A campaign targeting gay journalists launched last month by the Christian, conservative American Family Association has chalked up its first victory.
Responding to a complaint from an AFA member, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has transferred a gay editor out of a job that occasionally required him to work with schoolchildren. The paper's editor apparently acted on the AFA's unsubstantiated contention that the man was "preoccupied with the subjects of pedophilia and incest."
In a letter to the complaining AFA member, Star-Telegram Executive Editor Debbie Price apologized for a "serious oversight" and added: "We want to assure you that we will continue to maintain the highest standards of decency for 'Class Acts.'"
For six years, Todd Camp had served as graphics editor for the paper's "Class Acts" section, a weekly tabloid aimed at young readers. The award-winning section offers columns and features tailored for school-age readers and in many cases actually written by teens.
Editors of the section, including Camp before his transfer, periodically meet with children and teens to solicit their contributions to the section. By all appearances, "Class Acts" has been one of the paper's few bright spots, and no one had raised any questions about Camp's abilities or behavior in his job.
But two weeks ago, Price summoned Camp to her office, then informed him she was transferring him to the paper's features department.
Camp's abrupt reassignment came after an AFA member sent Star-Telegram publisher Rich Connor copies of cartoons Camp had drawn for The Texas Triangle, an Austin-based gay and lesbian newspaper. Camp had been free-lancing cartoons for the Triangle for several years with his supervisor's approval.
The AFA was upset by one of Camp's cartoon strips in particular. In the "life underground" strip published last year, a gay male character is engaged in a suggestive exchange with another gay male on a computer chat line. In the closing frames of the strip, the character discovers that he had been conversing with a 14-year-old boy, and expresses his horror over the incident.
Wyatt Roberts, executive director of the AFA's Austin chapter, says the cartoon shows that Camp is "preoccupied with the subjects of pedophilia and incest."
Triangle Editor and Publisher Kay Longcope says interpreting the cartoon as an endorsement of pedophilia is ridiculous. "If you look at the last panel of that cartoon, he's advocating just the opposite," Longcope says.
But the powers that be at the Star-Telegram apparently decided that they couldn't continue to allow Camp to work around children.
After seeing the cartoon, Price told Camp that she considered it "inappropriate" for him to continue working on the "Class Acts" section, according to friends and colleagues of Camp.
Camp declined comment for this story.
Camp was reassigned to a features job, where he will write television and movie reviews, as well as culture and trend stories.
In a letter to the complaining AFA member, Price thanked her for her "diligence" in bringing the matter to the paper's attention, and apologized for a "serious oversight" in failing to monitor her staffer's outside work. "Mr. Camp is no longer working for "Class Acts" but has been transferred to another department of the newspaper," she explained.
Longcope calls Price's action "totally outrageous," and says the paper caved in to the AFA's campaign of harassing gay journalists.
Price did not respond to Observer requests to discuss the incident. Publisher Connor also did not return an Observer phone call.
The Star-Telegram's haste to appease the AFA seems even more striking because Camp is apparently just an accidental victim of the AFA's anti-gay campaign.
The AFA's Roberts, who launched the anti-gay campaign in mid-December, declines to say how many members actually belong to the Austin chapter.
Nationally, the AFA has dabbled in a range of right-wing pet issues, including the anti-abortion crusade and an AFA-spearheaded boycott of advertisers sponsoring the television show "NYPD Blue."
The AFA has never masked its outrage over homosexuals in the media. An AFA newsletter distributed last year in Texas explained one theory of how gays, by coming out, attempt to gain political power and convert straights to homosexuality by "desensitizing" the public to homosexuality. "The most powerful tool in achieving this goal has been the media," the newsletter warned.
(Ironically, the newsletter quoted Camp of the Star-Telegram, who lauded his paper as a liberal publication friendly to gays. "I'm proud to work for one of the most liberal newspapers in the state of Texas," the newsletter quoted Camp as saying at a recent Gay Pride Picnic.)
In mid-December, Roberts set his sights on The Texas Triangle, a weekly newspaper for the gay and lesbian community that began publishing in 1992. The paper boasts a circulation of about 15,000 and operates on a shoestring.
Roberts mailed letters, written on AFA letterhead, complete with copies of clippings and cartoons from the Triangle, to all of the paper's advertisers, supposedly to apprise them of the nature of the publication they were supporting.
The letters asked advertisers to inform Roberts within 10 days of whether they intended to continue buying space in the Triangle. Roberts noted that he was reading a list of the paper's advertisers each Saturday morning on a radio program he hosts on an Austin Christian radio station.
