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

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by Megan Barnes
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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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