It's been a complicated few weeks for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Last week the media watchdog organization endorsed the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, a move that many LGBT bloggers argued was irrelevant to GLAAD's mission. John Aravosis of Americablog Gay led the charge to question whether the endorsement was a result of corporate pressure from AT&T, a significant GLAAD sponsor.
Then yesterday, The Michelangelo Signorile Show featured an interview with Laurie Perper, who resigned from her position as co-chair of the GLAAD board in October of 2009. Perper called for the organization to be dissolved, citing mismanagement by president Jarrett Barrios (pictured). She blasted GLAAD for trading favors with AT&T, fumbling their fundraising campaigns, and causing more than a dozen key GLAAD personnel to resign since Barrios stepped into his position.
Michelangelo Signorile arranged for Barrios to speak on the show today at 2:30 p.m. in order to respond to Perper's claims. Barrios requested that he be accompanied by Gary Bitner, a four-year GLAAD board member. Signorile and his producers argued that Barrios should be able to respond to Perper's allegations independently, suggesting that Bitner, who heads up one of the largest public relations firms in Florida, would be "coaching" Barrios on what he should and shouldn't say. When Bitner wasn't allowed to join him on air, Barrios declined the interview.
Today, Barrios, Bitner, and Rich Ferraro, Director of Communications for GLAAD, spoke to The Bilerico Project in a phone interview. They addressed the inaccuracies in the interview with Perper, explained why Barrios would not participate in an interview on Signorile's show without Bitner, spoke about why they think the merger would benefit the LGBT community, and clarified GLAAD's position on net neutrality.
The Signorile Interview
Ferraro explained why Barrios declined to appear on Signorile's radio show.
"The main narrative in the interview [with Perper] was that the board does not support Jarrett, which is false," Ferraro said. "So if he were to be asked, 'Does the board support you?,' the board didn't feel comfortable with Jarrett saying, 'Yeah, the board supports me.'"
Ferraro further explained that Bitner could address several of Perper's other claims more effectively than Barrios. These included her statement that a large number of GLAAD personnel stepped down due to the direction in which Barrios was leading the organization and that Barrios has not raised any money for GLAAD since he came on board.
"Our decision was to go on," Bitner said, explaining that Signorile and his producers wanted to speak exclusively with Barrios. "But for the issues that would have obviously have come up, Jarrett wouldn't have been qualified to answer those questions."
Rebutting Perper's Allegations
The GLAAD representatives also contested Perper's claims about the financial status of the organization. She pointed out that the organization incurred a deficit of $1.2 million during 2009 and that GLAAD had not yet released financial information about 2010. Perper was co-chair of the board during the time the organization was bleeding money.
Barrios acknowledged that when he started his position in September 2009, GLAAD's finances were a mess. "The first thing I did in September was audit where we were," he said. "By early October, I was able to assess that we were running a pretty large deficit, and we began making cuts immediately."
GLAAD released numbers from 2010 and 2011 in a press release yesterday, pointing out that the organization was not in debt.
Gross revenues in 2010 grew by approximately $657,213 over 2009. Gross expenses were down by approximately $125,108--for an increase in net revenues of about $782,321, or 63% increase. This year, revenues continue to grow and expenses are less--in fact, our 2011 Media Awards series was produced at approximately 30% less the cost than the 2009 awards, and surpassed their goal by more than $180,000.
"We had difficult economic times in 2009," Bitner said, acknowledging the $1.2 million deficit. "But we're ahead of budget this year, and we're in a more solid place fiscally than we've been in years."
Perper also told Signorile that many of GLAAD's major corporate sponsors, including specifically IBM, ROKK Vodka, Absolut Vodka, and American Airlines, had significantly pulled support from the organization.
Ferraro said that all four claims are false, asserting, "Corporate support is breaking records in 2011." IBM is sponsoring GLAAD's Spanish-language project, ROKK just signed on to be GLAAD's national presenting partner for the GLAAD Media Awards in 2012, Absolut will be continuing support for "Thank GLAAD It's Friday" networking events, and American Airlines is expanding support beyond the GLAAD Media Awards by partnering with the organization for summer and fall fundraising events.
