Globe Editorial

Is backing AT&T a civil right? GLAAD should know better

June 25, 2011

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Wireless phone service has about as much to do with gay rights as zebras have to do with waterskiing. So gay bloggers were justified in hounding Jarrett Barrios, who until this past weekend was president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, after he wrote the federal government on behalf of AT&T, a corporation that had donated $50,000 to Barrios’s watchdog group.

Barrios’s fall tarnishes the reputation of the former Massachusetts state senator, a charismatic politician once thought to be destined to hold higher statewide office. But the episode raises deeper questions about GLAAD and its peer organizations. Two other organizations with no official business related to telecommunications — the NAACP and the National Education Association — wrote letters in support of AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile after receiving large contributions from the company. Clearly, some activist groups have grown a little too fond of their corporate backers, at a cost to their credibility. A lawmaker who receives a letter from GLAAD or the NAACP on a mundane piece of business like a corporate merger might understandably give less credence to their letters on civil rights. Shilling for AT&T makes them seem more like paid lobbyists than clarions of justice; it carries more than a whiff of hackery.

Many nonprofits seek corporate sponsorship, especially in today’s financial climate, but their fund-raising operations shouldn’t drive their advocacy. And if AT&T or any other corporation wants to support civil-rights groups or a teachers’ union, it should do so out of a commitment to those causes, not as a down payment on future favors.

Barrios’s decision to step aside was a step in the right direction. But these organizations must do much more to regain the public’s trust, and all nonprofits should take the opportunity to clarify their relationships with corporate sponsors. It’s bad enough that, after a string of political scandals here in Massachusetts, voters are left to question the motivations of their elected officials’ every move. The public should be able to trust that advocacy groups are making decisions based on their own stated goals — and that their endorsements aren’t for sale.