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WFLA should have seen the red flags over antigay program

On Saturday morning, thousands of people turned out to celebrate at St. Petersburg's annual Gay Pride parade and festival, promoting acceptance and tolerance of the area's gay, lesbian and transgendered residents.

Hours later, WFLA-Ch. 8 aired an hourlong special paid for by the conservative American Family Association called Speechless: Silencing the Christians. The film urged viewers to fight a "radical homosexual activist agenda" aimed partially at persecuting churchgoers who find homosexuality morally wrong.

Two sides of an issue that got the airing they deserved? Or was one over the line?

Equality Florida, a Tampa-based statewide gay rights group, thinks Media General-owned WFLA bowed to bigotry, sparking at least 1,000 telephone calls and e-mails of protest to the station. The group asked the NBC affiliate to reconsider airing the show three hours before its 7 p.m. broadcast Saturday, but general manager Mike Pumo said the content did not "raise a red flag," according to a story in the Tampa Tribune, also owned by Media General.

"This show paints the entire gay community as being anti-Christian and that's just not true," said Brian Winfield, director of communications for Equality Florida. "On a day when tens of thousands of Tampa residents and their friends gathered together to celebrate diversity and pride, WFLA chose to profit from screening a show that was dehumanizing to gay people."

Officials from WFLA and Media General did not return calls for comment, including Pumo, whose outgoing office voice mail message said he was on vacation until July 6. Similarly, a spokeswoman for the American Family Association did not return calls for comment.

Narrated by conservative Christian talk show host Janet Parshall, Silencing the Christians promises to "reveal the truth about the radical homosexual agenda and its impact on the family, the nation and religious freedom." The film criticizes efforts to allow gay people to serve in the military, to teach school children that homosexuality is acceptable and to pass laws preventing employers from discriminating against gay people.

If you were to substitute the words black or Hispanic for the word gay in the film, it's a safe bet that someone at WFLA would have raised a red flag, to use Pumo's words.

Could anyone, for example, imagine WFLA airing a documentary decrying "propaganda techniques to manipulate people into accepting the interracial lifestyle?" (replace the word "interracial" with "homosexual" and you have an actual line from Silencing Christians).

So what makes it okay to decry the "homosexual agenda," as the show kept repeating over and over?

"The striking thing about the gay and lesbian movement is that it's a grass roots thing," said Ray Arsenault, a professor of history at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and a nationally recognized expert on civil rights. "There's hasn't been a signal from Washington, as with civil rights in the '60s. There's still a sense that it's okay to express this antigay bigotry."

The St. Petersburg Times faced a similar issue when it joined a growing list of newspapers that distributed the controversial DVD Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West to readers. Critics, who said the DVD was a backhanded way of demonizing Muslims, questioned whether the newspaper was treating the issue fairly.

And while producers of the film say Christians are being persecuted, Winfield fears gay people are the group under fire, demanding WFLA apologize for the broadcast. "At what point do we as Americans believe in fairness?" he asked. "When do we say that's true for everybody?"

WFLA should have seen the red flags over antigay program 06/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 3:31pm]

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