For the 29th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke with Michelle Rotuno-Johnson about the the derogatory press coverage of the 1969 New York City protests that became emblematic of the gay rights movement.
Rotuno-Johnson is a Master’s student in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Her research paper “Cultural Hegemony in New York Press Coverage of the 1969 Stonewall Riots” received the AEJMC History Division’s inaugural award for Diversity in Journalism History Research.
This episode is sponsored by the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
Photo: Stonewall Inn in 1969. Credit: Diana Davies (photo copyrighted to the New York Public Library), CC BY-SA 3.0
Nick Hirshon: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.
The Stonewall Inn was a rare bar where gay men could drink and dance together in 1960s New York – and a target for police who occasionally raided the place to ensure people were wearing clothing that would be “appropriate to their gender.” Fifty years ago this summer, six plainclothes officers entered the Stonewall Inn and sparked days of rioting that have become emblematic of the gay rights movement.
[0:01:00] Reporters covered the first major gay protests in the United States with derogatory language that delegitimized the rioters as violent people threatening police authority. When the dust and newspaper ink had settled, gay people confronted the media about their portrayal in print, and Stonewall became a turning point for press coverage of the LGBTQ community.
In this episode, we discuss the reporting on the Stonewall riots with Michelle Rotuno-Johnson, a Master’s student at Ohio University. Michelle, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Hi Nick, thanks for having me. Great to be here.
Nick Hirshon: Of course. So before we get into the topic that brought us here today, a very, very important and timely one, I felt the journalistic obligation to ask you about some previous research that you’ve done on a completely different subject.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Okay.
Nick Hirshon: Too curious to resist this one and I think it will interest our readers too. So you’re the author of a book on the history of Marion, Ohio’s annual Popcorn Festival.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: I sure am.
[0:02:00] The Popcorn Festival.
Nick Hirshon: Published in 2014 by the History Press. And just for our listeners who may not know, Marion, Ohio is a city about 50 miles north of the Ohio capital of Columbus, a population of about 36,000 people, and best known, at least for me, as the long-time home of former president Warren G. Harding. I actually remember visiting when I was a child because I was very interested in all of these presidential homes. But I didn’t know anything about the Popcorn Festival. So can you just indulge us for a moment before we get to your more serious research, perhaps, talking about this Popcorn Festival?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Well, you know, popcorn is pretty serious. So, so I worked in Marion and President Harding owned what was known at the time as the Marion Daily Star newspaper, and by the time I got there, in 2012, it was just known as the Marion Star. But it was – you know, it’s the same publication that he used to own which was pretty cool. So in the ’70s and ’80s –
[0:03:00] I think especially, Marion was kinda hit by a loss of, you know, kinda some of these industrial jobs, but one thing they were always able to hang their hat on was Wyandotte Industries, which I believe at the time the Popcorn Festival started in the early ’80s was one of the main global producers of snack foods. So they did a lot of popcorn and now they do, you know, your corn chips and cheese puffs and all of that, and they’re a pretty main producer.
So, you know, they were kind of in an economic downturn and this group of people in the ’80s said we need to find something, you know, to celebrate our community to let people know that we’re still here, you know, and that there is still value here, and popcorn was one of their main exports, so they started this Marion Popcorn Festival. It’s always the weekend after Labor Day and it’s been free for, I guess, the last 35 years.
[0:04:00] They have just got, you know, your typical kind of summer festival things. It’s kind of an end of summer thing. There is always a pretty big name for a free concert and then there is just, you know, booths and games and rides and just anything else you’d find in a festival. But yeah, I wrote a book on the history of that when I was, I don’t know, 23, 24, so it was a pretty cool accomplishment to have as such a young journalist. And I’m glad you asked me about that ’cause it just makes me smile thinking about, you know, writing a book on popcorn, but it was a great project. I really enjoyed doing it.
Nick Hirshon: Of course. Well, and I just love these nuggets of Americana.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: I do too.
Nick Hirshon: Yeah, these local places that people maybe don’t know that much about, and you were able to explore that very colorful piece of Ohio history, so thank you for just, you know, talking to us about that for a second.
Nick Hirshon: But we are here today to discuss your award-winning paper that was accepted for presentation –
[0:05:00] at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, or commonly known as AEJMC, and the title of this paper is “Cultural Hegemony in New York Press Coverage of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.”
I mentioned it’s award-winning because this study won the Inaugural Diversity in Journalism History Research Award. It also received an award, the third-place student paper from the History Division, and it’s a very timely subject. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the riots that have been called the beginning of the gay rights movement.
