’t like, not being skeptical enough of those we do, even when it hurts our profession.
If Reid was telling the truth, think of what that would mean, that a motivated, talented hacker can reach back into a journalist’s past to undermine her future. It’s a scenario that would terrify every journalist. Above all else, we are selling credibility. It’s more important than how well we string words together in print, online or on air, more important than how many journalistic awards we win. A discredited journalist is no journalist. That’s why the story would be getting even more attention, and the industry would commence exploring ways to prevent such things from occurring again—if what Reid said was true. But there’s simply no evidence that she was truthful about the hacking, and the nature of the posts she owned up to and those she denies are too alike to believe her denials without the kind of proof she acknowledges she doesn’t have.
Think of the times in which we are living. Photoshop is ubiquitous. Video-manipulation technology is advancing. Fact-checkers can’t keep up with the constant flow of misinformation. Russia is flooding our democracy with propaganda. The country is run by a man who has told more than 2,000 documented lies in less than two years in office. That can lead even discerning members of the public, and journalists, to consider things they would have never considered before, because fact and fiction have been blended so seamlessly and frequently it can feel irresponsible to dismiss out-of-hand even extraordinary or improbable claims. That’s why journalism simply can’t afford to let go unchallenged the opening of another front in this war against reality, especially if it is coming from one of our own.
CNN and The Daily Beast, where Reid was a contributor until this dust-up, published analytical pieces detailing why her hacking claim, to put it mildly, is implausible. And yet, plenty of journalists publicly expressed they either believed or supported Reid. Others praised her poise under fire, particularly after she apologized during a recent episode of her MSNBC show and hosted a panel discussing her homophobic past and LBGTQ issues.
They also did what we’ve seen too many non-journalists do: blame Reid’s predicament on the nefarious “other” instead of Reid’s own actions and attempt to distract from a disturbing truth. That’s what fans of Donald Trump have done: attack those exposing truths about his misdeeds instead of wanting him held accountable for his misdeeds. Democrats rally behind politicians they want to see in office and slam those who discuss Democratic imperfections; Republicans do the same. It’s a disturbing trend in which truth is the primary victim.
The totality of the unearthed Reid posts reveals a level of past homophobia that goes beyond having grown up in a conservative household, as Reid claimed. I grew up in such a household and know many others who have as well. It was common to be taught that gay people were sinners who would burn in Hell, even to hear little boys scream the f-word on the playground to assert their manhood. I don’t know many adults who grew up in such households who would purposefully and repeatedly—and publicly—say the things Reid did in those posts. That’s likely why she did not want to own them, knowing it would be hard for most to accept that her past mindset was just evidence of an over-eager opposition to Republican policies and hypocrisy—which was Reid’s defense of earlier posts mocking then-Republican Charlie Crist as a closeted gay man—built upon a conservative childhood.
That’s the painful truth. It’s hard to write these words because as a fellow journalist of color, I know Reid has had to endure unfair criticism unleashed to destroy her career. I know she has too often been reduced to her gender or the color of her skin. I know there are plenty of readers and viewers who want to tear her down because they don’t like that she espouses strong views with which they vehemently disagree. There is truth to the claims that some people really are out to get her.
But none of that makes it okay for Reid, or any other journalist, to make it harder for our audiences to discern fact from fiction. That’s her real sin here, not that she was once homophobic and is now reformed.