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AT&T/GLAAD Controversy: Final Straw? Or Opportunity for Reform?

by Megan Barnes
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Tuesday Jul 5, 2011
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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.



GLAAD’s apparent AT&T back scratching isn’t unique. On Saturday, the Boston Globe wrote a staff editorial condemning the controversy, noting that AT&T-sponsored orgs like the NAACP and the National Education Association also wrote letters supporting the merger.

"Clearly, some activist groups have grown a little too fond of their corporate backers, at a cost to their credibility," the editorial read. "Shilling for AT&T makes them seem more like paid lobbyists than clarions of justice ... Barrios’ decision to step aside was a step in the right direction. But these organizations must do much more to regain the public’s trust, and all nonprofits should take the opportunity to clarify their relationships with corporate sponsors."

GLAAD Communications Director Rich Ferraro defended the organization against criticism it is too cozy with corporate sponsors. "To suggest that our loyalty lies with corporate sponsors and not the LGBT community is inaccurate," he said. He cited GLAAD’s disagreement with AT&T on net neutrality and instances when it has called out sponsors for airing anti-gay material.

GLAAD wasn’t even the only gay organization to support the merger. In the wake of the controversy, at least one organization has gone out of its way to make a link between the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and the LGBT community. Pride at Work, a nonprofit advocating for queer rights in unions, recently outlined its reasons for support.

"For regular working people, the ability to secure LGBT-inclusive benefits in a union contract is a vital priority," said Executive Director Peggy Shorey. She applauded AT&T’s inclusion of LGBT employees and domestic partners in insurance benefits and at the bargaining table. "This merger matters for the LGBT people who work at AT&T and T-Mobile right now and for the wireless industry, which will for the first time have a majority a LGBT-inclusive, union workforce. This should be one of the highest priorities of our movement."

A Chance to Refocus

One of Ferraro’s predecessors at GLAAD, PR consultant Cathy Renna, said this is an opportunity for the board to make a new game plan.

"At the end of the day, it’s the board of directors that’s responsible for the organization," she said, "but I think that they understand this has been a real difficult time and that they need to regroup and figure out what their vision is for the future."

The challenge for GLAAD is that the media environment has changed so much even in the past three to five years, that the organization, like Alice, has to run faster just to stay in place. "I think that’s the relevant question," Renna opined. "Not whether or not GLAAD’s mission is relevant, but whether we all need to adapt and change because of the way that the media has changed with social media, with bloggers and with what I jokingly call the 24-second news cycle."

While Perper and others argue GLAAD’s reputation is tarnished and the organization should dissolve completely, others say its problems stemmed from the board of directors and the resignations are a step in the right direction.

"What really would, I think, regain a lot of trust, is if they withdraw support of the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile," Signorile said. "I don’t think [GLAAD] is obsolete in the sense that we don’t need a watch dog group, I think that GLAAD does some really great work and a lot of their programs are really important. I think though, that they have to really focus on what’s most important and not get side tracked by non-issues."

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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