So a bunch of different questions for you here, but first, with the title of this paper, especially considering that we have an audience that is not all scholars, just regular listeners interested in history, you mentioned cultural hegemony, so can you tell our listeners what do you mean when you say cultural hegemony?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: And this is a phrase that I needed to educate myself on when I was working on this paper ’cause I didn’t quite know. So the idea is –
[0:06:00] based off of Antonio Gramsci’s theory, he was a Marxist writer kind in the early to mid-1900s. So what it boils down to, cultural hegemony, is that there is a – I guess a ruling class that in any society there is gonna be a majority, and the majority class keeps their power and keeps their ideology by subverting anything that goes against them, right?
So they use the media, they use – you know, the people who are in power kinda have the same ideas as them. So it – it filters down to workplaces and educational institutions and mass media. So just the idea that whatever ruling group is in charge is going to try to stay in charge and keep their ideas in the society –
[0:07:00] by kind of pressing down anyone else who says anything differently, if that makes sense.
So during this time the cultural norm was that homosexuality was seen as kind of – it was seen as deviant. We had just come out of I guess the red scare but also the pink scare, where Joe McCarthy, you know, said a bunch of people in the state department were commies and said a number of them were homosexuals too. So there was this idea in the public mind that the government reinforced that gay people were, you know, susceptible to being I guess, influenced by communist ideals.
There was an idea stemming from World War II that homosexuals – and, and by the way, when I’m talking, it’s mostly about gay men –
[0:08:00] because most of the public idea of homosexuality around this time that I could find was about the men, it wasn’t about the women. So this is gay men in society, whether or not they’re in the state department or just, you know, in life were kinda seen as the other. They were seen as, like I said, easy to be influenced by commies. They were also seen as mentally unfit, because around World War II there was this study released that gay men were easily – oh, they were just kinda mentally unsound or, what’s the word I’m looking for? You know, over-emotional, over-sensitive.
So that was kind of – the idea in society at the time was that they were just kinda this other, whole other group of society and, you know, they could be ridiculed and that kinda thing.
[0:09:00] Nick Hirshon: And so before we get to Stonewall in 1969, you’re starting to answer some of these questions, but it’s important for us to consider how the LGBTQ community had been covered up until that point.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yes.
Nick Hirshon: And what was that coverage like in the decade beforehand? I do have a question I want to ask you specifically about the McCarthy stuff. But before we get to McCarthy, in the ’30s and the ’40s, what is this coverage like in terms of the terms they’re using to refer to people in the community or just how they’re presented in general?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Great question. They – one of the scholars I used, Ed Alwood, said that before World War II in mass media they didn’t even talk about homosexuality. There were maybe some articles in small, local newspapers but until the second World War, which is when gay men were kind of, again –
[0:10:00] equated with mentally deficient people, or people who were crazy, they weren’t really talked about until the mid-1940s. So, I mean, Newsweek said it was an abnormality and a number of papers called gay men “perverts,” and this is even right around the time that Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which talks about how a number of the U.S. population could be homosexuals.
So before McCarthyism, it was either that they were perverts or that they were kinda, I don’t know, mentally deficient, crazy, alcoholics. But McCarthyism – and I know you wanted to talk about that, kind of changed it, ’cause it was – one of the other scholars, Rodger Streitmatter, said it was really the first day –
[0:11:00] that major American newspapers even talked about homosexuality.
Nick Hirshon: Right, and I think this is in very important context as we start building up to the decades before Stonewall.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yes.
Nick Hirshon: You recall in your paper one point in 1950s, you’re saying, when Joe McCarthy, who for some listeners who may not know, the infamous senator from Wisconsin, publicly accused several state department officials of being members of the Communist Party, and that an administrator at the state department told senators that 91 state department employees had resigned under investigation, and “most of these were homosexuals.” And I want to just take a moment here, as we start using these terms, to let listeners know we’re gonna be using some that are published by newspapers at that time that are very offensive today and we do so for historical accuracy and to point out how far the media coverage has fortunately come since Stonewall, and that’s part of the point of your research. The terms that were being used in this period and how Stonewall kind of changed the game there.
[0:12:00] But the New York Times in its coverage of the former state department employees, you mentioned how they used words such as perverts and homos and deviants to describe them. And of course, you also talk about how the New York Times, one of the most established, well-respected newspapers in the United States, in the world, has this kind of influence because once it publishes those kinds of words then maybe other newspapers and news organizations follow suit. So can you talk about that effect, when the New York Times is using words like perverts and homos and deviants, how does that impact the rest of the media coverage?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Well, I mean, and like I said, this was pretty much the first time you get prominent coverage of homosexuality. So these other newspapers definitely followed, you know, the New York Times lead, and yeah, they did – they used these words that even if they were common at the time kinda surprised me that the Times would say those particular words.
