Sep 1 2004

Media’s Gay Marriage Consensus

Insider critics charge press didn't play it straight

Brides kissing (CC Photo: Ben Salter)

(CC Photo: Ben Salter)

When the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in November 2003 that the state could no longer deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, it touched off a string of events that have kept gay marriage in the media spotlight for months. With that new-found prominence has come scrutiny from watchers of the media, with mainstream media critics and ombudsmen from prominent newspapers seeming to reach a consensus: News media have a pro-gay bias.

Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (, 7/26/04) found fault across the board: “ALL of the press was being way too sympathetic to the gay marriage side, given that there are many, many Americans who don’t support that issue.” Fox News Watch panelist James Pinkerton (2/28/04) complained that “in the media’s mind it is just a given that gay marriage is both inevitable and desirable.”

Others offered a more nuanced critique. While Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler (3/21/04) deemed the Post‘s news reports to be “excellent” and “from all sides,” he wrote that “critics who say the paper has had few, if any, features portraying opponents of this social change in a positive or even neutral light have a point. The overall picture, it seems to me, could use more balance.”

Chicago Tribune ombudsman Donald Wycliff (7/8/04) sounded a similar note: “In news articles there was no discernible bias either for or against” gay marriage, but “where we run into trouble is in discerning the stories that haven’t yet been written, or even conceived.” Wycliff wrote that this problem stems from journalists’ pro-gay bias, citing a study (Pew, 8/19-9/8/02) that found that while only half of the public believes homosexuality should be accepted by society, 88 percent of national journalists do. Journalists, Wycliff explained, have an “inability to see from other perspectives.”

Ombud Christine Chinlund of the Boston Globe (12/15/03) also decried a lack of coverage of gay marriage opponents: “One need not agree with them to think that their views need to be reflected, probed and understood as part of the essential coverage of this historic shift.”

Covering the newsmakers

Anti-gay activists are, of course, part of the gay marriage story—and their views certainly appeared in coverage throughout the media. But does the greater prominence of gay voices in the gay marriage story indicate bias?

Good reporting does not always require balance in the sense of an even doling out of articles or soundbites; when the NAACP holds a rally, the principles of balanced journalism do not mandate equal coverage exploring the KKK’s perspective on the matter. Regardless of their personal views, it’s important for journalists to seek out and tell the stories of those whose stories are less well-known or understood—particularly when the issue involves a debate over extending rights to a minority group that has historically faced discrimination.

Because, like most minority groups, gays and lesbians do not find their lives and their unique concerns reflected regularly in the news media, a large segment of the public is simply not aware of the issues that face same-sex couples as a result of their exclusion from marriage rights. The view that gays should not be allowed to marry, which has long dominated the public discourse, requires much less exploration in order to be known and understood by the general public.

The majority of news features on gay marriage have focused on gay wedding ceremonies and the impact marriage has had or would have on gay couples and their families. Unfortunately for gay marriage opponents, those participating in and directly affected by unprecedented events are the newsmakers in these stories. The impact of gay marriage on gay and lesbian couples is extensive and varied, affecting everything from their finances to their immigration status to their children, and the media have explored many of these issues.

How will gay marriage affect those who argue against it? Certainly the immediate impact, at least, is less direct, which presents fewer compelling stories to write. Opposition to gay marriage is worth examining (and has been regularly included in the news), but matching every feature on a significant event in someone’s life with another feature on someone else’s opinion of that event is not “balance.”

Not a ‘folk hero’

Those who argue that the pro-gay marriage side has been portrayed with an unfairly positive spin have given little convincing evidence to support their arguments. While Getler provided no examples to illustrate his claim, his Post colleague Howard Kurtz (Washington Post, 3/1/04) pointed to media treatment of San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as evidence of pro-gay media bias. Kurtz claimed that Newsom, who opened the gay marriage floodgates in his city, received much more upbeat coverage than former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was booted from the bench after refusing to remove a 5,280-pound monument to the Ten Commandments from his courthouse.

Kurtz criticized a New York Times article (2/19/04) that noted the mayor’s “wide grin,” and his “business acumen, money, good looks and friends in the right places,” and quoted Newsom describing his motives as “pure and principled.” Kurtz argued that the Times was more critical of Moore; the paper (11/19/02) reported that “civil liberties groups accused Justice Moore of turning a courthouse into a church,” and that despite this, Moore had become “an Alabama folk hero.”

It’s not clear why Kurtz sees this comparison as being so telling. Is it really better to be described as having “friends in the right places”–which is to say, elite connections–than to be called a “folk hero”? And a full read of the Newsom article reveals that detractors were quoted, just as in the Moore article: “Some of Mr. Newsom’s supporters were worried that he had veered off course. Even some same-sex couples in line for marriage licenses questioned Mr. Newsom’s motives.”

