Ezra Klein's Queer New Hire

Brandon Ambrosino (Photo Courtesy of Media Matters)

An addendum to this piece was posted on Sunday, March 16.

On Tuesday, former Washington Post pundit (and Prospect alum) Ezra Klein sent a shock wave through the gay community by announcing he had hired gay anti-gay apologist Brandon Ambrosino to join him at Vox Media, the much-hyped digital venture that's aiming to remake journalism for the Internet age. Liberal watchdog group Media Matters was the first to sound the alarm, but within a day, gay-rights supporters—from Mark Stern at Slate to John Aravosis at AmericaBlog—had joined the chorus of voices asking Klein: What were you thinking?

The problem with hiring Ambrosino is not that Klein isn't entitled to bring someone on board whose views the gay community finds distasteful. It's that Ambrosino's quick rise to notoriety—and now, his ticket aboard the profession’s hottest new upstart—is an object lesson in the way new media equates click-bait contrarianism with serious thought and gives hacks a platform in the name of ideological balance.

Ambrosino, who enrolled in Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in 2003,* has earned his name as a journalist—and his coveted spot at Vox Media—by being the gay writer who comes to the defense of gay-rights antagonists. He most recently stirred up a storm by proclaiming, at The New Republic, that homosexuality is a choice and that he has chosen to be gay. Time magazine gave him space to call gays the real bigots for piling on Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson, who had equated homosexuality with bestiality and said gays weren't going to heaven (still, Ambrosino says he wouldn't mind going fishing with the guy). At The Atlantic, Ambrosino threw his hat in the ring for the founder of his alma mater, who blamed September 11 on gays and accused them of trying to "recruit" children; Ambrosino says liberals like Bill Maher have slandered the Moral Majority founder and says, in Falwell's defense, that the guy with the "big fat smile" probably wouldn't have had him stoned to death if he'd known about Ambrosino's sexuality. Ambrosino also defends the views of ex-gay therapists and same-sex marriage opponents, whom he says aren't motivated by bigotry. In The Baltimore Sun, Ambrosino went after the guys in "butt-less chaps and high-heels" at gay-pride marches who earn society's prejudice with their "hypersexual antics": “I think there is a subversive power in living out my gay life in a way that seeks to emphasize the common ground I share with straight communities,” he wrote. “I don't want to participate in an event that seeks to highlight how countercultural I am.” Unsurprisingly, the religious right has been thrilled to find an acolyte among the fallen.

Gay intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Rauch may occasionally ruffle queer folks' feathers for going against the grain when it comes to hate-crime laws, say, or the right of for-profit businesses to turn away gay customers. But Ambrosino should not be thought of in this mold. Whereas Sullivan's and Rauch's positions are thoughtfully staked out and stem from nuanced views about the role of government, Ambrosino's iconoclasm amounts to heedless self-promotion. His gross distortions of mainstream gay views and stunning lack of fluency in the basic language of gay equality reveals him to be little but a feckless provocateur. His mischaracterization of 20th-century philosopher Michel Foucault—Ambrosino warps the philosopher’s idea that sexuality is a “social construct” to justify his view that gays choose their sexuality—has gotten him called out by academics. But his use of nonsensical phrases like "intersexed crossdressers" (intersexuality, a medical condition, has nothing to do with cross-dressing) and penchant for referring to transsexualism as a "sexual choice" (it's not about sexuality) show that his lack of familiarity with his subject matter runs even deeper.

So the big question: Why has a string of editors, culminating with Klein, given this guy a platform? In an interview on Wednesday evening, Klein told me he hadn't read the pieces that had kicked up so much dust before bringing Ambrosino on but did so once he began facing criticism for the hire. “I don’t want to pretend that I have the context and the background to perfectly or authoritatively judge this debate," Klein said. "But when I read his pieces, I didn’t come away with the impression that he holds an iota of homophobia.” “Homophobia”—which activists too often use as shorthand to describe anti-gay views that don’t necessarily stem from fear—may be the wrong word for it. But even a cursory read through Ambrosino's writings should raise red flags. Klein, though, seems mystified by the blowback. He acknowledges that he is new to the process of staffing an enterprise like Vox. “I gotta be honest,” he said. “With a lot of this stuff, I’m trying to figure out what success means.”