[0:13:00] And I want to just say really quick that in my paper and maybe in discussion, I say homosexuals a lot instead of just like, you know, gay people or queer people, and I had, I think, a reviewer kinda ask me about that. And I guess I just refer to it that way because most of the research and most of the newspapers at the time, you know, just said homosexuals. That was, I guess, the catch-all term, so I think that’s why I went with it instead of something a little more colloquial.
So that was a bit of a digression. But in that kind of – in that time that scandal about homosexuals in the state department became known as “perverts on the Potomac,” which I don’t know if that started with the New York Times –
[0:14:00] but it definitely went – you know, it went across to the western seaboard.
But I think the New York Times definitely with this kinda state department issue, so to speak, and with Stonewall, really was the front runner in reporting any of this. So I think a lot of the other papers definitely did follow its lead and there was a little more – there were some other terms, like, degenerates or fairies that other newspapers used. And again, this kind of fed into the whole idea that gay people are easily persuaded by communists or that they’re just otherwise kind of unstable and unsavory members of society.
Nick Hirshon: And so as we get into the actual incident at Stonewall Inn –
[0:15:00] On that night of June 27th into June 28th, 1969 – A lot of people know this story. They know that Stonewall is important for the gay rights movement, but can you tell us exactly what happened?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah. And I wanted to, just a little bit more of the history, because you know, around this time it was – I’m pretty sure it was illegal to engage in any sort of gay behavior in public. And I believe – so, you know, gay people would go to bars like Stonewall to drink and to dance, but I know especially in New York the State Liquor Authority went around shutting places down and the police would go around and shut places down. And at the time, Stonewall itself –
[0:16:00] didn’t have a liquor license. That’s kinda the colloquial understanding, but it was – it had Mafia ties. So I think that’s how maybe they subverted some of those rules, is that the Mafia guys owned the bar, and Stonewall was one of the only places where guys could drink and dance together. And I think there were definitely a lot of gay men, but also, I think, a lot of drag queens and maybe particularly young transgender people who might have been homeless or might have been, you know, struggling on the streets.
So it was definitely some of the – I guess the lower kind of caste in this cultural hegemony where being homosexual was not okay –
[0:17:00] and it was, you know, laughable. Here are all these people coming together to drink and dance and then the cops show up, which they had before, and they had been showing up at other New York bars. Like I said, they were trying to kind of push these gay people out of their spots.
So they came in on the 27th, and the Stonewall was pretty full because earlier that day Judy Garland’s funeral had been going on, so there were a lot of people just gathered to mourn that and kinda hang out. So the police came in and they started looking for bootlegged alcohol and I think they were checking – at the time you could only be wearing a certain amount of clothing that wasn’t appropriate to your gender, so they were checking ID’s. If you, you know, if you were wearing too much women’s clothing, they wanted to check your ID and see if you were a man or a woman.
[0:18:00] So I think that they just kinda were fed up with this, the gay people, because they had been going through all these raids in the past weeks that were put on by police. So I just think – basically what happened was they all started pushing back and pushed the police out of the bar. And there – I think in the gay community when we sometimes we joke about – and I don’t know if I would necessarily say a joke, but if we’re criticizing someone who seems to be making, you know, loud noise about how they’re an ally for the community, we’ll say that that person “threw the first brick at Stonewall.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of anyone ever saying that, you know, tongue-in-cheek –
[0:19:00] “so-and-so threw the first brick at Stonewall.”
But there is – I guess we don’t really know who threw that first brick because there was someone who started throwing stuff at the police and that’s when it kinda, you know, set off. There were all these people in their, you know, in their street clothes or in drag or whatever starting to throw stuff at the police and antagonize the police, who had never seen this before from this kinda crowd. And it really just it set off that night and it continued the next couple of nights.
And there were all these, you know, these kinda new slogans that people hadn’t really seen before of, you know, this gay power, that we want freedom. So I think that the gay community in New York City had kinda just been pushed too far and they were sick of it. If that just – if that kinda describes it.
[0:20:00] I mean, everyone’s just throwing stuff, police are in there to hold off the crowd. It got probably a little violent. No one ever died at Stonewall, but a couple of police got injured. People got their heads kicked, you know, that kinda stuff.
Nick Hirshon: And this was not just a one night incident, right, ’cause you describe in the paper how this was, you know, it started on June 27th and then the 28th, but for several nights thereafter, right, people are gathering at Stonewall and gawking at the site and seeing, this is the thing we’ve seen on the news, this is where it happened. So this was continuous for about a week or so, right?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: It was, and I don’t know how much of it – that’s a good point, is that they saw it on the news. I don’t – I didn’t do any kinda TV coverage analysis. But there were one or two articles that people probably might have seen and gone out there.