Throughout the interview on Signorile, Perper criticized Barrios' poor management style, claiming that six senior staff members had left as a direct result of his leadership. Barrios said that only one senior staff member left, while two saw their positions eliminated.
"We had to reorganize to put GLAAD on firmer footing, and we've done that, but in doing so, a change was necessary," Barrios said. "We had to reduce our overhead and administrative expenses, and reorganizing resulted in the elimination of two positions."
Barrios and Bitner reported that they had not had contact with Perper since she resigned one year and eight months ago. Barrios also stated that to the best of his knowledge, no other current GLAAD board member has spoken with Perper.
"I don't know why Ms. Perper has taken to the airwaves to talk about things that she really doesn't know about," Bitner said. "But, I'll say this: It doesn't help anyone to form a circular firing line. For her to shoot at other people in this movement who are all working to achieve full equality doesn't help anybody."
Barrios stated that GLAAD's endorsement of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger had little to do with the fact that Troup Coronado, former Vice President of External Affairs for AT&T, served on the GLAAD board as Perper alleged.
"We are not supporting this merger because Troup - an AT&T consultant - is on our board," Barrios said. "Although Troup has played an appropriate role in facilitating our relationship with AT&T, we would still be supporting the merger if Troup were not on our board. The GLAAD Staff, independent of Troup, reached the same conclusion arrived at by dozens of other civil rights organizations - such as the NAACP, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, LULAC, and Pride at Work. Namely, that the merger will be a good one for the sake of broadband proliferation, increased speeds and functionality, and the extension of AT&T's very LGBT-friendly employment and advertising policies."
The merger increases AT&T's power as a communications conglomerate and could pose a powerful threat to net neutrality, the much-discussed debate over whether Internet service providers can arbitrarily restrict access to certain networks, websites or types of content.
AT&T opposes net neutrality and lobbies heavily against it, arguing they have the right to offer tiered plans of access to Internet service and control any traffic flowing across their network. Being one of the largest Internet providers in the country and owning a significant portion of the Internet backbone infrastructure, AT&T's manipulation of Internet traffic could impact a large percentage of Internet users around the world.
Despite GLAAD's support of the merger, the organization has stated that it does not support AT&T's position on net neutrality. However, because of GLAAD's status as a 501(c)(3), Barrios is unsure whether he is allowed to voice support for some issues on behalf of the organization. Board members formed a working group at their last meeting to decide what the limits were in how far the group can go when making a direct statement on issues or specific legislation.
"GLAAD does not endorse AT&T's position," Ferraro said. "GLAAD believes that equal, fair and universal access to the Internet is vital to our community and to our national dialogue. While GLAAD does not take a position on particular legislation or regulations, we continue to believe in the importance of adhering to these values."
An interesting exchange of letters from January 2010 between Barrios and the Federal Communications Commission have surfaced recently. A letter under Barrios' name was submitted to the FCC that seems to support net neutrality. The Jan. 4 letter reads:
... GLAAD encourages the FCC to prioritize expanding broadband connectivity to every corner of this country and to every American so that we - and other minority groups - can continue our pursuit of inclusion and have our voices heard. As you continue your review of net neutrality, please remember that the Internet provides an open space and forum for all and it is critical that we make it more accessible, not less.
On Jan. 15, 2010, however, Barrios filed another letter requesting the withdrawal of the Jan. 4 letter, writing to the FCC, "I have never seen this letter and it is not my signature. Furthermore, the contents of the letter do not accurately reflect the views of our organization."
Barrios maintains that he did not sign off on the Jan. 4 letter, saying, "The letter was submitted in administrative error over a year and a half ago, and when I realized it [a few days later], I withdrew it."
With the organization once again expressing support for net neutrality and equal access to the Internet, it's unclear what part of the letter doesn't reflect the group's views. Both the FCC letter and Ferraro's statement express support for the same values, while Barrios says otherwise.
Either way, for a media organization to be this off-message and out of sync with its various parts is disconcerting and leaves more questions than answers.
Catch up on the controversy with additional coverage from The Bilerico Project: