Media Explore Ted Haggard's Tumultuous Journey

January 30, 2009
On Thursday, January 29, HBO aired a documentary about the rise and fall of Ted Haggard, the anti-gay married father of five, former head of the National Association of Evangelicals and founder of the New Life mega church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Haggard’s world crumbled in November of 2006 after a male prostitute in Denver named Mike Jones exposed Haggard as a client who solicited sex and purchased crystal meth from him. That prompted a wave of public scrutiny in the media and led to his dismissal from New Life Church. The new documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, directed by filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, follows Haggard’s rise and fall and his journey to re-build his family life, his finances and his self-worth. Haggard and his wife Gayle made the media rounds in the week leading up to the HBO broadcast, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show, ABC News Nightline and CNN’s Larry King Live. At the same time Haggard was promoting the documentary, new allegations surfaced from a former volunteer at the New Life Church. Grant Haas said that Haggard had an inappropriate relationship with him in 2006. Print and broadcast outlets extensively covered both the news of the upcoming documentary and the Haas allegations—prompting Haggard to acknowledge the Haas story during his interviews and apologize for it. The mainstream media has handled this latest wave of Ted Haggard news fairly. Oprah Winfrey, ABCs Dan Harris and CNN’s Larry King pressed Haggard to explain his overall hypocrisy and his irresponsible actions during the scandal, which included extensive lying to his family and his evangelical constituency. They also pointedly asked him whether he is gay, a question that Haggard could not clearly answer. He said that his counselors told him he was “heterosexual with homosexual attachments,” and “heterosexual with complications.” After the Larry King interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper of AC360 invited psychiatrist Paul Dobransky onto his program to discuss Haggard’s conflicted feelings. Dr. Dobransky explained that sexual orientation is biological and that Haggard has a “belief system that he needs to maintain for his constituents, his fans.” To his credit, host Anderson Cooper also pointed out that being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. ABC’s Dan Harris asked Haggard to explain his actions to the gay and lesbian community prompting Haggard to apologize to gay and lesbian people. Stories that involve sex scandals always have the potential to be heavily exploited by news outlets looking to boost ratings. And media outlets have often sensationalized sex scandals with a gay angle even more. Thankfully the key national outlets that covered this story did not take that road this time around. They recognized that this is undoubtedly a valid news story; a pastor who used to preach against being gay visits a male prostitute, uses drugs and then lies about it— a pastor who had the ear of a former president on matters of “family values." GLAAD worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Ted Haggard coverage was fair, accurate and inclusive. We asked outlets not to use problematic phrases when describing the sex scandal. We also urged media to heavily scrutinize any claims about the so-called “ex-gay” movement. This story is about a public figure who was exposed for hypocrisy and is now searching for redemption from his family and his followers. Regardless of his sexual orientation the media had an obligation to responsibly report the facts of this case and avoid promoting the gay aspect of the story in a lurid and salacious manner. And media outlets succeeded. It remains to be seen if the HBO documentary will finally close out the Ted Haggard story once and for all. But clearly this chapter in Haggard’s ongoing media saga is over. The film will air on HBO at various times throughout the month of February.