Ten Things NPR Got Wrong Defending The Falsely Balanced Ex-Gay Story

Last evening, National Public Radio’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, responded to criticism about Alix Spiegel’s story on ex-gay therapy that aired Monday morning. The nine-minute piece, which profiled ex-gay Rich Wyler and ex-gay survivor Peterson Toscano, had two major flaws. First, it created a false balance by suggesting that ex-gay therapy may be legitimate and is still up for debate. Second, it omitted the fact that Wyler makes his entire living perpetuating the false ideas of ex-gay therapy. Rather than admit the mistakes of the piece and apologize for the potential harm done by it, Schumacher-Matos, Spiegel, Spiegel’s editor, and NPR’s senior vice president all defended the piece, making only very small concessions about how it was reported. In doing so, they continued propagating false ideas about ex-gay therapy and the false balance of their reporting. Here are 10 problems with NPR’s response:

1. TOSCANO’S REMARKS MISREPRESENTED: Spiegel defended her piece by saying “From Toscano’s perspective, there might be a handful of people like Wyler who benefit from this therapy.” But that was a complete misrepresentation of what Toscano said, as he clarified on his own blog yesterday:

TOSCANO: In particular Alix Spiegel summarized something I said and reported that I felt that reparative therapy can help a handful of people. No, absolutely not. Over at Beyond Ex-Gay we recognize that some say they have been helped by ex-gay treatment. For our part the treatments did not work and usually caused us damage. From meeting over 1,500 ex-gay survivors and seeing up close the lives of many ex-gays and from understanding the positive outcomes from working with ethical trained professionals compared, I believe ex-gay treatment is unnecessary, ineffectual, and most often damaging.

2. LISTENERS BLAMED FOR BAD REPORTING: Spiegel and her editor Anne Gudenkauf conceded that it might have been more helpful to provide context about the harms of ex-gay therapy at the beginning of the piece, rather than the end, but passed the blame onto listeners for not being better informed:

SPIEGEL & GUDENKAUF: We did not label Mr. Wyler as the minority experience and Mr. Toscano as the majority until late in the piece. That was because we believed that our listeners are well informed about (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues and thus would not need to have this spelled out at the start of the story.

If it’s not the reporter’s job to investigate a story, spell out its full context, and critically analyze it for the audience, whose job is it? And even if the context of how ineffective and harmful ex-gay therapy is were at the beginning of this piece, it still would have otherwise had false balance. This is a pitiful and insulting excuse.

3. MORE FALSE BALANCE – THE DEBATE EXISTS: Spiegel and Gudenkauf also defended reporting that a debate was “raging” among psychologists, saying:

SPIEGEL & GUDENKAUF: We did not mean by this to suggest that the two sides are even in numbers. We did mean to suggest that the proponents on both sides feel strongly about the disagreement.

They’re still insisting upon a false balance, when in fact they are absolutely wrong that there’s any debate among psychologists. There is the entire professional body of psychologists who completely agreed (a long time ago, as Spiegel knows) that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and then there are fringe unlicensed (and often repudiated) “coaches,” “counselors,” and ministers like Wyler, Marcus Bachmann, and Janet Boynes who promote ex-gay therapy without any foundation in social science whatsoever.

4. NO NEW DATA PROVIDED ON EX-GAYS: NPR’s acting senior vice president for news, Margaret Low Smith, admitted the story lacked the information it needed to present ex-gay therapy as a fringe practice:

SMITH: But as Alix and Anne suggest, the story needed much more context. We should have put the whole idea of conversion therapy into perspective. Not doing so meant the listener had no data to understand how common this practice is and how many people seek it out. The absence of context undercut the value of our reporting.

And yet Schumacher-Matos fails to include any additional statistics on reparative therapy, its prevalence, its scientific credibility, or its success rate — or lack thereof. What better response could there have been if NPR had followed up its call to put conversion therapy “into perspective” with the education it missed the first time around?

5. “FASCINATING STORIES” CAN DO HARM: Because ex-gay therapy is too “complicated” for a nine minute piece, Schumacher-Matos argues that the goal was simply to provide some “insight” through “fascinating story-telling.” This completely misses the point. Ex-gay therapy is harmful, and any suggestion that it might be the least bit effective or worthwhile increases the risk that people will subject themselves to it — or be subjected to it against their will (in the case of young people). Morning Report is a news show, and news reporters are responsible for the information they share beyond whether the story is “fascinating.”

6. RELIGIOUS BELIEF USED AS CRUTCH FOR HARM: NPR attempts to foister its biased reporting off on religion, arguing that a perceived disconnect between religion and homosexuality warrants conversion therapy:

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: A particular clash that has been attracting attention in recent years is between our religious and sexual selves, especially among Christians who believe in a literal reading of the Bible, which they say condemns homosexuality.