It’s unclear what role Ambrosino will play in Vox’s coverage of LGBT issues; Klein stressed that he hired Ambrosino as a writing fellow, part of a training program for young journalists. But the fact that the hiring process failed to raise any questions about Ambrosino's journalism raises questions about the kind of oversight he’ll receive at Vox. Plus, as a gay-rights advocate and friend of mine remarked, only half in jest, “After that he’ll have a star-studded résumé and free rein to antagonize us for years!”

Klein has come under fire for the lack of racial and gender diversity among Vox's announced hires, and his decision to hire Ambrosino shows how much he has to learn about genuine diversity. Klein told me he found Ambrosino's background as a gay Christian compelling and is trying to cultivate "ideological diversity” as well as gender and racial diversity at Vox. While he has a number of female hires in the pipeline, Klein said he is struggling to find racial minorities for the venture, adding: “I also want to say, other kinds of diversity are important—ideological diversity." I asked Klein what he meant by ideological diversity. “It’s not that I have a quota that I need Republicans,” he said; he just doesn't want a staff where “everybody thinks the same way.” This is a noble impulse, and varying viewpoints certainly do enliven intellectual debate. But Ambrosino’s views aren’t merely different; they’re ill-informed and dishonest. The grand irony here is that Klein himself has made a career out of being a centrist wonk who’s careful with facts. 

Vox's decision to hire Ambrosino shows why it's so important to have diversity not just among writers but also among the management at journalistic institutions. As Klein admits, he’s not the best judge of journalism on LBGT issues. Which is sort of the point: Not having a gay person in Vox’s leadership—someone who is familiar with the fault lines and sensitivities of the debate—leaves editors vulnerable to making tone-deaf decisions. If Klein wanted a smart young voice on gay rights, he had scores of brilliant, journalistically sound, responsible queer journalists to choose from—Slate’s Stern comes immediately to mind, as does Metro Weekly’s Justin Snow. Perhaps Klein didn’t know where to look, but given the promise and resources of Vox, it's incumbent on leaders like him to do more than post job openings online; if you want diversity, you have to work at it. Cheap traffic, on the other hand, is low-hanging fruit.

Ambrosino fits a mold the bright new media loves: He's a nerdy white kid whose contrarian views stir the pot. There is no question, especially given the sketchy quality of Ambrosino's work, that the allure of having someone gay parrot anti-gay views has led editors to look at him and think, "interesting." His formula is tired, if effective: He throws bombs into the gay community, and his editors call the explosion a debate. It's disappointing, to say the least, that a journalism venture with the tremendous promise and resources of Vox Media is relying on that cheap trick. 

ADDENDUMEzra Klein has taken issue, via e-mail message, with my characterization of his reading of Ambrosino’s work prior to hiring him: “I read most of the stories of Brandon's that became controversial prior to the hire," Klein writes. "I didn't read everything he's ever written, of course, but the impression your story appears to have given folks—that I read nothing he did before hiring him—is wrong, and I'd appreciate a clarification.”

The story accurately reflects the notes I took during my interview with Klein. Here are the relevant notes, quoting Klein's answer to my question about his familiarity with Ambrosino's controversial stories before the hiring:

The piece about Brandon’s experience at Liberty University was a personal narrative that showed the way people who have a pretty bigoted worldview react with more compassion when confronted with a person. The TNR piece, read today—it seemed to be saying that the exclusion of gay people is wrong no matter what reason their gay is. Seemed to me incredibly strong argument against morality of discrimination in any context. These things have clearly raised alarm bells that speak to a debate that I am not always in. Definitely didn’t read them, but when I did didn’t come away with the impression that he holds an iota of homophobia.

Klein has elaborated in a post on Facebook that he read "a lot of" of Ambrosino’s previous published work before hiring him and gave him an extensive writing test that required him to write eight news articles and two explainers—more than 5,000 words. 

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated Ambrosino's age as 23. He enrolled at Liberty University in 2003, which would make him 27-28.