[0:21:00] But I think, at least on that original night, it was just people who were hanging out around the bar, and I think maybe in that area of New York was kind of popular for LGBT people to gather. So that first night, or maybe even that second night, it was just passersby, just people seeing what was going on.
Nick Hirshon: Right. Good, old-fashioned word of mouth.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah, maybe – right, maybe word of mouth. And I think, you know, like I said, it was a bunch of different people. It was the street kids and it was the preppy east siders and it was the drag queens. You know, it was – they came from all walks of life. And one thing I learned recently was that the history of Stonewall, I guess it’s kinda – it was hard for me to pin down individual names of the rioters that were there particularly that might still be alive –
[0:22:00] but the ones I have like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson were people of color. And I know that when there was this Stonewall movie a couple of years ago and it made it look like everyone was white, and I think maybe the public understanding is that everyone was white, but it was a lot of Latino and African-American men and drag queens who were out there and who really were some of the first to really be pushing for gay rights.
So I didn’t discuss that in my paper because I couldn’t really – I couldn’t find, you know, really kind of any descriptors in these news articles about these people, so I couldn’t really, you know, compare how the people were described, you know, by their race or the color of their skin because that didn’t exist.
But I have kind of been curious for the last few years of, you know –
[0:23:00] what did this crowd actually look like, because I think it’s kinda maybe whitewashed in the public discussion. So that’s another little tangent, maybe something I’ll do in the future.
But yeah, so this went on for a couple of days, and I think there were really only two or three nights of big rioting before it calmed down.
Nick Hirshon: And your research focuses on the coverage of the Stonewall riots, right, ’cause we’re media historians here, in four New York City newspapers: the New York Times, the New York Daily News, New York Post, and the Village Voice. So you examined about two weeks of this coverage: nine articles from June 28th, which is the day after the raid, the morning after the raid, to July 10th. And you were looking particularly at how journalists at the time portrayed the rioters and providing some context to the norm. So you make a few interesting discoveries here about the Times, in particular.
[0:24:00] The Times portrayed the rioters as more violent than some other publications, and to give listeners an idea of some of the headlines at the time, from the Times, “Four Policemen Hurt in Village Raid, Melee Near Sheridan Square Follows Action at Bar,” and another one was “Police Action Again Rout Village Youths, Outbreak by 400 Follows a Near Riot Over the Raid.”
You mention how the Times also quoted police sources exclusively, not so much referring to the gay people who were at the center of this. So what do these themes say? Why do these two themes matter, focusing on the violent aspect and the police sources? How does that fold into the cultural hegemony that you were talking about?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Great, great, great question. So the Times, yeah, of the four of them, the Times was unique to me in that the wording it used was pretty sanitized. It was – they didn’t try to sensationalize it as kinda these –
[0:25:00] other papers did but they did paint it as kind of as, you know, dangerous young people up against the cops. That’s kind of what they portrayed these rioters as.
And I think in both of their headlines they led with how many officers were injured. They only talked to the officers about what happened. And I’m wondering, you know, why they did that. It could be because they knew they – they’re kind of the paper of record so they kind of went with a pretty cut and dry explanation of it. It’s possible that they didn’t really realize that this was a big thing, that it was going to be a big thing. And I don’t know if any of these reporters did realized maybe how fed up the community was.
Like I said, the New York Times was pretty –
[0:26:00] cut and dry with it, and so was – so the very first article, as you said, was June 28th, the morning after the raid, and that was the New York Post, and that too was pretty – it was, you know, it was like any article you kinda see right after something happens, even today, which is this happened, police said this, this is this and, you know, and that’s it. Kinda like a breaking news story.
Nick Hirshon: And I actually have a quote, if I could just interrupt you there for a second, ’cause I have an excerpt from that Post story you mentioned. The first coverage of Stonewall, a four-paragraph staff report on June 28th, the morning after the raid, and there’s some very vivid depictions of the raid. Here is an excerpt: “A police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a tavern frequented by homosexuals, triggered a near riot early today as persons seized in the raid were driven away by police. Hundreds of passersby shouting ‘gay power’ and –
[0:27:00] ‘we want freedom’ laid siege to the tavern with an improvised battering ram, garbage cans, bottles and beer cans in a protest demonstration.” So that’s the end of that quote.
So, you know, you’re kind of comparing the coverage in these two papers and the normally staid New York Times as opposed to the sensational tabloid New York Post.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah. And I think – let me just look real quick at how the – at what the Times said. And so the Times actually – they, in that first post, they went on that kind of, yeah, young men on a rampage. So this article from the 29th on the Times, yeah, “hundreds of young men went on a rampage in Greenwich Village shortly after 3 a.m. yesterday, after a force of plain-clothed men raided a bar that the police said were – was well known for its homosexual clientele. Thirteen persons were arrested and four policemen injured.”
