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

May 25, 2012

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.    

15 Comments

  1. I totally disagree with you. As Mr. Ferraro delineated, in 2012 sexual orientation is, and should be, only one part of who we are. He’s gay, big deal. He’s 6′ 4″ tall, big deal. He had green eyes, big deal. He’s right handed, big deal. (I don’t know his actual height or eye color or hand orientation, I’m just making a point.) Contrary to your outrage, I believe The Times was being very professional in the way they handled the story. If they wanted to be a sensationalistic “rag”, they could have done so and probably made money doing so. They decided to stay professional. Good for them.

  2. Sorry … I’m a daily reader of TVWeek but I have to go with The NYT on this one. The story is about theater. The play encompasses gay themes. The actor is gay. His quote relates. To make the headline of the story about Jim Parsons being gay isn’t Journalism 101–it’s sensationalist journalism. If subsequent writers want to pick up a single fact and run with it, such is the nature of reporting. While some actors may be okay with “coming out” stories, that’s their choice. It seems that this news (which sadly, should not be news at all in 2012) was reported in a way that was acceptable to Parsons, and referenced appropriately in a theater story.

  3. Uhhh…was this a secret? If so, it was a poorly-kept one.

  4. So you’re angry that a Times article didn’t put the fact that their interviewee was gay in the first paragraph.
    First of all: What kind of gross person are you that you feel that’s the first and foremost bit of news to discuss?
    Second of all: This illustrates the difference between what you do and journalism.

  5. Coudln’t disagree more. Since when is it news that Parsons is gay? I believe he made reference to his partner/boyfriend on Craig Ferguson’s show in late 2011 or early 2012 — pretty mainstream. NYT didn’t “bury” anything and to imply so is scurilous at best. Parsons is the subject of the article but the scope of said article is his acting career and the challenges of the Harvey role. It was clearly not primarily biographical and the mention of Parson’s sexual orientation was a matter-of-fact reference to a play in which he performed. Kudos for NYT for making Paron’s sexual orientation coincidental rather than a headline.

  6. The real issue here is whether an actor’s homosexuality is even newsworthy– which, being the shameful perversion it is, means it isn’t worth reporting on. In not-so-distant times past, the shocking revelation would have meant an embarrassing and abrupt close to a successful entertainment career, as I personally witnessed when Rock Hudson’s deviant sexual habits were exposed in a news conference disclosing the AIDS affliction that soon killed him. Sadly today, the media feverishly promulgate this kind of “news” to indoctrinate kids and further elevate and glorify entertainers who choose this aberrant and destructive behavior.

  7. Ben – how do you REALLY feel about gay entertainers. Couldn’t quite tell from your post.

  8. Couldn’t disagree with Chuck Ross more. In particular, his equivocating Parsons comment about his sexuality with the (hypothetical) revelation that he’d be leaving Big Bang Theory.
    Honestly, one is only news for people who want to date Parsons. The other would be of major importance for the millions of fans who tune into one of television’s top comedies.
    That all 183 stories about the NYT piece are about Parsons’ sexuality says more about the 183 places that picked up the story, and NOT the NYT. They handled this EXACTLY right.
    It’s not the obligation of The Times to play up to the most prurient aspects of humanity. They cover what’s really important. Unfortunately, a celebrity “nip slip” is going to get a lot more hits on the Internet than a civilian massacre in Syria. Fortunately, at least for the moment, popularity does not translate into importance.
    TV Week = FAIL

  9. I love and care about them for who they are, but I hate their behavior. Same as pedophiles, murderers, adulterers and those who practice bestiality. It’s not who they are, it’s what they choose to do that’s the problem.

  10. I applaud the New York Times for not making it the lead in their story. It is 2012 and sexual orientation is only a part of who a person is. Especially in the entertainment industry, it is heartening to see that coming out no longer means the end of a career, that the public can accept that an actor is an actor and doesn’t always have to play gay.
    When Ellen came out on the cover of the magazine, that made a statement relevant to the times. It was the beginning of mainstream acceptance. If EVERY celebrity still needs to come out in such a grand fashion, with their orientation being the lead story, then that means we haven’t progressed much.
    B.J.

  11. I have been working in local television for the past 18 years and I have seen the decline of journalistic ethics, accountability, and professionalism, which is the main reason I read this article to begin with. And I’m sorry Chuck, your attempt to hold people to a higher standard or a standard at all was a failure.
    If the point of the NYT article was to talk about Parsons’ Broadway career, and the first sentence was “Parsons IS A GAY” well then the remaining 1,847 words might as well been a recipe for honey glazed chicken.
    This is not a matter of burying the lead, and the fact that it was so far down shows some form of journalistic restraint, and let’s face it, in the world of the internet that restraint has taken the place of get it on first and apologize later. And besides your only compliment to the article defeats your entire point of criticism.
    You say “…here in 2012, it was the wrong call”. Because IT IS 2012 is the reason that it was the correct decision. This is not 1980 or 2000 for that matter, the NYT piece I think demonstrates that just a little.

  12. Apparently contradicting himself is Chuck Ross’s specialty. In one sentence sexual oreintation isn’t news, and in the next it is. The fact is, Parsons’ sexual oreintation is not news, it’s just one aspect of who he is. Celebrities, like everyone else, get to decide when and what they tell the world. So what if Parsons isn’t like Lance Bass and isn’t interested in selling his “coming out” story. If you look down upon that, you’re the problem, not The Times. They took the high road and I applaud them for it.

  13. The author’s viewpoint reminds me of when Kirk Cameron was on Piers Morgan to discuss his new movie “Monumental” (a movie about America’s History) and Piers wanted to divert to Kirk’s position on homosexuality. Media is more concerned w/ things that are controversial, rather than news. They love to focus on sex and especially homosexual news. I think the NYT handled it appropriately.

  14. Yes, being gay is like murder and adultery and pedophilia and bestiality. If only we could send homos away for life for the horrible crimes they perpetrate and the victims they leave in their wake!
    I’ll tell you this: homosexuality is FAR less abhorrent and destructive than your psychotic attitude about homosexuality. I’m not gay myself, but if I had to make a choice, I’d much rather be gay than be full of so much misplaced ignorance and hate.

  15. Sorry Tad, it’s people with your attitude that are ignorant and hateful toward those of us in the mainstream, like me. Did you not read my comment? I said I love the person, but I hate the BEHAVIOR. Can you not distinguish the two? This is a behavioral issue, period. And yes, homosexuality was considered a despicable crime for thousands of years in most cultures; so by what magical revelation over the past 20 or 30 years do people today suddenly consider themselves “enlightened” that homosexuality is no longer wrong, but right, and even desirable!? Your dogmatic position on this is twisted, Tad, admit it.

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