One year ago today, a newspaper in New Orleans broke a new story in a three-month-long saga that had generated international interest: Radio station WWL fired an out gay host of a sports talk program, who was the target of an anti-gay slur on Twitter.
A tweet telling Seth Dunlap “You’re a fag” was sent in September from the station’s official Twitter account.
Until he was terminated, Dunlap was seen as a victim of homophobia. Police launched an investigation, as did the station. WWL and its parent company accused Dunlap of sending the tweet himself in an attempt at extortion. But nothing ever came of the official probe; he was never arrested or charged with any crime.
Except for his tweeted denials and statements by his attorneys, Dunlap himself remained silent, until December, when he tweeted that he had evidence of rampant “homophobia, racism and misogyny” at WWL. He also addressed those who believed the claims by the station and its parent company, Entercom, that he tried to extort $1.8 million: “Shame on you.”
That was the last anyone heard about the controversy, or from Dunlap, for months.
He re-emerged on Twitter on July 24th, having relocated to the Pacific Northwest, promising followers to tell them “the truth” about protests against police in Portland, Ore. and other cities. Instead of hosting a radio talk show about sports, Dunlap put himself on the front line of civil unrest and shared his observations on social media.
The truth about what’s happening at the #PortlandProtests needs to be shared. I’m just one of the many live streamers covering the protests with unfettered access to the real scene every day. The following Tweets will include clips from the raw live footage.— Seth Dunlap (@sethdunlap) July 25, 2020
As the forces pushed up Main St., after deploying tear gas and flashbangs near the Wall of Moms, the forces stopped and were confronted by, among others, a peaceful protester in a wheelchair. pic.twitter.com/NPW51ZSpYb— Seth Dunlap (@sethdunlap) July 25, 2020
Closer to the “front lines” I’m surrounded by dozens to hundreds of still mostly peaceful protesters. Their main offenses usually consisted of vulgar slurs hurled at the forces inside the building. Multiple rounds of pepperballs, flashbangs, & teargas we’re soon deployed. pic.twitter.com/ltEX279ALX— Seth Dunlap (@sethdunlap) July 25, 2020
“There has been a transformation from May when these protests started,” Dunlap told Outsports in a phone conversation about live streaming these anti-police demonstrations in Portland. “I think most of the people covering this would all agree that you went out there with pad and pencil and your phone, maybe to document a little bit, and your normal street clothes, and maybe a lanyard with your press I.D. Well, that changed when Portland Police started using tear gas. So, then the journalists had to go back and buy gas masks and respirators; That happened. Then the Portland police started using munitions: rubber bullets, grenades, tear gas, all sorts of stuff. So then you have the journalists in Seattle and Portland buying body armor.”
Then, on Aug. 8th, this happened:
“I was grenaded directly by Portland police in an absurdly intentional act where, either they were trying to hit me, or they were trying to hit the two ACLU of Oregon legal observers who were there,” said Dunlap. “Luckily, I had my left arm, up above, holding a phone towards my face, or it would have hit me in the face. It hit me on my left arm and fractured my arm. I have nerve damage.”
Now he’s up but seems dazed, as medics provide care. This injury is getting worse as it ages. pic.twitter.com/EuXjcFmzpe— Suzette Smith (@suzettesmith) August 9, 2020
“That is a very minor example, a relative minor example of the brutality of that police force to protesters, but also to journalists in that city,” Dunlap added. Despite his very strong sentiments in favor of demonstrators, he said he’s never taken part in any protests in either Portland or Seattle, except in the role of a journalist.
About that: Dunlap is not being paid to do this reporting or live-streaming. “This right now is completely pro bono,” he said, explaining he has lined up other gigs to support himself. He said he is affiliated with a network of live streamers and freelance journalists; he also had a GoFundMe as recently as August, at which time he said was raising money to cover operating and travel expenses. It’s no longer active.
So what is a sports journalist doing in the middle of an armed conflict between police and protesters?
“I think you can use the term ‘sports journalist’ for what I did for 16 years,” Dunlap told me. “But at heart, I think I’m an advocate, and always have been, for equal rights and justice for the most vulnerable in our society. And that’s a value that was instilled in me by my family growing up; it’s a value that has guided my life.”
Dunlap, 36, has been out since he was 22. He said when he was hired at WWL, it was clear the general manager did not want him working there. “It ‘made him uncomfortable,’” he recalled. On September 5, Labor Day, he tweeted a recorded conversation he had with another WWL manager, about that general manager wanting him fired.
“They told me to shut up about it because my career could be at risk,” he told me. “I was worried about being able to put food in my mouth and being able to pay my rent. The only regret I have about that entire situation was that I wish that I had used the platform that I had much, much sooner.”
Dunlap said efforts to silence him were “one of the reasons that I became very disillusioned with sports broadcasting,” for failing to cover important issues “in any substantive way.”
“I was specifically told multiple times in my career by varying organizations that I was not allowed to talk about issues from a, do you want to say, ‘progressive’ or ‘advocacy’ voice, for issues that were happening in underprivileged communities, while the opposite sides of those issues were allowed to be presented unchecked.”
One of those issues involved coverage of a white high school quarterback, suspended in his senior year. Dunlap told his program director he could tell the stories of Black and other minority students in similar circumstances, but was shot down.
As far as what happened that led to his termination at WWL, he said he could not discuss the matter. So I asked him if he was concerned that some people might look at his work now and discredit his reporting or simply not believe him, given the radio station’s accusations against him?
“There are countless people who wouldn’t believe what I was saying and still are, Dawn, right now,” Dunlap said. “I could put the video in front of the faces of a lot of people and they still wouldn’t believe it, which is mind boggling to me. But I have made peace a long time ago with the fact that those who know me, and followed my career, understand the entire scope of my tenure in New Orleans. I’m very comfortable with the people who actually know that, understand what happened.
“I’ve moved on. Let me just put it that way: I have completely moved on with my life. It may be really weird to hear this, but in some ways, what I was subjected to was a blessing in disguise, because it pushed me towards covering the activism side quicker than I would have otherwise.”
Dunlap believes what he is doing now is a calling, and one he wishes more people, not just journalists, would take up.
“I would highly encourage every single person out there in the country,” to either protest or at least witness one, Dunlap said. “The biggest weapon that we have against racism, fascism, police brutality is right in your hands: It’s your phone. And whether that’s going out there and live streaming, whether that’s live tweeting, whether that’s just going out there and seeing it for yourself, it’s the biggest weapon that we have to save our democracy right now. It is. And the truth is there for those people who want to see it. And it’s painfully obvious right now that far too many people still are unwilling to see that truth.”
Five months tonight.— Seth Dunlap (@sethdunlap) October 29, 2020
Five months of continuous protests.
Five months of tear gas, grenades, rubber bullets, and unmarked vans.
Five months of our brothers, sisters, parents, & friends being brutalized while confronting hate.
Five months of far too many people not caring.