Open Mic

In the Way It Revealed That Jim Parsons of 'The Big Bang Theory' Is Gay, The New York Times Violated Journalism 101 and Did a Disservice to Its Readers

Chuck Ross Posted May 25, 2012 at 7:46 AM

I’m not sure what they were thinking at The New York Times in the way they revealed this week that Jim Parsons, star of the most popular sitcom on TV, “The Big Bang Theory," is gay.

Here’s what we do know. The Times published an article on Wednesday, May 23, 2012, with the headline “Stalked by Shadows (and a Rabbit).” There was a little subhead reading “Theater,” tipping readers off that the piece was about, well, theater. The article was accompanied by a picture of Parsons that carried this caption: “Jim Parsons in his dressing room. He stars in the play ‘Harvey,’ which opens on June 14.” The long feature is primarily about Parsons' stage work, both in the upcoming “Harvey” and in a previous role he played in a revival of “The Normal Heart” on Broadway last June.

The article runs 1,851 words. After word number 1,507, the author of the piece, Times theater reporter Patrick Healy, wrote, “‘The Normal Heart’ resonated with him on a few levels: Mr. Parsons is gay and in a 10-year relationship, and working with an ensemble again onstage was like nourishment, he said.”

That was it. No other discussion or mention of Parsons being gay was made in the article. It was the first official announcement that Parsons is gay, although, as The Wrap and some others have pointed out, the National Enquirer tried to out him in 2010 by saying he was engaged to his boyfriend.

I called the writer of the article, Healy, at The New York Times, identified myself as being with TVWeek, and asked him why he had buried the news about Parsons being gay so deep in his article. After getting permission from an editor to respond to me, Healy wrote me this email response:

"Times policy about reporting on a person’s sexuality is the same as for reporting on other personal characteristics, in that we will consider mentioning sexual orientation if it’s pertinent to the story. In this case Jim was talking about performing on Broadway in 'The Normal Heart' -- a play about gay themes, the AIDS crisis, and gay characters, including Jim’s -- and the fact that performing in the play was resonant for him as a gay man. He spoke about this on the record, and without hesitation. This met our standard for including it in the part of the article dealing with 'The Normal Heart,' while the main thrust of the article was about Jim as an actor and his work on 'Harvey.'"

I also called Rich Ferraro, director of communications at GLAAD -- the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation -- to get his take on how The Times had handled the disclosure that Parsons is gay.

First, I asked him about GLAAD’s position about celebrities coming out.

RICH FERRARO: Coming out is an extremely personal decision, whether you’re in the national spotlight like actors and actresses, or you’re an everyday American. So GLAAD's official position is that it’s a personal decision, and you should do it when you’re ready. What we’ve tried to put out there and what GLAAD works for every day is for people to know, who are closeted, or let kids know who are still coming to terms as to who they are as people, is that you’re going to be supported. That’s one thing we’ve done with actors and actresses who’ve come out -- we let them know that they have a community who is ready to embrace them. And a community that wants to hear their story and can benefit from their story.

When you’re a person like Jim Parsons, his coming out is going to touch a lot of people -- everyday Americans who might not be ready to come out, or kids who, like I said, are still coming to terms with who they are. Kids today now have role models like Jim Parsons who has been in a relationship for 10 years, who has a really outstanding career, and critics and fans really like the guy. They have somebody to look up to and that’s really important for the LGBT community.”

ME: My context for asking you this is a journalistic point of view. First, we have the issue of gay marriage that has really come front and center with President Obama’s recent comments that he’s for gay marriage. And on the heels of that, we have this a story about the sexual orientation of the award-winning star of the most popular sitcom on TV.

FERRARO: Yes, especially given the show’s demographics.

ME: Exactly. Given all this, what do you think about The New York Times burying this information about Parsons until close to the end of a long story about him?

FERRARO: I think by The Times saying Parsons is gay that the paper knew it would be picked up by other media, which it has been. And I think Jim was OK with them doing that.

Actually, one thing that I was really happy about with the way The Times handled this is that it was only part of who he was, that it wasn’t the centerpiece of the story. The centerpiece of the story was ‘here’s a piece about a really successful actor who happens to be gay.’ For us that’s probably an even more powerful story than if [the main focus of the story] was him coming out. And I think he probably has a really great personal story that I hope he does share in more detail because I think kids out there and other Americans who might be closeted would benefit from hearing it.”

Ideally, Ferraro is right. That would be how one would hope journalists could and should eventually handle such a story.

But now, here in 2012, it was the wrong call. First, while Parsons was the subject of the article, and clearly cooperated by allowing himself to be interviewed for it, the primary responsibility of Healy and The Times is to The Times’ readers. The Times has the motto “All the news fit to print.” And when the paper has news to report, it needs to do so clearly and directly. That’s Journalism 101.

I have the same problem with the explanation Times writer Healy emailed to me. His explanation of Times policy is fine as far as it goes. But let's say that Parsons had mentioned, sometime during the interview -- on the record and without hesitation -- that he was leaving "The Big Bang Theory." My guess is that Healy and The Times would have found a way to put that up high in the story, because it's news. Parsons' sexual orientation is also news, and The Times was wrong to bury it in Healy's article. 

Here’s empirical proof that The Times blew it on this one. At the time I’m writing this, Google says there are 183 news stories about The Times' article. This includes stories by news organizations all over the world, including the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail in the United Kingdom, the Vancouver Sun in Canada and Sky News Australia. Most of the news organizations Google found were here in the U.S. -- including the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Republic, ABC News, CBS News, People, MSNBC, The Washington Post, E! Online and the Daily Beast, to name a few.

And by the way, here at TVWeek.com, our pickup of The Times' story, with the headline "Star of Sitcom Reveals He's Gay," was the most popular story on our site yesterday, May 24, 2012, using the metric of most page views.

Thanks to Google, I was able to relatively quickly check out sample portions of all 183 stories about The Times’ article about Parsons. And what they ALL have in common is that they are about Jim Parsons being gay. Most of the stories say he’s come out as gay. Some accuse The Times of outing him. A number of them, referring to how The Times buried the story, say Parsons has come out “quietly.” A few take the attitude of GLAAD’s Ferraro, that isn’t it wonderful that Parsons' coming out was such a small part of The Times’ story.

But the inescapable fact is that, again, ALL 183 news stories about The Times' article are about Parsons being gay. It was the LEAD -- that is, in the first paragraph -- of ALL 183 stories. It was the NEWS. Yet if you only read The New York Times -- which has long been referred to as our national news publication of record -- you would only know this news about Parsons if you read to almost the very end of a long article -- 1,851 words in length.

A journalist colleague of mine went so far as to say he thinks the way The Times handled its reporting of Parsons' coming out was "a little sleazy. They had to know that what everyone would pick up on was the news that Parsons has come out as gay. I would have loved to have been in the meeting when they decided to bury it. It seems like a way to separate themselves from the other news organizations, to create a false sense that they're above that sort of thing while still playing a major role in it."

Many of us wish it were the case that a major star's sexual orientation would not be news in 2012. And yes, more and more Americans are accepting of others' sexual orientation. But the fact that Jim Parsons has come out as gay is clearly news. And the paper of record's decision to bury it as if it weren't doesn't alter this truth.