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Talking with out TV reporter Sean Lewis
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times.
2012-05-09

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Sean Lewis is familiar to anyone who's watched WGN and CLTV, as he's been part of the former's news team since 2008 and the latter's since the 2007.

However, what some may not know is that Lewis is openly gay—and he was out long before he stepped foot in the Windy City, having worked everywhere from Fargo, N.D., to Richmond, Va. Windy City Times talked with Lewis about his background and his efforts to revive the local chapter of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

Windy City Times: Tell me about your background.

Sean Lewis: I was an intern in Minneapolis, which is where I first heard about NLGJA. I've been out since my very first job in Fargo.

WCT: And is Fargo pretty conservative?

SL: I would call Fargo more libertarian: "Do what you need to do. Don't get in my way."

And I worked in a lot of places; I went from Fargo to Madison, Wis., to Rockford [Ill.] to Richmond to here.

WCT: Out of curiosity: Does working in a more conservative atmosphere affect how you report the news?

SL: No. It affects how I feel about going in to work sometimes. I've been on pig farms where I had to clean my shoes afterwards, and I've been to movie premieres where you meet stars. You run the gamut on this job; that's what I love about it.

The reason I'm in this profession is because my aunt was in TV news. When I was 7, I went to North Platte, Neb.; it was my very first trip on a plane by myself. My aunt would take me to work with her on stories. We met Gene Autry one time; I didn't know who we was until my aunt said, "He [sang] Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." I thought he was a god.

At the time, former Sen. Bob Kerrey was governor then. He was in North Platte for something, and I got to meet with him as well.

I came away from this experience thinking you get to meet cool people and be on TV. That's changed now; I really love writing now. I've rewritten stories even though I did have to.

WCT: So what's your dream job?

SL: After that summer vacation when I was 7, my second-grade teacher asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. My friends wanted to be doctors, lawyers and teachers; I wrote that I wanted to be a TV reporter. So I'm living my dream—and I have been since my early 20s. How many people get to do that? [Smiles.]

WCT: And are the news teams like family? Some people say that...

SL: It really is. I'd say that 95 percent of the time I get along with my co-workers. Because you're part of the team, you're working toward a goal—and you snip back and forth sometimes. Personalities get in the way sometimes, and I'm the one at fault sometimes. But at the end of the day, you're working toward the same goal so you get it together enough. I've never had an issue balloon into something more.

Anybody in this size market will tell you this: Once you get to this level (a major market), you're bound to run into personalities that are challenging. And I'll bet you anything people will say that about me sometimes—I can be a handful. I can be goofy.

WCT: Watching the WGN morning news with Robin [Baumgarten], Paul [Konrad] and Larry [Potash], I hope they like each other, because I can see it going off the tracks very quickly.

SL: [Laughs] I only see them every so often because I work there at night and on weekend mornings. I've always had pleasant interactions with them. I think that show works because people do like each other; there's an underlying level of love and respect for each other.

However, in the '90s, it was a much different show. Now, you have a huge team there, with people who have backgrounds in comedy.

WCT: Readers may not be aware of this, but there are some who feel there is a schism of sorts between the worlds of print and TV journalism—that TV journalists look down on those in print.

SL: Oh, my God—that's what we think about print journalists! [Laughs] We think that print journalists feel we're not serious journalists.

WCT: When you report stories that are LGBT-related, do you have an heightened awareness of it, or do you report it like any other story? For me, it's different at an LGBT publication.

SL: I come to it with a different set of eyes, definitely. It's like a Black journalist reporting on a Black issue, or a female reporter [talking about] a women's issue. I think what you have to do is keep in mind that you're a journalist first, and a gay man second.

But you do come in with a better understanding. For example, when Christina Santiago was killed [in the Indiana State Fair stage collapse last year], because I know people in the community I was able to find her friends—and her friends trusted me with her story.

No matter what the story, I try to treat everyone with respect, because I know they're trying to talk with me. But when you have stories like that, they can affect me. I started thinking, "What if that happened to my partner?" I did bring certain issues to my news director—legal issues—and he found that very interesting.

Eventually, though, journalists become good at compartmentalizing feelings. There was a young soldier who was killed overseas; we found out 24 hours of them finding out. We knock on the door, and find the mom is beside herself. I felt horrible. I said, "We'll just take a picture and we'll be out of your hair." Well, while the photographer is setting up, she and I were talking, and there was a connection there. I just wanted to go home and go to bed after that.

WCT: I'm curious about your thoughts regarding outing. Are there certain instances where you approve of it, as with anti-gay politicians?

SL: The one thing I do not like is hypocrisy but you're walking a fine line, because you are talking about someone's life. I am not in favor of outing for outing's sake. If someone is doing harm while living a life that is totally opposite to what is portrayed publicly, then it is a journalist's prerogative to call that out. However, there should always be a debate; it's never a clear-cut issue. What are the ramifications of doing that?

I remember Steve Gunderson [Republican Congressman from Wisconsin]. He was gay and had a partner, but the Republican party pushed him out [of the closet, in 1994] when Newt Gingrich was coming to power. Steve, I believe, was a moderate and would sometimes break party lines. He was a gay Republican, and there are many of them.

I think it's more of a commentary about society that some people feel they have to lie about who they are in order to gain acceptance. I think some people are elected [thinking one way], and they realize in Washington that there's a different way to get things done.

WCT: Let's talk about NLGJA a little. You're looking to revive it?

SL: Well, it used to be one of the biggest chapters in the country. Chicago hosted the national convention in '97 and '05. Maybe we'll be big enough one of these days to do that again.

I think there are more gay journalists now, but there are so many other clubs to be in. There are still Chicago chapter members, but the [branch] kind of went away. The last event I remember going to was with UNITY, and that was about two years ago.

It was interesting how I got into that. I just happened to say, "It would be interesting to have a Chicago chapter again." Then I became the guy.

WCT: I know what you're thinking: "That's the last time I suggest something."

SL: [Laughs] I know, right?

For more information on the Chicago chapter of NLGJA, visit the "NLGJA Chicago" page on Facebook.


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