Bias and Proposition 8

Last year, when California’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s gay marriage ban known as Proposition 8, there was little speculation about the sexual orientation of the seven justices or the possible heterosexual biases they might harbor.

But when federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 on August 4, reporting and commentary treated claims of Walker’s gayness as a matter of fact–and a newsworthy subject. This despite Walker’s never having addressed his sexual orientation publicly. As gay activist Michelangelo Signorile noted on the Huffington Post, “Most major media organizations, from the New York Times and ABC News to the Washington Post and National Public Radio, have reported on him as gay or had commentators saying it.”

This treatment, which was in sharp contrast to the the rules journalists normally use to determine if they will or will not report on a subject’s sexual orientation, provided a service to anti-gay groups who wanted to claim that Walker’s ostensible sexuality made him biased and unfit to rule on Proposition 8. In the twisted logic of the homophobes, of course, heterosexuals’ views on gay marriage are unbiased.

While no one has come forth with actual evidence suggesting bias on Walker’s part, what do you call it when journalists treat sexual orientation (or even rumors of such) as newsworthy when judges’ decisions’ favor gay rights, but unworthy of mention when they don’t? Isn’t that a bias?

As Signorile concluded on the Huffington Post (in an article that oddly referred to the allegation of Walker’s gayness as a “smear tactic”), this is more than a story about the tactics of the anti-gay rights right: “It’s a testament to how easily the media is manipulated by the right into doing things about which editors and reporters claim to be staunchly opposed.”

About Steve Rendall

Senior Media Analyst and Co-producer of CounterSpin Steve Rendall is FAIR's senior analyst. He is co-host of CounterSpin, FAIR's national radio show. His work has received awards from Project Censored, and has won the praise of noted journalists such as Les Payne, Molly Ivins and Garry Wills. He is co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error (The New Press, 1995, New York City). Rendall has appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows, including appearances on CNN, C-SPAN, CNBC, MTV and Fox Morning News. He was the subject of a profile in the New York Times (5/19/96), and has been quoted on issues of media and politics in publications such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times. Rendall contributed stories to the International Herald Tribune from France, Spain and North Africa; worked as a freelance writer in San Francisco; and worked as an archivist collecting historical material on the Spanish Civil War and the volunteers who fought in it. Rendall studied philosophy and chemistry at San Francisco State University, the College of Notre Dame and UC Berkeley.