CNN Breaks New Ground, Offers Lesson In Covering America in Its Diversity With ‘Gary & Tony’ Documentary

CNN’s latest “In America” project, “Gary & Tony Have a Baby” is groundbreaking. The Turner-owned network managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

Well the much-anticipated premiere of the 2010 installment in CNN’s “In America” series is over.  If you missed “Gary and Tony Have a Baby,” you’ll get a chance to see airings both this Saturday, June 26th and Sunday, June 27th.

What I want to talk about is how CNN managed to tell a story on such a controversial topic in one hour while appropriately acknowledging the various sides of the issue of same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption and the legal barriers that still prevent those Americans from being parents.

CNN's Soledad O'Brien participated in at least two advanced screenings of "Gary and Tony Have a Baby" in New York and Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy: CNN

“My job is to do the story as authentically as possible,” said Soledad O’Brien, the CNN correspondent who has thus far  reported all of the network’s “In America” projects.

O’Brien’s comments were made at one of at least two advanced screenings — in Los Angeles and New York.

Being authentic in reporting any story about Gays in America or any other subset of our population is daunting, to say the least.

But, as one who prepares students to be responsible journalists in reflecting the diverse aspects of the lives of their readers, viewers and communities, O’Brien and her staff were up for the task and delivered in a big way.

It matters not whether you agree or disagree with the same-sex marriage or same-sex adoption.   What DOES matter is whether you as a viewer of tonight’s documentary were informed and enlightened about a topic that is rarely covered in this much depth.

Tom Shales Was Right

Even before tonight’s documentary premiere ended, CNN included an excerpt from The Washington Post in its promotion of the re-air dates for the documentary this week.

In a review published Tuesday, The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote
“Gary and Tony” is not technically advocacy journalism, but in showing a same-sex couple who successfully navigate the mine field and adopt a baby that one of them helped create, O’Brien makes a case for, at the very least, compassion.”

I think Shales is right in his assessment that O’Brien made a case, a role that journalists have as they seek to shine the light on stories that might not otherwise be reported.

In an earlier post, I made reference to efforts in entertainment, one daytime drama, ABC’s One Life to Live, which recently showed the court case involving a same-sex couple that adopted a child what was biologically fathered by one characters in the daytime drama.    Also on ABC, two of the main characters on the hit drama, Brothers and Sisters, are using surrogate parenting to have their first child.

But, tonight’s one-hour presentation represents responsible journalism in ALSO acknowledging the naysayers, but NOT getting mired in the controversy. The back-and-forth, the hysteria that surrounds this issue could have choked out what is otherwise a great story.

If you look at the comments on CNN’s Gay in America microsite, which accompanied the documentary,  there is no shortage of hate and debate about gay marriage and gay parenting.  You don’t have to go far to find that.

This documentary could easily have been overtaken by that.   Instead, the CNN producers focused on the REAL story.

CNN Producers: “Their personalities come across”

“Agree or disagree with their lifestyle, we do think that their personalities come across,” said Dave Timko, who edited the documentary.

In their very short “behind the scenes” video posted on the CNN microsite, Timko and Producer Brandon Clements acknowledge it’s taken 19 months to bring this story to the airwaves.

Photo: Courtesy: CNN

Clements describes the project as “a human story about two people fulfilling their dreams in getting something they wanted for so long.”

These comments show how the staff at CNN clearly looked beyond the controversy in trying to depict the real story.   It was not about “exploring all sides,” which Shales in his  Washington Post review noted was “cliche.”

NOW– to my FIVE questions about “Gary and Tony Have a Baby”

In an earlier post today, I posed five questions that I took into my own viewing of tonight’s premiere:    Let’s try to answer them.

1. To what extent does the story reflect the tensions between those on multiple sides of the morality debate surrounding same-sex adoption?

This seemed to be handled best by the producers’ decision to tell a little bit of the background about Gary and Tony.    They took us the viewers to their hometown.   It’s interesting to note that one of the men grew up in a suburb of my hometown, Richmond, Va.

But, we also saw the tension in the story of depiction of Gary and Tony’s activism. We saw the tension in the way the New York vote on gay marriage was included as a reality check for same-sex couples in a state like New York.

2. How do the story subjects’ own experiences make them a highly unusual situation (and, by definition, NEWSWORTHY)?  Or does CNN broaden the canvas by contrasting Gary and Tony’s experiences with multiple other couples?

While I have no way of verifying this,  I think it ‘s safe to say this story is probably NOT the norm for most same-sex couples who want to have a baby and use surrogate parents.    Society, local governments,  etc.   have NOT embraced this concept.    Except for the vote on gay marriage in New York,  everything worked in Gary and Tony’s favor and they had a happy ending.

But, their experience is the exception.

This is where a 60-minute documentary has to oversimply in order to tell the story and depict the emotions.    A longer documentary might have contrasted Gary and Tony’s experience with a couple that did NOT have  the same success– either with adoption or surrogate parenting.

3. Is there an undercurrent of REFORM in the way the CNN producers assemble the information (i.e.  Is CNN making a subtle case for changing laws?”) in the documentary?

As noted earlier by Tom Shales, CNN makes a case for change.   The writers and producers included just enough of the spotlight on the government barriers that some could watch this documentary and use it to educate lawmakers about what some say still needs to be done for couples such as Gary and Tony.

4. What OTHER types of diversity (class, race, gender, geography) are present in the documentary?

With the exception of geography (we saw the typical small town vs. big city difference in the backgrounds of Gary and Tony), these other types of diversity were hard to come by in this presentation.

In my view, this was the biggest shortcoming of “Gary and Tony Have a Baby.”     By showing white male activists who have been part of the Gay Rights Movement, who march in Pride Parades,  CNN still mainly depicted homosexuality as a thing that happens in white community.

Some have argued these are actually feeding stereotypes about those in the gay community.    I would like to have seen producers carve out AT LEAST 10 minutes to briefly show some of the stories that appear on the Gay in America microsite.   These show couples from other racial and gender groups.

In television land, we call these vignettes.

The focus on the documentary is on Gary and Tony.  But, there are many viewers who may walk away with only their story and not realize how much more to this issue is out there in the stories of other couples from other racial groups.  What about those who could not afford the expenses involved in having a surrogate?

While lesbian parents were ALSO shown tonight,  I don’t think we got a full understanding of the DIVERSITY within the diverse experiences of same-sex couples who want to have a baby.

5. What does the documentary reveal about CNN’s general mission in its “In America” franchise?

I think we saw CNN take a VERY different approach with the “Gary and Tony Have a Baby” from their efforts last year with Latino in America and Black in America II.    They didn’t try to cover the landscape.  They really went in depth with one story.    And, the results paid off.

I think what we can learn about documentary producing or truly indepth reporting is that sometimes, it’s appropriate to have lots of different story– as you represent the landscape of experiences.  But, other times, it’s better to stick with one person or couple’s story and go much more indepth.

It will be interesting to see what approach the CNN producers take with their next installment in the “In America” franchise.

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

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