First, the Bible can be interpreted to condone slavery. The Qur’an permits men to beat their wives. The Torah commands stoning. But society does not support these practices nor does NPR write “balanced” features highlighting slaves or stoning victims. By scapegoating religion, NPR is merely borrowing the very same tactic ex-gay therapists use to shame their clients’ sexual orientation.

Secondly, NPR neglects to mention that many of the “Christians who believe in a literal reading of the Bible” are Mormons. As Joanna Brooks notes, “Mainstream Mormonism teaches that homosexuality is incompatible with the will of God.” Instead of identifying Wyler as a Mormon and exploring the ties between his Journey into Manhood programming and Mormon anti-gay ideology, NPR simply labeled him as a “conservative Christian.” Given that Mormons make up only 1.7 percent of the US adult population, attributing the stance of one ideology to a failure of religion is an egregious misrepresentation.

7. NO “BLURRY LINE” BETWEEN CONVERSION THERAPY AND REGULAR TREATMENT: In his effort to describe the psychological understanding of ex-gay therapy, Schumacher-Matos muddies the water further by suggesting that the American Psychological Association does support “identity therapy” for religious people who do not wish to act upon their sexual orientation. He goes on to say that the “lines are blurry between conversion and identity therapy.” No, they’re not. They are in no way similar. Here is how APA’s task force on sexual orientation change efforts described “identity therapy”:

APA: Sexual orientation identity exploration can help clients create a valued personal and social identity that provides self-esteem, belonging, meaning, direction,and future purpose, including the redefining of religious beliefs, identity, and motivations and the redefining of sexual values, norms, and behaviors. We encourage LMHP [licensed mental health providers] to support clients in determining their own (a) goals for their identity process; (b) behavioral expression of sexual orientation; (c) public and private social roles; (d) gender role, identity, and expression; (e) sex and gender of partner; and (f) form of relationship(s).

Note that APA does not support any effort to change or deny a person’s sexual orientation, the defining characteristics of conversion therapy. There are no lines to blur; Schumacher-Matos is defending misinformation with misinformation.

8. RELIGION AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION CAN BE RECONCILED: NPR takes its religion defense to the next level, setting up a hard choice between faith and homosexuality:

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: In some ways, the process is to help people prioritize their feelings. Those who become priests and nuns, for example, prioritize religion over sexuality.

Homosexuality and Christianity — or any faith for that matter — are not mutually exclusive. Seventy percent of gays identified themselves as Christian in 2009. To suggest that one must prioritize one over the other — and to such an extreme as choosing celibacy — is again catering to ex-gay ideology.

9. EX-GAYS ARE MOST DEFINITELY ANTI-GAY: Still oblivious to the harm inherent in ex-gay therapy, Schumacher-Matos thinks that Wyler is perfectly fine with gay people:

SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Wyler himself says in the piece that while he didn’t feel right living a gay life in Los Angeles, far from his family and church, he understood that it was right for others. I took that to mean that he didn’t denounce being gay, or think it was wrong.

Wyler makes his living off people who pay him to try to de-gay themselves. The only reason people would ever want to change their sexual orientation is if society convinces them they should change their sexual orientation. Stigma is the primary fuel for ex-gay therapy, and it would be incredibly naive to ever believe that anyone supporting such harmful ideas could simultaneously be LGBT-friendly. By making people like Wyler look innocent and approachable, Schumacher-Matos is only making it easier for them to hurt people.

10. MORE FALSE BALANCE – WYLER AND TOSCANO BOTH PROFIT: Conceding that they should have better contextualized Wyler’s work, Spiegel and Gudenkauf try to make the case that “Toscano, too, profits from his experience.” This comparison epitomizes the false balance NPR still wishes to strike in the portrayal of ex-gay therapy. Toscano is a performance artist who educates audiences about LGBT issues. It’s true that he helped found Beyond Ex-Gay, an online support community for survivors of ex-gay therapy, and that he had a show — now retired — called “Doin’ Time in the Homo No Mo’ Halfway House,” which humorously informed audiences about the true trauma of his own experiences trying to change his orientation. He now does anti-bullying presentations for middle and high school students and performs plays about transgender Bible characters and his mother’s cancer, while still speaking out about the harms of ex-gay therapy.

To compare Toscano’s work trying to help people fight shame to Wyler’s work profiting off people’s shame is insulting to Toscano’s art and the pain he experienced. Wyler is spreading lies and Toscano is trying to debunk them and undo the damage done by them. NPR seems uninterested in providing any real context about Wyler’s organization or taking any responsibility for providing it free advertising by highlighting his story.

That this is the best response NPR could provide shows just how little the public knows about the harms of ex-gay therapy and how far the media has yet to go in appropriately portraying the experiences of the LGBT community.

Full disclosure: I co-host a weekly podcast with Peterson Toscano.
Sarah Bufkin
contributed to this post.


GLAAD has also spoken out that NPR’s responses to criticism are “inadequate.”

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