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Gay Media Monopoly


Michael Bronski

While

the Bush administration is considering a possible reversal of the Microsoft

antitrust case activists in the gay and lesbian community are debating their own

looming monopoly problems.

Three

weeks ago, Henry Scott, the former owner of Out magazine sent a letter to over

200 queer activists: "I am writing because, as a leader in the lesbian and

gay community, you have an opportunity to help halt an effort to create a

dangerous monopoly among gay media."

This

isn’t Microsoft, but Scott’s letter contained some alarming facts. Last April

Los Angeles based Liberation Publications (LPI), which publishes the Advocate

bought its biggest competitor New York based Out magazine. Between the

Advocate’s circulation of 88,000 and Out’s of 112,000 Liberation Publications

Inc’s two front-line magazines now garnered a joint circulation of 200,000,

which is estimated to be five times greater than its closest rival publication.

Last February Planet Out announced that it was going to merge with LPI, a deal

which is still in the works. But this news was eclipsed by the November 15

bombshell that PlanetOut and Gay.com – the two largest Internet companies that

target queer viewers and readers – were going to merge. In a public letter the

two firms stated: "The services of the two largest businesses serving the

LGBT market will create a global media and services company that immediately

reaches more than 3.5 million unique individuals a month and counts more than

1.6 registered users."

The

gay marriage of PlanetOut and Gay.com leaves Gaywired.com, with 500,000 unique

monthly users, as the next largest gay media outlet. And these figures don’t tak

into consideration that in 1996 LPI had purchased the Boston based Alyson

Publications, one of the oldest and respected gay and lesbian trade book

publisher, or that in March 1999 PlanetOut subsumed OnQ, a large queer on-line

service, and last August bought into Gay Financial Network (gfn.com) and is now

jointly selling advertising with them.

Scott’s

solution to this scenario is to bring in the big guns of anti-trust legislation

and he urged that anyone concerned with an independent gay and lesbian media

contact the Anti-Trust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the

Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy and Evaluation/ Bureau of

Competition to complain. Both agencies are, under Section 7 of the Clayton Act

with scrutinizing mergers to name sure that they do not "lessen

competition, or …then to create monopolies."But what are the chances of

the Feds stepping in too insure a free market for all queer voices? Probably

pretty slim.

Nevertheless

there are a host of signals that gay activists and media watchers find

disturbing in this ongoing chain of events. Last November Andrew Sullivan, the

openly gay, staunch conservative former editor of the New Republic and columnist

for the New York Times Magazine, complained publicly about what he saw as the

Advocate’s fawning cover interview with Bill Clinton. This prompted Advocate

editor Judy Weider to cancel Sullivan’s upcoming piece on AIDS claiming "if

we have Andrew write while he’s tearing down the Advocate, it makes it look like

we agree with his point of view." Weider’s heavy-handed approach to

political disagreements was upsetting to queer activists and writers. Andrew

Sullivan does not need the Advocate to make a living, but many queer freelance

writers – most with a far more liberal or leftist bent – do. Intentionally

of not, Weider’s ban on Sullivan (which she claims is temporary) sent the clear

message that disagreements with Advocate editorial policy would not be welcomed

or tolerated.

Even

scarier was the Advocate’s and Weider’s direct involvement with the Millennium

March on Washington last April, and in particular Equality Rocks, big-name March

affiliated concert featuring Melissa Etheridge and George Michael. While many

gay businesses co-sponsored the event both PanetOut and the Advocate were

exceedingly generous – PlanetOut giving the March organizers 250,000 in cash

and 750,000 in kind; the Advocate donating 425,000 in-kind with color ads in 20

issues. Critics have suggested that these organizations’ direct involvement with

an intentional political event might compromise their ability to cover it, but

most egregious was that it was editor Weider herself who was on the production

team of Equality Rocks. Wearing the duel hats of deciding on editorial copy –

both Etheridge and Michael has been featured on the cover of the Advocate — and

working on a benefit connected to political groups that her magazine must cover

Weider clearly violated basic journalist ethics.

This

points to the most problematic aspect of a national gay and lesbian media that

is increasingly owned by increasingly consolidated business interests. By

working hand-in-hand with the political, legal, and social groups that they are

reporting on both the Advocate and PlanetOut as well as the groups are

continually caught in two distinct conflicts on interest. The obvious question:

will the Advocate or PlanetOut be able to report honestly on political groups

whom they institutionally support. But this problem is compounded by conflict of

interest faced by the political groups. It costs a lot of money to do any

politics – and gay and lesbian politics, with a small constituency who are

asked repeatedly for money, are an even harder fund raising nut to crack.

Sponsorship from gay owned businesses have become increasingly necessary to

these fund raising efforts: Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian

Task Force, The Victory Fund, and many large AIDS groups across the nation have

all relied on corporate funding, and the main queer funding sources has been

PlanetOut, Gay.com, and the Advocate/LPI. No matter what kind of job the

Advocate and PlanetOut is doing with their reporting none of these groups are in

a position to criticize them or hold them to a higher standard of journalism.

Ironically

the strength of the gay and lesbian press and media in this country has been its

fragmentation and its marginality. From the early 1970s a burgeoning national

press – the Advocate as well as other publications, many of whom have folded

– have been augmented by a strong and thriving local press which promoted a

variety of social and political opinions, agendas, and attitudes. From bar rags

to middle-of-the-road liberal to leftist leanings these publications – based

in cities and generally free of the both the gains and the pressures of national

advertising – were an independent voice for a wide range of politics. It was

these publications that provided a necessary critique of both national

organizations and publications. While there are still some city-based newspapers

that do original reporting many others have folded, and even those that still

exist increasingly use pre-packaged AP stories. As the national publications and

the Internet companies began accumulating larger and larger amounts of

readership and advertising many small weekly and monthly papers began to fail.

While their individual importance may have been minimal their overall effect was

hugely consequential. Henry Scott’s use of "monopoly" may seem

overstated, but the reality is that the gay and lesbian press in the U.S. has

become increasingly located in the hands of a few and that will most likely have

dire effects for the entire community.

 

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