[0:28:00] So that was the lead of that New York Times story on the 29th, so I guess two days after. And again, they quoted this police inspector. They talked about the charges against these people. But yeah, they did, you know, go ahead and talk about how these guys were throwing bricks and bottles and a parking meter even at the police officers. And I’m – I don’t mean to laugh at that, I’m just, you know, a parking meter is – that’s quite a feat to rip one of those out of the ground.
So those were – I guess those first ones were, I would say, I guess a bit more sanitized, if that makes sense. They were just kind of like your normal breaking news stories. And then we get into the pieces where, first of all, you know, they actually talked to the rioters and they talked to the people there.
[0:29:00] And one of the pieces – one of the reporters was in the bar at the time with the police officers. So that – and I believe we can get into that, that was one of the Village Voice pieces, where there’s – yeah, Howard Smith was inside the club during the riot. So that was a really interesting read as well.
But some of these other papers like I’m gonna get into used a lot of different and derogatory language. The Times and that first Daily News did not use any of these, you know, words like faggot or queer or degenerate, but some of the later articles did, and that’s where I really –
[0:30:00] kinda found this hegemony because the writers are kind of painting these men as objects of ridicule and these kinda weird, deviant feminine men who are emotional and who are possibly violent. So I think that really fit into the kind of masculine and anti-gay ideas that were prevalent in the public mind around that time.
Nick Hirshon: And you’ve discussed now the Times and the Post. You also discuss the coverage of the riots in the New York Daily News.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah.
Nick Hirshon: Regular listeners of the podcast may remember that I myself used to be a reporter for the Daily News from 2005 to 2011. So I was particularly interested to read what you found here, although I had seen some of this coverage before. And while the Times focused on the violence and the police sources, you describe how the Daily News had an almost comical approach to the situation at times.
[0:31:00] And I have some of these snippets here. So, the headline on a July 6th story read, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees are Stinging Mad,” and the reporter Jerry Lisker even said that Stonewall had “comical overtones,” and he described rioters standing “bra strap to bra strap” against police.
And here is one passage from that Daily News article: “The whole proceedings took on the aura of a homosexual Academy Awards night. The queens pranced out to the street blowing kisses and waving to the crowd. A beauty of a specimen named Stella wailed uncontrollably while being led to the sidewalk in front of the Stonewall by a cop. She later confessed that she didn’t protest the manhandling of the officer, it was just that her hair was in curlers and she was afraid her new beau might be in the crowd and spot her. She didn’t want him to see her this way, she wept.”
So what do you make of this coverage in the Daily News, because you know –
[0:32:00] we’re looking at some themes in a lot of these papers of kind of treating this in a trivial way?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah.
Nick Hirshon: Treating the people involved, the rioters as overly feminine or just mocking them. We have the over-serious coverage in the Times. But what of this, of the “queen bees are stinging mad” and this woman in – this person in curlers afraid that her beau might be in the crowd?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Yeah. And what’s funny is the end of that passage is “the lilies of the valley had become carnivorous jungle plants.” I mean this guy just went all out in this story. That headline was, I mean it shocked me a bit, but it didn’t surprise me because I kinda knew that this was just the time and gay people had not gotten a serious footing, you know, really anywhere yet.
[0:33:00] But that one sticks out. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that “Homo Nest Raided” headline. But yeah, this writer – and it’s a really long article, and this is from July 6th, so more than a week after. So this guy had a lot of time to write this, and I’m not quite sure why they held it off until July 6th.
But yeah, like you said, that he really portrayed it like a battle – and I think he – you know, he focused on these drag queens who were out there. And it really portrayed them as, you know, as laughable, and that fits with this idea of cultural hegemony that the media elite are continuing this established order of these gay men being outside a society, if that makes sense.
[0:34:00] Nick Hirshon: Sure. I mean, I think this whole idea of presenting them as laughable, as this is not a serious night that is going to impact the gay rights movement for decades to come as we now know it did, but presenting it as a “homosexual Academy Awards night?” And some of these parts of the headline, as you say, it’s just – it’s stuff that we look back on today and you have to shake your head and say what were they thinking.
So that’s why it’s important to do this kind of research and see what were the themes at the time, again, and how have we graduated from that and kind of gotten better about it. The last paper that you looked at here is the Village Voice, a weekly paper in the city. And a reporter described how “forces of faggotry” railed against police – oh, I’m sorry, rallied against police after the first raid. The Voice even referred to that Daily News coverage that we had just discussed. The article in the Voice said that people had boarded up the windows of Stonewall and put up two carefully clipped copies of the Daily News story –
[0:35:00] about the raid which was “anything but kind to the gay cause,” which is certainly true. We just read it.
