Critics blast TV reporters who secretly tape restroom trysts

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

In a move widely criticized by journalists and gay rights advocates, more and more television stations across the country are airing secret footage of gay men soliciting sex in public bathrooms. Some are even turning their tapes over to the cops.


Critics call this new and increasingly popular brand of restroom reporting an “undercover sting” that gives journalism a bad name. They contend that this is by no means investigative journalism, as it is often promoted, but instead the type of tabloid TV news done solely for ratings.


“This is completely plugged into sweeps month,” said Richard Goldstein, executive editor of the Village Voice.


“When ratings determine what is newsworthy, then the concept of news loses its objectivity,” Goldstein told freedomforum.org. “The sensationalism of the situation, along with the fact that they can get away with it nowadays, becomes the story itself. That’s the only news here. There’s no other news.


“They present this as a threat to your children: ‘Your kids are in danger!’ But there’s no evidence that children are running into this behavior,” Goldstein said. “It’s a complete intrusion. If there’s any place on earth that you expect to be private, it’s the restroom. …What do they do with the outtakes I wonder?”


In some cases, TV stations deliver the tapes to the local police. An article in Monday’s Washington Post reports that nearly a dozen arrests were made after Charlotte’s WSOC-TV offered its tape to police. [See WSOC's later denial.] The article also mentions Miami’s WPLG-TV. The station released its footage, but authorities apparently weren’t interested.


“I’m in favor of the First Amendment, but not surveillance cameras being planted in restrooms,” Goldstein said. “This is an undercover sting operation. Where there’s a buck to be made, there’s no bottom.


“There should be a law that prohibits people from filming in locations that are supposed to be private,” Goldstein said. “This is something that merits legislation — not to regulate the press, but to determine when it’s proper and when is it improper to film someone.”


Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said, “My issue is that [potential legislation] should not be a law that singles out the press. It should be illegal for everybody.”


According to the Reporters Committee, 12 states have laws outlawing the use of hidden cameras in private places: Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Utah.


“At least 20 news crews from stations all across the country have invaded restrooms,” Goldstein wrote in a recent column, “Camera [in the Can].”

“The wave of restroom reportage first crested in February — at the height of the winter sweeps — and then died down, only to arise again during the spring sweeps in late April.”


News outlets in San Antonio, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, Charlotte, Syracuse, Cincinnati, Miami, New York and Albuquerque have featured reports from secret meeting places.


KOMO-TV in Seattle based its report on Keith “Cruisemaster” Griffith, operator of the Web site “cruisingforsex.com.”


Griffith bills the domain as “The Website for Men Looking To Know Where to Meet Men for Sex.” KOMO, along with other stations, have used this site for tips on where to take their cameras and develop stories.


Griffith told freedomforum.org that he had seen an explosion in these types of news reports, most — if not all — of which, he says, are based upon his site. “They have to have an angle to justify reporting on this, and since journalists are not supposed to create the news but report it, the only news is that my Web site exists.


“I think there’s been a lot of internal discussion among journalists debating the ethics of this,” Griffith said. He calls the reports “sleazy, toilet-trash journalism.” He said that it never occurred to him that reporters would visit his site to learn where to film secret meetings. He has encouraged people to picket television reporters and their stations.


Fox’s Channel 5 in New York ran a undercover bathroom segment on Monday becoming the latest known news outlet to feature this practice. “You’ll think twice” about allowing your child to use a public restroom, the station warned viewers. “Sexual deviants are roaming our local stores and malls.” Critics say the station is struggling with ratings and is trying to bolster its numbers during the crucial sweeps month.


Aliki Besson, spokeswoman for Fox News, told freedomforum.org: “We stand behind our report as we felt it would be of great interest to parents and children in the Tri-state area.”


Sex Panic!, an activist group fighting for sexual freedom, is scheduled to protest Fox 5 studios today in Manhattan. According to its news release, “protesters will turn the tables on Fox and bring a toilet [in an attempt to] flush away toilet journalism.”


Mike Frederickson, executive director of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, said that “bathroom journalism” is something the group has strong feelings about and it decided to take a stand in a recent news release, its second on this issue on two years.


“NLGJA in no way condones illegal sexual activity in public places,” NLGJA president Karen Boothe said in the statement. “But nor do we condone exploitive coverage that panders to sexual curiosity as a way of pumping up ratings.”


Reporting of improper conduct anywhere must meet journalistic standards of accuracy, relevance and good taste, the release states.


“Depicting such images, homosexual or heterosexual becomes suspect when highly promoted as investigative journalism,” added Boothe, a political correspondent for Minnesota Public Radio. Such stereotypical stories rarely examine the societal pressures that push people to have anonymous sex, she said.


The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation also issued a statement criticizing such broadcasts. GLAAD publications manager Don Romesburg told Los Angeles’ Advocate, a magazine calling itself the world’s leading gay and lesbian newsgathering organization, that “the bottom line is that sex sells.” In a business that some say thrives on sex scandals, Romesburg said that GLAAD expects TV stations will continue producing such stories.