Comments

Well said. Your are kinder than I am feeling right now towards Mr. Klein. It's both inconceivable and incredible to me that he would hire this poseur unwittingly. While I've been increasingly less a fan of Klein over the last few years--"centrist wonk" is again kinder than I would have put it--he is usually a reasonably conscientious journalist. But if this decision, his awkward defense of it, and so far at least no change of heart, obtains, I can't see why I would bother with Vox. Recognizing the depth of his mistake by getting rid of Ambrosino would be about the only thing that would change my mind. Sure, that would be a hard and embarrassing move for Klein, but a brave one, too.

This confirms what a lot of people have said about the American left: it really doesn't believe in free speech. If the gay community objections to the Vox Media hire: don't read Vox Media, but you can't tell Klein to NOT hire this guy because your disagree with is political or social views.

Now you know what black people have to suffer through with the like of Ben Carson and Hermain Caine.

You've got a laughably infantile conception of free speech. Grow up.

The problem is not his perspective, it's his total lack of education on the issues. When he pretends that he understands gender identity and then makes completely uninformed comments about gender identity (there is a very BIG difference between intersex people and transgender people), it shows he is NOT an informed voice. I would be willing to discuss his contrary opinions if he could show himself to be well-informed on the subject. He isn't.

If Ezra Klein wants a spectrum of opinions, I would hope he hires some very radical anti-theist AND a fundamentalist to have a go at each other. Or he could hire someone who is a knowledgeable and articulate writer in support of gay issues to be the foil to this poor prospect's position.

Free speech means you can say obnoxious things, but it also means other people can respond by calling you a jerk. We can tell Klein anything we like. Of course, he doesn't have to listen. But if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Balancing all that equal rights and respect for gay citizens with a healthy dose of self hate.

Great article Gabe! I wish I could say I was shocked at Klein's utter cluelessness when it comes LGBT issues but over the years I have noticed that the topic clearly makes him uncomfortable. He rarely writes on any LGBT issues and when he has, he comes across as well meaning but disinterested. Unlike his friend Chris Hays, who is an excellent ally and works hard to incorporate LGBT issues in his work, both in print and on television. I do empathize with straight liberal male nerdy wonks in a way - they are usually criticized as insufficiently masculine by the right so many of them are probably sensitive about being deemed gay by a homophobic and heterosexist culture. However, that doesn't fully explain or mitigate Klein's utter cluelessness in this matter.
I am also a bit worried about his use of "ideological diversity" to deflect away from the real issues of diversity. This is a trope used by the Right all the time to deny the effects of structural racism, sexism and homophobia and the use of the token minority conservative as a red herring. Ideological diversity is a platitude and usually ends up meaning the same old he said/she said "balanced" journalism.

Ambrosino is a male Ann Coulter. He throws word bombs and then stands back to gauge their effectiveness. For him, like Coulter, it's not so much about what he writes, or even what he believes, but about the reaction it generates.

Pound it, Ezra.

People can claim otherwise all they want and take an "I'm so much more intellectual than he" attitude but it all boils down to he doesn't speak the party line and that is unforgivable.

Did you not read the article? There are many ideological differences I have with Andrew Sullivan, but I always respect the position from which he advances. This young charlatan has no such belvedere.

When we were children and playing any type of sports game we often had disagreements,
"That is foul."
"No it's not it's in"
"It's Foul"
"It's In"
"I say it's foul"
"I say it's in"
"Let's Do Over"
That is what Ezra Klein needs to do, he needs to do a "Do Over"
Start the search all over again. Tweet out, as I see Mother Jones, Buzzfeed, Arcus Foundation, NAACP, tweet out when they have an opening they are trying to fill. And direct your tweets to maybe some people who are already in the industry.

I want to put a word in for hiring a Lesbian writer, why a male writer? How to find Lesbian writers? Go to Lesbian websites and blogs, you will find them hanging out over there. The term for this is recruiting often times the best people are not looking for work, you have to go out and find them. After all these writers are going to produce your end product. Why on earth would you stay with someone, when you haven't even launched yet, who you have received such bad reviews of?