But what do you think of the difference in the coverage here between the Daily News now and the Village Voice, and the Voice qualifying the Daily News coverage as “anything but kind?” It’s kind of interesting that these papers that are in some way competing for the same readers in the same city, even though they have different audiences, made kind of almost a thinly veiled attack, maybe, by the Village Voice on the Daily News here.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: It kind of is, but I don’t think the Village Voice was much kinder, and maybe the Village Voice is what surprised me the most because it’s supposed to kinda be the counterculture movement of New York City. So I thought if any of these papers might treat this like an actual event it might be the Voice, but they really didn’t and –
[0:36:00] that kinda shows how deeply ingrained this notion of, you know, what’s proper masculinity, what’s proper behavior, and the fact that these gay people are way outside of, you know, anything normal so to speak.
So there were – the Village Voice only came out on Thursdays, so that’s part of the reason why I extended my coverage periods all the way to July 10th, because that gave me the opportunity to look at two Village Voice issues, since they came out on Thursdays, if that makes sense. So the first time Stonewall would have appeared in the Voice was that July 3rd issue.
So there were two articles on the front page of the Voice and the one is the first one you read about “the forces of faggotry.” That was, –
[0:37:00] that writer seemed to be outside. But there was the one writer Howard Smith, who I kinda mentioned, was in the bar at the time and was in there with the police, and the police kinda had to retreat inside the inn on that first night because of the crowds throwing coins and bottles at ’em. And the writer takes great detail to just describe what the police did how they treated the protesters, you know. They tried to find a firehose but really just got like the hose from the bar and were just kinda spraying the protesters.
And at this point I kinda like this quote because it almost seems like this guy understands what’s going on and he says, “by now the mind’s eye has forgotten the character of the mob. The sound filtering in doesn’t –
[0:38:00] suggest dancing faggots anymore, it sounds like a powerful rage bent on vendetta.” And that – I like that because it really, it really switches the narrative and it doesn’t switch it to anything more culturally acceptable, it switches it from, you know, look at these, you know, men in glitter and wigs throwing pennies to look at these, you know, this pissed-off crowd who is trying to throw things at police.
So that was a really – I read each of these articles a couple of times, and this article that that Smith wrote in the Village Voice was fascinating to me ’cause he was in there with the cops. And this other Village Voice article was really focused on – I think on the gay men and he actually – the first Voice writer –
[0:39:00] talked to Allen Ginsberg, who was a gay poet at the time, and talked to the writer about how this crowd of gay guys was so different than this older generation. And this one – this first writer Truscott ended his article by saying, “watch out, the liberation is underway,” and I don’t know if he said that in jest or not because that could be an indicator that he understood, you know, this was the beginning of a gay rights movement, or he could have just been saying it tongue-in-cheek.
So those two articles were a bit different from one another just in that who they talked to, but I mean it’s just – it’s fascinating, just reading it, how they write it. So that was the, that was the Village Voice.
[0:40:00] Nick Hirshon: And when you talk about the differences between the two Village Voice articles and the New York Daily News article, I am also struck by the fact that it seems like the writers had a lot of license here, because the way that I was raised as a reporter is usually your editors are telling you what kind of sources to include and they have a pretty heavy hand in it.
Of course you’re gonna have some of that discretion but it seems like these writers are almost like the way the modern sports writer is allowed to include analysis of whether a team should fire its coach or something. They’re really allowed to kind of go off on these tangents or use this language that doesn’t seem to be a kind of a structure within the news organizations where they’re operating, where the Daily News has a kind of stylebook about, okay, when incidents with gay people occur use these kinds of terms or focuses.
And you know, I don’t know, I was just struck, and I don’t know if that impact was on you as well, about the way that individual writers, for the same newspaper, might strike such different tones.
[0:41:00] Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: No, that’s a great point. I hadn’t really thought about that, and I mean maybe something I could do in the future or I should have done was talk about – yeah, how, I mean how reporting was done back then. Or maybe even I could have read a little more about these reporters. But I think you’re right in that the Village Voice guys seemed to have a little bit more liberty or maybe just because of the public perception of the Village Voice, they were allowed to be a bit more colorful than say, you know, the – definitely than the Times or the Post. Although the Post did have an article –
[0:42:00] on July 8th. So the Post was interesting. We’re gonna pull back, because they had that first – very first report on June 28th that was pretty, you know, the police raid on the Stonewall Inn triggered a near-riot. So they didn’t have anything else until July 8th, which was called “The Gay Anger Behind the Riots,” and he quoted a doorman at the bar and he quoted several people who went to Stonewall, and he quoted police as well. So I’m not sure why that article took so long, but there was at least kind of that other representation in the Post, that it wasn’t just that original article. I like the quote –
[0:43:00] he has, he’s quoting a 22-year-old who had frequented Stonewall, who said, “Most gay people are extravagantly paranoid. If there was ever a place that cured that it was the Stonewall. You felt safe among your own.” And I am glad he got that quote because I would hope it would help other people understand, you know, the gay community a little bit and why this raid on Stonewall, you know, was kinda so shocking and so upsetting.
