Blaming the Listener: NPR’s Non-Apology

In response to complaints about their coverage of “ex-gay” reparative therapy from Religion Dispatches and others, NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos, has issued a classic non-apology for the piece. The sum of the ombudsman’s report is this: The reporter on this piece, Alix Spiegel, and her editor, Anne Gudenkauf, assumed their audience knew enough about “reparative therapy” for them to take some shortcuts in the story and not fully explain how generally bogus the “therapy” is and how completely condemned it is by any reputable psychological association.

So, instead of apologizing for incomplete reporting they’re saying it’s the listener’s fault for not knowing enough about the topic.

To recap, the piece featured two men, Rich Wyler, founder of an organization that promotes (for a price) “ex-gay” therapy, and Peterson Toscano, an artist and playwright who talks about the psychological damage he suffered from such “therapy.”

As Spiegel and Gudenkauf explain:

“We did not label Mr. Wyler as the minority experience and Mr. Toscano as the majority until late in the piece. That was because we believed that our listeners are well informed about (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues and thus would not need to have this spelled out at the start of the story. But after hearing some of the reaction we got, we feel like placing this information in the beginning of the piece rather than the end, would have better served our listeners because it would have given them more context to understand what they were hearing.”

Schumacher-Matos puts a fine point on it by concluding: “Spiegel and Gudenkauf clearly worked hard on this story. They simply made some wrong assumptions about what most of us know about sexuality and conversion.”

But they should have worked harder—the fault here does not lie with their audience.

The fundamental pieces that were missed are numerous, but the first one is rather glaring. Spiegel is a health reporter, not a religion reporter. This is important because the “debate” over “reparative therapy” in psychological and mental health professions has been settled. Yes, there are some psychologists and therapists who disagree, but there will always be some who disagree. That doesn’t make their disagreement worth reporting on, however. We still don’t have unanimous consent that the earth is round, but does interviewing flat-earthers give global warming stories some “balance”?

Indeed, the “debate” within the mental health field is so settled that the American Psychological Association’s policymaking body just voted unanimously this week, 157 – 0, to endorse marriage equality for gays and lesbians. There’s no “debate” going on here. According to mental health professionals, homosexuality is not a disease in need of a cure, but something in need of being accepted and integrated to create a whole, balanced human being.

Where the debate remains is wholly within religious circles. The controversy here is that religion is trying to use pseudo-psychological methods to convince gay and lesbian people that science supports their efforts to “pray away the gay.” They use studies from psychologists like Paul Cameron whose research has been discredited (he has been kicked out of the American Psychological Association).

In fact, as Wayne Besen has pointed out in an op-ed in the Advocate, the entire foundation for mixing religion and psychology to “cure” gays and lesbians is built on sham research.

William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, the husband-and-wife sex research team, went on Meet the Press Sunday, April 22, 1979, to discuss their findings that claimed they had converted homosexuals into heterosexuals. However, in his groundbreaking recent book, Masters of Sex, author Thomas Maier documented through investigative reporting that the results of Masters and Johnson’s study were entirely fabricated. Virginia Johnson even acknowledged that the results were fake.

Other facts are readily available that were not explored in this report. including the fact that Wyler makes his living as a “professional ex-gay” — someone whose livelihood relies on his remaining publicly “ex-gay.” In their “blame the listener, non-apology,” NPR points out that Toscano, too, profits from his “ex-gay” experience. Again, it’s a case of false balance. Sure, Toscano is invested in making sure people know they are loved by God just as they are — but he’s not pushing bogus “therapies” backed by bogus science to help people repress a part of themselves that is natural. He’s just trying to make a living with his art. There is a big difference here. If Toscano fails, people don’t walk away psychologically scarred, feeling shamed and depressed, or even suicidal.

NPR also fails to mention, as Warren Throckmorton reports, that Wyler’s form of touch therapy is soundly rejected by real mental health professionals.

They also fail to note that Wyler is not just a “conservative Christian” but a Mormon, something Joanna Brooks believes is very important to the story.

Given his place within the world of Mormon homosexuality, Wyler and his programs should be understood as belonging to a Mormon history of experimental efforts to “change” gay people. This history includes experimental electroshock aversion therapies administered to homosexuals at Brigham Young University in the 1970s.

These are facts that are not too hard to locate, if a reporter and her editor want to take the time to do their homework, even on a subject they assume their listeners already know a lot about. Instead, they have given free publicity, without criticism, to a “therapy” that is mainly religious and thoroughly rejected by respected mental health professionals.

According to Schumacher-Matos, they’ll get another crack at it in some future report: “The good thing about this subject is that Spiegel and Gudenkauf will have many more opportunities to return to it.” We can only hope they actually get the story right the next time.