Although his letters did not use the word "boycott," Roberts makes no secret of the fact that that's what he had in mind. In conversation he refers to the effort as a "boycott."
The response to AFA's call was underwhelming. While two advertisers did pull out of the paper, Longcope says, most were outraged by Robert's heavy-handed tactics. At least one bookstore even vowed to double its advertising. "We didn't learn about any of this until advertisers who received the letters called us and said, 'Who is this guy? What is going on?'" she says. "I mean, they were angry. They felt the whole message was one of intimidation and harassment, and they, almost without exception, have stuck to their rights to advertise where they please."
Roberts did not stop with Triangle advertisers. The Austin American Statesman had recently hired Juan Palomo, a gay journalist, as its religion writer. When Palomo wrote a story about the Triangle boycott for his paper, Roberts sent letters to hundreds of ministers and preachers in Austin, informing them that Palomo had himself written for the Triangle several years ago.
"I am neither encouraging you to, or discouraging you from, granting an interview to this individual," Roberts wrote to Austin's religious leaders. "I do believe, however, you should be made fully aware of some of the views [Palomo] has expressed in the past."
Robert's thinly veiled effort to alienate the religious community from him backfired, Palomo says. After receiving the Roberts letter, the wife of one prominent Austin minister wrote Palomo a letter welcoming him to town.
After Roberts had waged his campaign against the Triangle for about two weeks, the Statesman responded in print. A lead editorial in the December 30 paper headlined "Standing up to bullies" blasted Roberts and the AFA.
"[Roberts' agenda] is the same as any garden-variety schoolyard bully: to force conformity to his idea of what is right through intimidation and threat," the editorial read.
The paper did not mention AFA's efforts to undermine Palomo, but the religion writer says there was no question that his editors were not cowed by Roberts' tactics. "I don't think he's going to get very far with the editors here," Palomo says. "One of the things with [Statesman Editor] Rich Oppell is that he's very supportive of his reporters."
The Star-Telegram would not prove nearly so supportive of its employee.
Roberts says he sent the Statesman editorial and clippings from the Triangle--including Camp's cartoon--to an AFA member in Arlington, who was supposed to craft a response to the editorial. The woman--whose name Roberts would not reveal--apparently made the connection between Camp and the Star-Telegram, and forwarded the cartoon to publisher Connor along with a letter complaining about Camp.
The complaint reached the desk of Executive Editor Price, whose response was quite different than that of Statesman editor Oppell.
Price had already earned a reputation in the journalism community, and in her own newsroom, for acquiescing easily when readers and interest groups challenge the paper on its tone or content. (See "Snoozepaper," Dallas Observer, January 4.)
And she had already alienated some gay journalists. In early 1994, Price had appeared on a panel at a statewide convention of gay and lesbian journalists the Texas Chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association. One member of the group asked Price and other panelists if their papers would consider running wedding announcements for same-sex marriages. According to several journalists present, Price said she would not. If the paper ran same-sex marriage announcements, she reportedly explained, it would also have to run announcements if someone "married a dog."
The comment outraged many; more charitable observers believe Price had merely clumsily chosen an offensive analogy to make a point. "It was one of the most talked-about gaffes of the convention," says one gay journalist who was there.
When Price received the complaint about Camp, sources say, she immediately summoned him and informed him of his reassignment. Camp told friends Price offered Camp neither a choice nor an opportunity to defend himself.
Price is said to have told Camp that her decision was not prompted by fear of an advertising boycott, but by a belief that the nature of his cartoons made it "inappropriate" for him to continue working on "Class Acts."
Roberts says the AFA is pleased with the paper's decision. "It only validates what we have been saying. There is great cause for concern over the type of material Mr. Camp produces...What are they doing having a guy who made light of pedophilia in charge of a kids' newspaper?"
Ironically, Camp had already stopped his cartooning for the Triangle, says editor Longcope. In December, Longcope says, Camp had told her he was burned out on the cartoon and would stop drawing it.
Longcope says she had been heartened by the response in Austin to AFA's tactics, but not that in Fort Worth.
"Todd's editors have all along known that he was doing this work for The Texas Triangle, and nobody has ever raised a question about it," she says. "Unfortunately, it would appear that the attempt to harass and intimidate actually worked in this case.
"Rather than dealing with the rampant homophobia in society, it's much easier to take it out on an employee who happens to be gay, and that's a tragedy.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.