It was hard to miss The Ledger’s outing of Julian Mullis. It ran across the top of the local page, arguably the most read spot of real estate in the printed paper. Quick synopsis: Mulberry police arrested a man they described as in a domestic, live-in relationship with Mullis after accusing the man of throwing a plastic beer bottle at Mullis during an altercation at Mullis’ house. That’s right. Mullis is the victim of an alleged assault with a plastic container. And for that, his personal life gets splashed across the top of B1 as the featured local story of the day.
This story, which exists solely as the means for somebody to broadcast that Julian Mullis is in a gay relationship, is an object lesson of everything that’s wrong with institutional journalism in this country. It’s a great example of what I think Chris was saying in his Defeatism column a few weeks ago.
It’s important for me to note that if I still worked for The Ledger or The Tribune, I would almost certainly have written this same story in much the same way my friend Rick Rousos wrote it. So when I criticize, I’m criticizing the corrupt and smug standards of modern newspaper and television journalism that force good, conscientious reporters to act as agents in petty squabbles while ignoring the important investigative or explanatory work because it’s hard and not spoon-fed by a malevolent cop or political enemy. Not having to wrestle with my conscience over this is perhaps the best perk of leaving professional journalism. But I was lucky. I had an option. In this economy, many reporters don’t. They hold their noses and cash their checks and feed their kids.
I called Rick to ask about the origin and thought process of this story, and not surprisingly, he wouldn’t comment. Not because he was combative, but because he didn’t think he was authorized to talk about internal Ledger rigamarole. I did get the impression he took no pleasure in writing this piece.
Understand, there’s no way Rick or one of the cop reporters just happened upon this police report during regular rounds or checks. Somebody, either a cop or a political enemy or somebody who’s just mean, called The Ledger and informed about it. That’s how these things work. Ninety percent – or more – of all scoops come from somebody who wants to use reporters for some purpose. That’s always been the case. The key, as a reporter, is how you deal with that. If there’s a specific quibble I have with Rick’s story, it’s that he did not say who pointed him to the report and provide context as to why they might do that. The rejoinder is, well, you can’t jeopardize sources. Balderdash. In this story, the source, whoever it was, is just as much a character as Mullis.
That being said, under the classic newspaper standards for public officials, you have to write this story. After all, Julian Mullis is a mayor of a city. He’s a public official. If a woman was arrested in his home, you’d write about that. And of course, The Ledger and all newspapers have a solemn duty to closely scrutinize the behavior of our important elected and public officials. After all, look how thoroughly they examined the personal economic interests of JD Alexander and his friends in the CSX and Heartland Parkway deals. Oh right, I forgot. I guess that solemn duty only applies when somebody holds your hand and walks you to it. Or when you can do it with a single phone call and faxed police report.
Newspapers have always published these types of gossipy stories. People read them. They’re easy. They sell. But papers used to try to offset them with tougher, public service pieces that truly helped keep powerful people on notice. Back in the day, circa 2000, despite constant business community pressure on Skip and then publisher John Fitzwater, The Ledger gave me the time and backing to take a blowtorch to the Central Florida Development Council. We ran about 10 A1 stories in a row focusing on the agency’s petty self-dealing in those days. I fear that the days of that kind of institutional support for real local reporting on people and organizations with power have come and gone. The Ledger has lost too many reporters, and there’s too much demand for web porn, along the lines of Mullis story. That’s understandable, given the financial and resource realities. But they ought to stop pretending that this Mullis story serves their public mission. They’ve abdicated their public mission, mainly because we, the readers, don’t want to pay for it.
If papers wanted to be serious about their public mission, they could adjust its tenets based on common sense reality. It is absurd to treat Julian Mullis and Buddy Fletcher as public figures of equal coverage importance. Reporting on the personal lives of the people elected by a few hundred votes with the same ferocity – or more, really – than real politicians with real power makes no sense. You might as well report on the personal lives of PTA chairs.
How about, if these small town officials screw up with public money, you investigate and report it. If they’re arrested, report it. Other than that, let them be imperfect citizens like anybody else. Especially if you have no intention of looking into the personal economic behavior of far more important officials.
This whole thing reminds me of that wonderful Anatole France quote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” You might rewrite it: “Newspaper conventions, in their majestic equality, forbid the Mulberry mayor and powerful state politicians alike from keeping their sexuality private when victimized in an alleged crime.”
Finally, I think this highlights powerfully the sheer destructive force of the closet.
Accounts of sad, brutal news events fill newspaper pages every day. See Iran. By comparison, the saga of Mulberry’s mayor is a small thing. Yet, I don’t know that I’ve ever read a more heartbreaking quote in The Ledger than this:
“This will be the laughingstock of my family, and we’ve been here for generations,” Mullis said. “I can take it. But my parents, and my children …”
I’m not gay, so I can’t know the fear that motivates people to hide who they are. But it can’t be healthy for a person – or for their family – to live like an actor at all times, to live as if you’ve committed an undiscovered crime.
Outings are complex things. I support them for people like politicians or preachers – like Ted Haggard, for instance – who cover for themselves by spewing homophobia about others. Beyond that, I think each person needs to make his or her own decision about coming out. But all anecdotal evidence I see and read, as well as common sense, suggests that people who live in full acceptance of who they are, live more happily, as do the people who truly love them.
And, one asks of those who oppose gay marriage, or even basic civic normalization of gay relationships, if Julian Mullis and his kids wouldn’t be far better off today if we lived in world where being gay – a thing no one can control – didn’t make you fear making your family a laughingstock? Do you really want to keep human beings in this twilight world of social existence? For those of you who are religious, do you really think this serves Christ’s purposes? Do you care?