If Kurtz’s evidence for bias was weak, his equation of the two figures was even weaker: Newsom challenged a state law that he claimed conflicted with the state constitution; the legality of his action had yet to be ruled on by any court. The very Times article that Kurtz criticized had reported that Newsom “promised to ‘step down’ on the policy if the courts ruled against it.” Moore, on the other hand, defied a federal court order and was removed from office by his peers after exhausting his appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court-and still refusing to budge (Slate, 2/23/04).

Missing issues?

New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent gave more detail than most critics about what he found lacking in reports on gay marriage. Okrent wrote (7/24/04) that the Times‘ “implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared,” and he named several “potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage” missing from the Times‘ coverage: “partner abuse in the gay community,” “social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples,” and “divorce rates (or causes, or consequences)” among couples joined by civil union in Vermont.

Okrent faulted the Times for missing a story published by the San Francisco Chronicle (4/23/04) on “congressional testimony from a Stanford scholar making the case that gay marriage in the Netherlands has had a deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage,” and Boston Globe pieces (5/23/04, 3/9/04) on “the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues, and the paucity of reliable research on child-rearing in gay families.”

While some might find those subjects interesting, it’s hard to imagine how their omission constitutes “implicit advocacy” of gay marriage. Divorce, partner abuse and projected tax revenues-all issues that affect straight as well as gay couples-in no way inform the debate about whether same-sex couples should be denied rights bestowed upon their heterosexual counterparts. As Times reader Laurie Newman put it in a letter to the paper (8/1/04), “During the civil rights movement, it was not incumbent upon newspapers to run articles about the risks of African-Americans drowning in public swimming pools as arguments against desegregating those pools.”

The testimony on Dutch gay marriage that Okrent mentioned was given by Stanley Kurtz, an editor at the right-wing journal National Review, whose contested studies on gay unions in Europe have done little to show any causal link between gay marriage and the decline of straight marriage. And the Times wasn’t alone in its omission: A Nexis search found only two other mentions of Kurtz’s testimony besides the Chronicle report, one in USA Today (7/13/04) and one on the Unification Church-run UPI wire (7/8/04).

Also testifying before Congress that day was Dr. Jill Joseph of the Children’s National Medical Center, who presented an overview of the nearly 50 scientific studies regarding “the welfare of children in gay and lesbian families,” which, while not exhaustive, have shown no systematic difference between children raised by gay parents and children raised by straight parents. A Nexis search found not a single mention of Joseph’s testimony-in the Times or any other news outlet. What would Okrent make of that omission? Since the Chronicle covered Stanley Kurtz’s testimony and not Joseph’s, should one conclude that the Chronicle was exhibiting an anti-gay bias?

Joseph’s testimony—unlike Kurtz’s—has been echoed by most experts in the field and leading psychological and child welfare organizations, including the American Psychological Association ( and the American Academy of Pediatrics (Pediatrics, 2/02). Had the media done a better job of debunking the argument that gay parents have a damaging effect on children, Okrent might have reconsidered chastising the Times for not telling readers about the “paucity of reliable research” on gay parenting.

The model to which he pointed on the subject–a Boston Globe article by Sally Jacobs (3/9/04) headlined, “What Can Social Science Add to the Gay Marriage Debate? Not Much So Far”–in fact provided evidence that undercuts the headline. The article acknowledged that “virtually all the nearly 50 studies on the children of gay and lesbian parents . . . have found no significant differences between children raised by heterosexual or homosexual parents.” It also noted that critics who claim those studies are “methodologically flawed” are “mostly opponents of gay marriage” rather than child welfare experts, while the two experts quoted in the article both support the validity of the research. One, identified as “one of the most prominent researchers in the field,” emphasized that while individual studies might be criticized, “the point is that the studies yield the same results over and over.”

The Tribune‘s Wycliff provided another story suggestion, offered by Peter LaBarbera, executive director of the Illinois Family Institute. LaBarbera, who Wycliff said argued that the media fail “to tell what he considers interesting and convincing stories that argue against gay marriage,” suggested “stories like those of ‘guys who come out of the gay lifestyle’ and live straight lives.”

Wycliff’s failure to evaluate LaBarbera’s suggestion is troubling. Virtually all legitimate scientific groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have denounced the “ex-gay” movement’s attempts to change people’s sexual orientation as not only ineffective but potentially harmful. (See Extra!, 9-10/01.) Including such efforts in news coverage of gay marriage would lend credence to a discredited and damaging idea.

