In its reporting on a federal court judge Vance Walker’s decision that California’s Proposition 8 — the anti same-sex marriage law — is unconstitutional, National Public Radio reporter Karen Grigsby Bates added an aside on Walker:
“He was appointed by the first President Bush – George H.W. Bush. He is generally considered to be very thoughtful, very thorough. And he’s gay. He’s gay and out,” she said.
NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia Shephard points out that Walker’s sexual orientation is an accepted fact among many journalists, but it may not be.
“But, in a case such as this, the first obligation is to verify that the person is gay and that can only come from Walker or close personal friends or family who are quoted by name. As far as I could determine, Walker has never openly said he is gay,” she writes today.
But Shepard’s most illuminating revelation may be why so many journos accept it as fact:
When I asked about sources, NPR cited the Chronicle column, a dozen or so Internet links to show it was widely discussed in California and gay press – and that Walker isn’t denying it.
It must not be comfortable for NPR reporters and editors to be quizzed by an ombudsman on an issue such as this, but the reporters and editors did themselves no favors by replying with an excuse that is, basically, “everyone says so.”
Then there’s the question of whether a judge’s sexual orientation matters to the story, which Shepard doesn’t really think is a question at all:
It only becomes relevant if there is a conflict of interest, and then the news media is obligated to report it.
“If the judge had actively participated in the Prop 8 debate in some fashion – fundraising for advocates or opponents – that would be significant,” said Bob Steele, an ethicist with the Poynter Institute. “Such activism would likely disqualify him from this case no matter what his sexual orientation.”
If the judge confirmed he is gay that might be an interesting factoid. But since we expect judges to be impartial – even though all judges have some conflict – then it’s wrong to assume Walker or any judge can’t be objective on a topic that may have something to do with his personal life.