Nick Hirshon: I mean there’s definitely a lot of your research here that I think highlights the dynamics going on within New York City media, which again, interests me as somebody living in the city and being a former reporter here. And one of those other things that I just want to get into, as I was reading your paper I was thinking, if the Stonewall riots hadn’t occurred in New York, the media capital of the world, do you think that the coverage would have had as much of an impact? Maybe it seems like a kind of obvious –
[0:44:00] answer there, and I know New Yorkers are very provincial and they may think the whole world revolves around us here in the city, but I imagine there were other sorts of incidents or riots elsewhere in the country, but the dynamics here where you have four very strong New York City papers that you were talking about, and that are national papers, international papers. I mean people are reading the New York Times across the world.
So do you think that there was something about the fact that it happened in New York that made this so much of a bigger story than it would have been in even another major city like a San Francisco or a Boston or something?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: I think so. I mean, I think – that’s a great question and I don’t know enough about if there were any other incidents like this that may have gotten overlooked. But I think, right, if this happened – I think maybe, you know, in Chicago or Los Angeles –
[0:45:00] it might have gotten some of, you know, some of the same coverage, but, you know, even in a Columbus or a Cincinnati – I’m from Ohio so I think that wouldn’t have – it wouldn’t have really gotten that far.
And I think – I mean, it sounds like there was a pretty big gay community in New York City. So not only did you – I think the media coverage played a part, but also you needed to have enough people to really make this a thing, and I don’t – I’m ignorant enough of, I guess, the rise of the gay rights movement that I don’t really know where kinda the strongholds for these people were. But I think there were already some groups established in New York that were kind of fighting for gay rights.
And I mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, who was a drag queen. Learning about her kinda started my whole curiosity about Stonewall –
[0:46:00] because I watched a documentary on her a couple years ago. But she was working, I think, tirelessly as a black drag queen for gay rights and I think certainly faced the challenges that being black in America and being gay in America and being transgender in America, certainly all hard now but even harder in the 1960s. So there were people in New York working for gay rights but this just – I mean this just set it all off.
And I’m not sure, you know, this study didn’t include how, say, Time and Life and Newsweek would have covered this or how any of the other, you know, major U.S. newspapers covered this. I really just wanted to focus on New York and see what the norm was there, especially with the Times since –
[0:47:00] as we said, it was the paper of record.
Nick Hirshon: And you started to talk about some future avenues for research, and I want to get to that in a second. Just to kind of close this particular discussion on your study, a lot of us knew about the Stonewall riots being a turning point in some way for gay rights activism. Although I still wonder in the public consciousness, outside of people who maybe study this sort of thing, how much does the average person know about the specifics that I’m glad you told us about.
But, you know, more importantly, to your study, you say it was a turning point in media coverage. You point to the New York media reinforcing the popular notions of masculinity and the idea at that time that homosexuality was some sort of problem. So why do you think that matters, and as you start to, you know, if you say there’s a turning point then obviously there was evidence later on you’re seeing in other coverage where maybe the terms start changing and the amount of coverage or the placement of the coverage, ’cause we said some of these stories were buried in the Times and the Post.
[0:48:00] So what about this New York media coverage that you studied kind of became this turning point in the press coverage overall?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Well, I think – I know that maybe, you know, in the weeks after gay people started confronting the media about how they were portrayed. Some members of the Gay Liberation Front went to the Village Voice that September asking for the writers to stop using derogatory language and that, I think, encouraged people in California to ask for better representation in their own newspapers.
I think the visibility of this event and the work of the Gay Liberation Front to keep it in the public eye, because they started, you know, doing – they did a rally the next month commemorating Stonewall.
[0:49:00] So I think that that visibility kinda helped them get a footing, and I think it also probably – and I don’t want to speak for anyone who worked for the gay rights movement back then, but it probably galvanized them to maybe organize a little better and, and figure out what their message was, what they wanted to say, what they wanted to – their movement to look like.
But I think just by the fact of this appearing in New York media and then I assume you know, like I said, Time and Newsweek and Life probably picked these up, just started bringing gay people more into the public consciousness. And I think it at least let people know that gay people existed and that they were out there doing things and asking for better representation.
