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.
ADDENDUM: Ezra 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.