Media Ethics Lesson: Oliver Sipple

Recently, I got out to see the new Harvey Milk film. Sean Penn’s portrayal of the late San Francisco politician could easily win him an Oscar, unless Frank Langella has anything to say about it. But I digress.

After reflecting on the movie, I realized that a major part of Milk’s life was left out of it – the second assassination attempt of President Gerald Ford. I don’t know if the filmmaker left that historical aspect out for some legit reason, nonetheless, I thought it plays an important role in not only gay rights today, but also in journalistic integrity.

A quick history lesson: Oliver Sipple, a Viet Nam war veteran, is widely known for saving President Ford’s life on Sept. 25, 1977, when he lunged at Sara Jane Moore’s gun and the bullet veered in a different direction. Sipple was portrayed as a hero by the media. However, Harvey Milk leaked the news that Sipple was gay to the San Francisco Chronicle. Although he was openly gay to his circle of friends, Sipple pleaded with the media to keep his sexual orientation private, as he was not out to his family back in Detroit.

Several days later Chronicle columnist Herb Caen exposed Sipple’s sexuality. Sipple received major media attention, but faced rejection from his family. President Ford sent Sipple a thank you note for saving his life, but Milk said that Sipple's sexual orientation was the reason he received only a note, rather than an invitation to the White House.

Sipple ended up filing a $15 million invasion of privacy suit against Caen, seven named newspapers, and a number of unnamed publishers, for publishing the disclosures. The court dismissed the suit, and Sipple continued his legal battle until May 1984, when a state court of appeals held that Sipple had indeed become news, and that his sexual orientation was part of the story. He would spend the rest of his life dealing with alcholism, mental and physical anguish caused by the outing, and die alone at the age of 47 in his apartment.

Okay, I am assuming that since the makers of Milk wanted to do a film that portrays the politician in a positive light, they may have conveniently left the Sipple situation out the script. While Sipple said later in his life that he held no ill will towards him, Milk is clearly to blame for Sipple’s self-destruction.

While I admire Milk’s openness about his own sexual orientation at a time when the thought that homosexuals were mentally ill was mostly commonplace, outing someone is generally wrong in my book, unless the person is a hypocrite, as discussed here before. It is one thing to be open about one’s sexuality to your circle of friends; it is a whole other thing to have your sexual orientation splashed on the front cover of a newspaper. Furthermore, there are many reasons gay AND straight people keep their bedroom behavior on the QT, ranging from fear of discrimination to, well, it’s just not your business.

In the case of Sipple, it was not ethical for Milk to out him to the Chronicle. In turn, the media should not have outed Sipple, as it wasn’t relevant to the story at the time. I found this great video that goes more in-depth on the media ethics of this issue, but I am also interested in what you all think about this. When is it okay to out a gay person?



At Saturday, December 13, 2008 6:42:00 PM, Anonymous JD in the UK said...

you're right, it does seem odd that no mention of Sipple in the flick. I agree with you that gay people shouldn't be outed unless they are an evil person like Larry Craig who is a big time hypocrite.

BTW, Langella will win the oscar.

At Sunday, January 04, 2009 10:19:00 PM, Blogger Nell said...

It's no odder than the complete obliteration of Harry Britt from the film.

Nice work, Cleve.

At Tuesday, January 27, 2009 1:20:00 PM, Anonymous lowlights said...

I can see the value in outing a hypocrite (a preacher or politician making anti-gay statements, while living a secret gay lifestyle).

But I can also see that this leaves the public with an image of a gay person being a liar, a hypocrite, and clearly conflicted.

I am wondering what lingers longer in the public's mind. Sure - we know Ted Haggard is gay now, but does it leave the impression that gay people are like Ted Haggard, confused - sad - messed up.

We know being gay is a reasonable variation on human sexuality and should be of no more interest than who enjoys what sexual position.

Does outing a hypocrite leave the wrong impression? I just wonder.

At Thursday, May 28, 2009 12:42:00 AM, Anonymous its5oclocksomewear said...

It was 1975 NOT 1977. I remember it well and it was an impact for me that a Vietnam hero was gay. It changed my life. It was sad to read in "Mayor of Castro" he died sometime after the attempt of President Ford's life, one of two. Yes I too thought about Sipple as I watched MILK and wondered why he was omitted when he was a significant influence of the gay movement, not just in San Francisco but throughout the United States and perhaps beyond.

I see both sides of the outing issue. However, I do have the tendency to think that it is ok to out a person who is very anti-gay (passing & advocating laws, violence, etc) when they themselves have a life other than the heterosexual life.

At Friday, April 16, 2010 4:29:00 AM, Blogger ahmed said...

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At Tuesday, November 18, 2014 1:26:00 PM, Anonymous Vaughn Birchler said...


My classmate, John, and I are doing a project on the topic in our media ethics class at Oakland University and we were wondering if we could ask you a couple of questions on it giving your opinion on what you think of the case and if you would have revealed his sexual orientation or not. We would greatly appreciate your input!

Thank you,

Vaughn Birchler


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