[0:50:00] So I’m sure the media coverage helped even if it was a little derogatory, you know, at least it got people in front of cameramen and at least it kind of, I think, probably sent a message to other gay people in the USA that there were people out here pushing for change and they were tired of the way they were being portrayed. You know, they weren’t allowed to serve in the military and they weren’t allowed to hold hands in public. They weren’t, you know, allowed to go get a drink. Um, so yeah, I think they were real fed up with it and that kind of resonated nationwide.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. And then you were talking before about future research you could do on Stonewall. You mentioned magazines, Time and Newsweek. Earlier we had talked a little bit about TV coverage, radio coverage. I know from my own kind of entries into broadcast history, it’s difficult sometimes. They weren’t really preserved the way that newspapers were, so it’s a little bit trickier to find some of that.
[0:51:00] But what sort of research do you think either you or other scholars could be doing about Stonewall?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Other avenues for research on this. I think – I would be particularly interested in when these newspapers, like the Village Voice and the Daily News, stopped using words like fags and queens and queers if you could – if we could pinpoint a certain date or a certain event that changed the tone of that coverage. I would also be interested to see how any of those national magazines or national publications I mentioned, like Time and Life and Newsweek, how they covered it and if they used some of the same language that the New York papers did. And then I would just be interested to know how other big cities covered the riot –
[0:52:00] and if they did. So I think there are a lot of avenues that I can still kind of wander down, so to speak, as I’m furthering this.
Nick Hirshon: Sure. So then as we just wrap up here and we thank you so much for your time today, we always end with the same question on this podcast, kind of a broad question. Why does journalism history matter? As somebody who is devoting your attention to the history of these media organizations, what’s the point? Why are you spending your time doing this?
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: That’s a great question. I just think it’s so important to know – I mean, to know where we came from as an industry and to see the mistakes that we’ve made and to see –
[0:53:00] how the media, which, you know, always – not always but often thinks of itself as an independent, I guess, tower in the, you know, in the vast landscape of the USA. We kind of sometimes hold ourselves up on this Ivory Tower, but it’s important to remember that culture and the norms of society have changed our coverage and that, you know, it was totally, I guess, acceptable 50 years ago to say “homo nest” in the New York Daily News.
It’s just so fascinating to see where we were and how far we’ve come even in the last 50 years, let alone, you know –
[0:54:00] a project from 200 years ago, a project from, you know, the very beginning of this country. We have made mistakes and we’ve done things right and we’ve done things wrong, and I just think, you know, we don’t exist in a vacuum right now in 2019. We need to understand the effect that media have on people and we need to understand, I guess, the good and bad things from the past in order to make a better future because there are a lot of lessons from journalism that I think are really, really relevant today, you know.
You know, part of the reason I went back to grad school is because I was working in news for a long time and just sitting there thinking, what the heck’s going on? I mean what is this industry doing and why do we act like this, and why do people think like this, you know, about us. There is so much behind that –
[0:55:00] that I’m learning and that I don’t know if I ever would have learned if I didn’t choose journalism as a profession.
So I just think it’s so important that there are those of us out there who are letting the rest of the public know about our history and about this institution, how it’s changed and maybe how it hasn’t changed. I mean, I would hazard a guess that, you know, our normal newspapers are still carrying on the hegemonic norms of today with whatever is acceptable in society today. So I think knowing the effects of media and knowing, like I said, the good and bad things, the pitfalls or triumphs, we’ve got to know it so we don’t make similar mistakes in the future and so we continue to give people good coverage that’s meaningful to them –
[0:56:00] and to do it well.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m so glad, as you say that very well, I’m so glad that you’re able to join us in this milestone summer, 50th anniversary, again, of the Stonewall Inn riots, that I think maybe people in certain parts of the country, certainly for myself growing up in New York City, was something that you’d hear about here and there, but I do wonder how many of our listeners in faraway places, and we have an international audience, how many of them really know that much about this. So thank you so much for telling us about the riots themselves, but also the media coverage and how far we’ve come from all of that.
Michelle Rotuno-Johnson: Absolutely. And you know, it’s something that I – you know, not a lot of people know the true history of Stonewall, or they think it was more recent, or they, you know, think that people died. And it’s important, you know, for the whole community but, you know, it’s also important for the LGBT community, if there are any members, you know, out there listening I guess to know our own history –
[0:57:00] and that’s another big thing that we – you know, you can invite me back and we can go in – go on some other time. But just LGBT history in this community you know, you kinda have to seek it out.
So I think there are even people in the gay community who don’t really know everything about Stonewall because, you know, there is no manual that you pick up, as a gay American, that tells you about Stonewall or the AIDS crisis or, you know, anything like that. So, I think it’s important for all of us but maybe especially those of us in the LGBT community, and those of us who are journalists, to understand this, ’cause this was a really big event in U.S. history.
Nick Hirshon: Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and to Taylor & Francis, the publisher –
[0:58:00] of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”