Just two weeks ago, advocates for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell had something to be optimistic about. After nearly two decades of fighting what they think of as a fundamentally flawed, bigoted, and unjust policy by the nation’s military, it finally seemed as if the federal government was catching up to their way of thinking. Flying in the face of the foot dragging and lip service campaign that has been the Obama administration’s effort to repeal the policy, a federal judge ruled DADT unconstitutional, saying the policy violated the rights of gays and lesbians in uniform and had a “direct and deleterious effect” on the military. Four days later, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that he would include a provision to allow the Defense Department to end the policy in a defense spending bill that would be voted on the following week.
Republicans, of course, cried foul. The stage was set for yet another exhausting and bitterly partisan brawl in the Senate. A number of political observers said that the Democrats had a good shot of repealing DADT this time around. And then something peculiar happened.
On September 14, the same day Reid made his announcement about the spending bill, Lady Gaga—the pop star best known for doing things like wearing dresses made of raw meat and (in this humble homosexual’s opinion) making people think she’s interesting for doing things Madonna did better 25 years ago—engaged in the fine American tradition of exercising her First Amendment rights about a volatile issue in the 21st Century’s most popular political forum: Twitter. “Gay veterans were my VMA dates,” she wrote, referring to the MTV Video Music Awards the night before, at which she picked up eight trophies. “Repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. CALL HARRY REID to Schedule Senate Vote.”
Much to the delight of the chattering classes of the political blogosphere, Reid (or one of his staffers, more likely) tweeted back: “@ladygaga There is a vote on #DADT next week. Anyone qualified to serve this country should be allowed to do so http://bit.ly/9ucdIj #nvsen.” But this is not the odd—dare I say, queer—part. In the age of Twitter, it is no longer unusual for the nation’s political elite to converse with the world of lowbrow entertainment. (See: McCain, John and Snooki. We’ll get to them later.)
In the eight days that followed the tweet exchange between the nation’s most powerful Democratic Senator and the world’s biggest pop star du jour, something truly befuddling happened in the news media. The germane and serious story about the attempted repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell transmogrified into a frivolous, never ending puff piece about what Lady Gaga thinks of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And after Senate Republicans successfully obstructed the spending bill from coming to a vote yesterday afternoon, advocates for repeal are, once again, back where they started. So, how did we get here?
That the three brain-dead cable news networks picked up on the now famous tweets between Gaga and Reid should come as no surprise. As Jon Stewart often and hilariously likes to remind us, no one loves a good story about what’s happening on Twitter more than CNN.
I first really noticed it two days later. A number of my Facebook friends posted a YouTube video called “A message from Lady Gaga to the Senate Sept 16 2010” along with monosyllabic expressions of approval like, “cool,” and “YES!” In the seven and a half minute long video—rendered in black and white, perhaps to lend it some sorely lacking gravitas (though if that’s what they wanted, maybe they should have invested in a tripod)—Gaga delivers prepared remarks in front of an American flag, appealing to viewers to call their senators before making two unsuccessful attempts at phoning Chuck Schumer’s office herself. (Doesn’t she know? If you want to get in touch with a senator, use Twitter!) Early on in the video, Gaga, age 24, sanctimoniously declares, “I am here to be a voice for my generation.” A number of members of the mainstream media apparently took her seriously. And further down the rabbit hole we went…
From that point on, it seemed to me, every time I looked up from my desk at the three flat-panel television monitors in WNYC’s newsroom, set on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, I saw stock footage of Lady Gaga accompanied by text explaining, “Gaga speaks out against DADT” or “Lady Gaga to hold rally for repeal of Don’t Ask.” On air, the anchors asked their guests questions about what they thought about what Lady Gaga thought about DADT, or, most absurdly, if her influence would help get the policy repealed. These sorts of segments far outnumbered those featuring voices of gay service members. Rarely was the point made that even if the bill passed, all Reid’s provision would do is allow the Pentagon to end the policy after the year long review of it ordered by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would still be the law of the land for some time to come.
By Monday, everyone had been bitten by the Fame Monster. The TV was full of images of Lady Gaga at a rally supporting the repeal of DADT in Maine, as if her presence in the Pine Tree State could seriously pressure its two moderate Republican Senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to allow the bill to move forward.
Unfortunately, cable news outlets aren’t the only ones guilty of going Gaga for distractions. Yesterday on The Takeaway, a segment we did on the repeal began with John Hockenberry, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, asking our Washington correspondent, Todd Zwillich, about the “Gaga factor. How decisive could it possibly be?” In an interview with Senator John McCain, the primary opponent of the DADT repeal, Todd had asked the senator about drawing the ire of Lady Gaga. The senator, sardonic as ever, chortled, “I think Snooki’s still with me,” referencing his own celebrity Twitter pal.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Lady Gaga fan, but I’m not laying the blame at her Alexander McQueen lobster-platform-shoed feet. Yes, Gaga injecting herself into this issue is the epitome of celebrity narcissism. When she speaks out about DADT, she’s only either preaching to the choir—her massive, gay fan base to whom she is deeply and sincerely devoted—or providing fodder for the queer community’s enemies on the political right. That she is apparently ignorant of this reality, and failed to realize that her vociferous support of the DADT repeal would eclipse all real news is frustrating. Yet that’s nothing in comparison to the infuriating and embarrassing glee with which the news media lazily anointed her the face of DADT repeal advocacy.
There are a number of reasons for this failure of journalism. It’s easy to chalk it up to mere indolence on the part of journalists, bloggers, news producers, and TV and radio anchors. The Gaga stories also smack of a lack of seriousness by the news media on a very serious topic, and more importantly, its subtext—that LGBT Americans are still second class citizens subjected to unfair treatment by the government at all levels. Mostly, however, the real story behind the DADT repeal effort was yet another casualty of the internet age, where the quest for eyeballs often trumps the desire to craft engaging and substantive news stories. For better or for worse, “Lady Gaga Speaks Out Against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” draws a lot more search engine traffic than, say, “A Gay Soldier Speaks Out Against Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
With the Democrats caving to the Republican threat of a filibuster, the Gaga-DADT news cycle is probably coming to a close for the time being, but one major question about what we’ve witnessed in the media will linger. Who gets to claim to be the “voice” of a social movement? We in the media have the power to endow a single person or group with the power to speak authoritatively on an issue. In this case, the most famous person who threw her hat into the ring was chosen, even though this was an issue that, in essence, has absolutely nothing to do with her.
But who actually speaks for the gay and lesbian service members whose lives, careers and well being are at stake here? A fellow Takeaway producer told me that on one day last week she received four emails from various groups all claiming to be “the voice” of the DADT repeal movement. An organization called Servicemembers Legal Defense Network shrewdly enlisted Gaga’s help in their publicity campaign, sponsoring her video and her rally in Maine. Does that make them the de facto leader in this movement? What about the Log Cabin Republicans, which filed the lawsuit that got DADT declared unconstitutional? How about today's guests on The Takeaway, former U.S. Army Lieutenant Dan Choi, and Knights Out founder Sue Fulton?
There will likely never be a single definitive answer to that question. The LGBT rights movement is large and diffuse and operates on many fronts. No individual or organization can possibly claim to be the definitive voice of the movement, though many will try. As the various battles for LGBT equality like Don't Ask, Don't Tell and marriage continually move from the legislative front to the courts, new voices will surely emerge claiming to be the voice. Hopefully in the future, the media will be a bit more discerning when deciding who gets to have a soapbox.