Assuming Ezera is straight does he NOT want sexual minorities to read his website? It is not just AmericaBlog, I have been reading negative articles about Ambrosino on all the main gay blogs, Joe My God (20 Million Page Views a Year) The New Civil Rights Movement (over 35,000 Twitter Followers, last I looked), Good As You, and if I remember right Box Turtle Bulletin.

Ezra pay attention, all those gay blogs, they are going to tear VOX down if you start running articles by Ambrosino. It is not just John Aravosis opinion on Ambrosino, it is virtually universal. God Forbid Queer Nation New York notices, that would be a huge problem. The gay community is united on this guy Ambrosino, I have not read one supporting word on him ever, and they have covered ALL his gay self hating stories.
Ezra, Do Over.

Hear, hear !!!

Brandon Ambrosino is a self-loathing fool whose poorly worded musings are worthy only of disdain.

I loved Ezra's comment - "“I don’t want to pretend that I have the context and the background to perfectly or authoritatively judge this debate,". I guess this also means he cannot judge women's issues, African American issues, Asian issues, Latin issues, Christian issues, immigrant issues, parental issues, and maybe even conservative issues. Hey Vox, just what good is he anyway? He seems rather self-limiting in his own competence to..uh..you know - think critically.

Clearly he can't judge African-American issues, because he made no comment about Brandon Ambrosino's frequent use of Imaginary Conservative MLK as a racist prop.

Hell, when sportswriter Bill Simmons made his incredibly huge mistake as editor of Grantland, he owned up to it:
http://grantland.com/features/the-dr-v-story-a-letter-from-the-editor/

Ezra Klein is coming off sleazier than Bill Simmons.
I wasn't expecting magical rainbow unicorns to come out of Vox, but I wasn't expecting THAT.

Child Ezra has chosen one of his own kind: a person not burdened with the freight of an education.

Why be surprised? Klein is the "liberal" who's always Establishment in his thinking. The whole contrarian business is generally out of control among most institutions including the press, the pursuit of celebrity being more important than pursuit of the truth or providing honest reportage.

Diversity but at what cost. There was probably a time when each story about the NAACP had to be balanced with a quote from the Klan. I am so glad those days are gone. They are not gone at Vox. Sadly. On the upside, there are enough other news/opinion outlets online.

As a 56-year gay man and a confirmed leftist, I am hardly a wonder kid. I likely wouldn't hire Ambrosino if I were trying to put together a writing team, but if I had other concerns, such as quickly generating media attention or buzz, I might. The solution to bad speech is more speech, not less. If one doesn't like what Ambrosino writes, write in response, write other things, write in the comments. Other editors will hire other people and, given the web's rather low entry, some bloggers might just get started in reaction. There isn't any real problem with hiring Ambrosino. Don't like what he writes? Don't read him. I don't watch Fox News for that reason.

Anyone who has even the slightest pretense of supporting civil liberties and liberal politics supports people writing what they want, whatever the view point.

I have several gay friends. At least 3 of them claim to have left the life-style. One of the 3 complained, "I could tell anyone I was gay, and they believed me. I believed me. Even if I had said, 'I know I look like a man, but I'm really a woman, and I want corrective surgery,' I would have gotten support from the gay community. But, if I say, 'I was mistaken, I am not gay. I very much enjoy being straight,' then I get called a liar and a traitor. I do not understand the hatred I get."
He was active in the gay rights organizations and parades in San Francisco in the 1980's when AIDS first began to be noticed. His partner died of AIDS, but he himself never got it. He firmly believed he was "born gay" and lived as a gay man until about 15 years ago.
Then, on his own, with a great deal of introspection, he came to the conclusion that any pleasure felt when he had been molested by an older new step brother had just been a yearning for male affection, and not sexual attraction. None of his series of male sexual partnerships as an adult had ultimately been satisfying.
About 11 years ago he married a woman.
I knew him before, during, and after his agonizing switch in orientation.
What is so difficult about just believing him when he says he switched from gay to strait? He did not even need any surgery or hormone treatments to accomplish it, only a change of outlook.
People are different. Brandon Ambrosino is different. Get over it. Let him talk. Believe he is telling it like he sees it. He is gay, you are gay. That does not mean you must be alike.

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