States’ rights vs. civil rights

Still, there were aspects of the gay marriage issue that did merit more coverage in the media. Though the debate arose from and centered on legal issues—primarily court decisions and constitutional amendments—the media largely framed gay marriage as a “culture war” and failed to evaluate the rhetoric on both sides of the aisle concerning legal questions of rights.

Part of the problem stemmed from the media’s dependence on the Democratic and Republican parties to frame debates. When John Kerry and other Democrats opposed to a federal amendment argued that gay marriage was an issue of states’ rights rather than civil rights, media typically turned to a Republican for a response to that stance, resulting in “flip-flop” accusations and warnings of “activist judges” who would override state laws.

But given the history of “states’ rights” rhetoric, some context from historians or legal experts might have shed new light on the present debate. Such language was used in the past by segregationists to argue that the federal government should not interfere with Jim Crow laws in the states; while the gay marriage issue is not perfectly analogous, the states’ rights argument in both cases ultimately maintains that states, not the federal government, should determine whether to sanction or prohibit discrimination.

The Democratic presidential primary debates provided one of the few publicly aired arguments against the states’ rights position, when candidate Al Sharpton attacked Kerry and Edwards’ position (CNN, 2/26/04): “I think it is dangerous to give states the right to deal with human rights questions. That’s how we ended up with slavery and segregation going forward a long time.” Few others in the media picked up on Sharpton’s critique.

Putting rights to a poll

On the other side of the aisle, the media rarely assessed amendment backers’ oft-repeated argument that the Federal Marriage Amendment is a necessary safeguard against “activist judges” who would wrest control of the country away from citizens. The GOP didn’t even always need one of its own to put forth that line: NBC host Chris Matthews opined (11/23/03) that gay marriage “should be a popular decision. . . . I don’t think it’s a rights question, I think it’s a cultural question; it’s up to everybody to participate.” And when Wendy Murphy, a prominent Massachusetts lawyer, attempted to explain the court’s role to Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (11/18/03), he interrupted her repeatedly and insisted that the court had “found a way to get around [the Constitution] against the will of the people. . . . The polls show that.”

But does it make sense for opinion polls to determine whether to allow discrimination against a minority group? Again, civil rights-era history is instructive in this case: As an article (Knight Ridder, 5/16/04) exploring the impact of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling noted, “Critics of the ruling called it ‘judicial activism,’ a term that is no longer associated with Brown but is frequently leveled against many of the rulings that followed it.”

In the article, civil rights law expert Robert Sedler noted that the Brown decision, which struck down racial segregation in public schools, set the standard that “the government cannot subject any group of people to unequal treatment under the laws, even if the reason for doing so is some kind of morality”–a concept that was rarely raised in the media. As one Boston attorney put it after the Massachusetts ruling (AP, 2/7/04), “That’s why we have a three-part government, for that balance of power and for the protection against a majority that may, in fact, be wrong.” Unfortunately, such commentary and context were almost entirely left to newspapers’ letters to the editor sections and the occasional op-ed.

Outside the two major parties, voices on the right, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, were frequently found in the mainstream news, while voices to the left of the Democratic Party were virtually ignored. Not that those voices were hard to find–The Nation (7/5/04) published an entire issue devoted to a spectrum of viewpoints on the left, including several that opposed the amendment but also raised serious questions about the institution of marriage itself and the justness of tying federal and state benefits to marital status. And Womens eNews (7/21/04) published commentary by Martha Ackelsberg and Judith Plaskow arguing that linking healthcare benefits to marital status “can easily lead us to ignore or deny our societal responsibility to provide basic healthcare and old age security to all our citizens, regardless of marital status.”

In a rare mainstream exploration of the subject, a New York Times op-ed by lawyer Shari Motro (1/25/04) argued against special privileges for married couples, straight or gay. Motro pointed out that though marriage benefits are “seen as proxies for helping families with children,” one in three children is born to unmarried parents who receive no such help. As for the idea that marital benefits are rewards for undertaking the obligations marriage entails, she says, “If 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, 50 percent of marriage-based ‘rewards’ are nothing but an expensive mistake.” But while right-wing rants about the threat of bestiality were given ample airtime, left-wing questions about the fairness of predicating government benefits on marital status were ignored.

Energizing the base

Several cries of media bias rang out when some media reports portrayed Bush’s support for the Federal Marriage Amendment as a divisive move or one that panders to his conservative base. While many of these criticisms came from conservatives (e.g., Media Research Center, 7/14/04; Weekly Standard, 4/5/04), the centrist New Republic (3/1/04) joined the chorus, claiming that journalists “let their cultural predilections drive their coverage” of gay marriage.

