AT&T/GLAAD Controversy: Final Straw? Or Opportunity for Reform?
In case you missed it, a major shakeup went down at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in recent weeks, complete with mass resignations and damage control some are calling ham-handed at best.
It all started when GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios wrote a letter of support to the Federal Communications Commission in May backing AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile. Bloggers questioned what a gay rights group had to do with cell providers, let alone why it would take a stance on such a controversial merger.
Barrios only compounded this public relations disaster when he backtracked on another letter sent to the FCC last year echoing AT&T’s stance on net neutrality. When he tried to flub off the letter by blaming his assistant, speculation that AT&T had GLAAD’s leadership in its pocket came to a head -- and Barrios’ days heading the organization were clearly numbered.
On June 22, GLAAD announced that Barrios and eight members of its Board of Directors had "resigned." Later that list included board member Troup Coronado, the former AT&T lobbyist whose work with anti-gay groups like the Heritage Foundation has surfaced recently and gotten him into hot water. Several fingers have pointed to Coronado’s ties with AT&T for the disastrous FCC letters.
Crystallizing Longstanding Criticism
The crisis crystallized long-time criticism of the organization.
Critics have long-charged GLAAD with failing to represent trans communities and communities of color, doing its job selectively, having too-close relationships with the media organizations it’s supposed to be monitoring, and abrogating its watchdog focus in favor of celebrity-filled (and celebrity-praising) award shows. Some are now questioning whether the AT&T controversy signals GLAAD’s obsolescence as an organization all together.
"GLAAD specifically may not be necessary, but a national institution dedicated to fighting for queer rights that has a strong and clear agenda around media representation in both content and policy is absolutely critical," said Malkia Cyril, blogger and executive director of the Center for Media Justice.
"I wouldn’t characterize this as the straw that broke the camel’s back," she added. "I would characterize it as an opportunity for traditional beltway civil rights groups to acknowledge the challenging impact that corporate money has on their ability to freely and adequately represent their constituents. I think that this will definitely make GLAAD and other civil rights groups think twice before blindly allowing AT&T or other telecommunications companies to write their lobbying letters."
Fighting for Net Neutrality
Cyril said the issue of net neutrality, a set of consumer protections online, is critical for the queer community to fight its battles, and that that is where GLAAD should be focusing much of its resources.
"The power and right to represent oneself online and the power and right to hold companies accountable when they abridge that right, is extremely significant, she said. "Without it, we’re sitting ducks."
GLAAD did backtrack on echoing AT&T’s opposition to net neutrality. But so far, it hasn’t come forward in support of specific policies or with its own set of policies. "I think what would really go a long way is if they came out definitively in favor of net neutrality," said gay writer, blogger and radio host Michelangelo Signorile.
On June 7, Signorile interviewed former GLAAD Board Co-chair Laurie Perper on his Sirius radio show, where Perper alleged that unpopular Barrios endorsed the merger in return for support from Coronado and that GLAAD should disband all together. GLAAD, still under Barrios’ direction at the time, fired back with a press release refuting some of her claims.
"It was a classic strategy of trying to attack some of her facts to discredit her totally, but in the end the most serious allegations were true: that Jarrett Barrios was trading favors with board members for support and that is clear with Troup Coronado," Signorile said.