In a column titled “Media Bias Over Gay Marriage,” New Republic senior editor Jonathan Chait wrote that “reporters assume that the amendment is a fringe concern,” citing as an example a New York Times article (2/25/04) that found Bush “trying to allay the concerns and stoke the spirits of his restive conservative base” and that wondered if Bush would “pay a price with the centrist voters.” Chait assured readers that he believed that gays should be able to marry and that the proposed amendment is “morally abhorrent,” but he wrote, “I’m far less confident than the press that most people share my view.” He went on to cite polls that showed the public evenly divided on the question of the amendment.

But do polls show that the New York Times‘ assessment was wrong? Polling on gay marriage and the marriage amendment have been somewhat volatile over the past year, and outcomes vary depending on how the questions are phrased. When asked simply if they favor an amendment that would ban gay marriage, respondents in various polls have tended to approve by a slight majority. But when questions clarify that the proposed amendment would prohibit states from making their own laws on gay marriage, support for the amendment drops dramatically (ABC/Washington Post, 3/4-7/04; NAES, 2/5-8/04).

More importantly, polls that break down responses demographically show that support for the amendment does skew strongly right of center: In an ABC/Washington Post poll (1/15-18/04), while 55 percent of self-identified conservatives favored the amendment, only 30 percent of moderates did. What’s more, CBS News (5/20-23/04) found that 70 percent of respondents believed gay marriage should not be an issue in this year’s election campaign. An earlier Pew poll (1/15/04) found that only 22 percent of respondents thought an amendment should be a top priority for Congress and the president.

Polls aside, even many Bush supporters indicate that the amendment is aimed at pleasing his conservative base. Before Bush announced his support for the FMA, Sandy Rios, president of the right-wing Concerned Women of America, warned (Washington Times, 2/20/04) that Bush “can’t possibly guarantee a large turnout of evangelical Christian voters if he does not do what is morally right and take leadership on this issue.”

And as Tony Perkins of the evangelical Family Research Council put it (Washington Times, 2/20/04), “What is at issue here is, will our folks be AWOL when it comes time for the election because they are just not energized and motivated?” Further evidence of the divisiveness of the issue was provided by the unusual rebellion from the party line on the amendment by a number of Republican senators and even the vice president’s wife, Lynne Cheney.

Gay-friendly Bush

But not everyone portrayed Bush as divisive; some journalists parroted his campaign’s spin, framing Bush as a reluctant and tolerant player in the debate. As Massachusetts prepared to perform the country’s first fully legal gay marriages, ABC World News Tonight Sunday anchor Elizabeth Vargas (5/16/04) asked ABC‘s political director Mark Halperin about the presidential candidates’ relative silence on the Massachusetts marriages. Halperin responded, “Sometimes in presidential politics you don’t get to pick the issues, and this is an issue that’s imposed on both these candidates.”

That analysis closely hews to the White House line: After Bush’s announcement of support for the amendment, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters (2/25/04) that “recent events have forced” Bush’s move, and Bush himself announced in a radio address (7/10/04) that “this difficult debate was forced upon our country by a few activist judges.” But to say that the issue of gay marriage has been “imposed on” George Bush is to ignore his very pro-active position on the matter. Bush’s repeated call for the Federal Marriage Amendment was a controversial and deliberate decision that raised the profile of gay marriage as a campaign issue. One might even call that “picking” the issue.

New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller (3/1/04) promoted the theme of Bush’s “tolerance,” writing that “although the president’s behavior might reinforce the view among his critics that he was acting cynically when he endorsed the amendment, the fact is that he has a record of tolerance in personal situations.”

Bumiller cited two examples of gay men working on AIDS policy in the administration, but avoided mentioning Bush’s appointment of Jerry Thacker to his HIV/AIDS commission. Thacker’s nomination caused a huge controversy because he had earlier called AIDS “the gay plague” and homosexuality a “deathstyle.” But if Bush is indeed tolerant in “personal situations,” it’s hard to see his backing of a constitutional amendment that would deny equal rights to gays and lesbians as anything but cynical.

A New York Times editorial (7/15/04) depicted Bush as “careful to modulate his message to avoid alienating moderate voters,” citing a Bush stump speech in which he stated that “what they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do.” The Times failed to point out that Bush’s statement directly contradicted his earlier position on the Texas sodomy law; while governor of that state, Bush called the law, which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year, “a symbolic gesture of traditional values” (Austin American-Statesman, 1/22/94).

Bush’s new stance served to obscure what many of those moderate voters would view as a history of intolerance. It also neatly fits the definition of a flip-flop; but while much less glaring contradictions are regularly pointed out in coverage of John Kerry (Extra!, 7-8/04 ), the Times saw Bush as simply “modulat[ing] his message.”