When Bigotry Is 'Balance'

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Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

When Bigotry Is 'Balance'

Media still worried homophobes aren't being heard

As the Supreme Court finished hearing oral arguments on two same-sex marriage cases, the Wall Street Journal editorial page (3/27/13) proclaimed what has become a mantra of the right on this subject: The liberal media frame opponents of marriage equality as bigots.

America’s cultural and media elites are attempting to browbeat the High Court into coercing the country into recognizing same-sex marriage by casting opponents as bigots for holding a position that President Obama held less than a year ago.

Murdoch’s Journal is woefully misguided on two counts. It’s hard to make the case that the most prominent arguments against marriage equality aren’t bigoted—and far from browbeating anyone on that point, corporate media seem to be once again bending over backwards to prove they’re “balanced” by giving a non-judgmental platform to that bigotry.

When the American Association of Pediatrics (3/20/13) declared its support for marriage equality as being “in the best interests of children,” CNN (3/21/13) invited three panelists to discuss the story: Keli Goff of TheRoot.com, Reihan Salam of National Review and Peter Sprigg of the anti-gay Family Research Council.

Sprigg predictably disagreed with the AAP, while Salam—a conservative who has made statements supporting same-sex marriage—argued that “we’re not going to know for a very long time, because we don’t actually have a large number of families and [a] large number of children [who] have been raised in these families, you know, over a long enough period of time.”

They might take issue with the data, but as the AAP statement notes, its position is based on more than 30 years of research, evaluated over a four-year period—and it’s the same conclusion drawn by the American Psychological Association in 2005. Why, then, should CNN host Erin Burnett ask Sprigg—who is trained in ministry, not child psychology—“Is [the AAP] wrong?”

For her part, Goff was “not surprised” by the findings, but managed to raise the point that anonymous sperm donation, used by many lesbian couples, can lead to unwitting incest. (“I don’t mean to freak people out,” she reassured the audience.) Goff followed by arguing that not “everyone who opposes same-sex marriage is a bigot,” because many of those people also support gay parenting. Why one’s support for gay parenting should erase one’s intolerance and prejudice regarding gay marriage is entirely unclear in this argument.

This, it seems, is what passes for debate and “balance” on the same-sex marriage issue on CNN: two voices from the right, one from the left who defends conservative bigotry, and not a single openly gay panelist.

For the right, as public opposition to same-sex marriage and homosexuality in general have declined precipitously, casting conservative opposition to marriage equality as being about “tradition” rather than intolerance has become crucial. Here’s Fox’s Bill O’Reilly in his “Talking Points memo” of December 10, which he titled “Confronting Evil”:

Some of those who support expanding the definition of marriage are accusing those who oppose it of being human rights violators, bigots, homophobes. So if you hold the belief that traditional marriage should have a special place in society, you’re a hater, according to the haters.

Similarly, Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council argued on Fox News Special Report (1/29/13), regarding the Boy Scouts’ longstanding policy of excluding gays:

This is not about homophobia or about anything resembling that. It’s about the fact that the overwhelming majority of the families and scouts adhere to a traditional biblical view of moral values with which we think homosexuality is incompatible. We don’t want the sons mentored by gay men.

Just because your intolerance is pre-scribed by your religion doesn’t mean it’s not intolerance—a point that a journalist striving for fairness in reporting ought to make.

But even less-sensationalistic media seem afraid to call a spade a spade. Responding to right-wing complaints that the Washington Post was biased against same-sex marriage opponents, ombud Peter Pexton (2/22/13) concluded, “The Post should do a better job of understanding and conveying to readers, with detachment and objectivity, the beliefs and the fears of social conservatives.”

This kind of journalistic pronouncement is nothing new; when Massachusetts became the first state to allow gay couples to marry, it set off not just a huge wave of activism and media coverage, but also a wave of self-flagellation by media over that coverage (Extra!, 9/04).

“ALL of the press was being way too sympathetic to the gay marriage side,” wrote Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz (WashingtonPost.com, 7/26/04). The Post ombud then, Michael Getler (3/21/04), concluded 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.”

At the Boston Globe, ombud Christine Chinlund (12/15/03) sounded the same note: “One need not agree with [gay marriage opponents] to think that their views need to be reflected, probed and understood as part of the essential coverage of this historic shift.” Chicago Tribune ombud Donald Wycliff (7/8/04) argued that the problems is that journalists have an “inability to see from other perspectives.”

It might seem curious that public opinion on the question of marriage equality should have shifted so far in the past 10 years while media opinion on its coverage has hardly budged. Then again, when your perpetually broken journalistic compass tells you to always seek “balance,” even if it requires propping up misleading or bigoted arguments, it should perhaps come as no surprise.

It’s this kind of misguided journalistic logic that leads to pieces like NPR’s softball profile of anti–marriage equality crusader Maggie Gallagher (All Things Considered, 3/22/13). “You think this is a question about gay couples,” she tells NPR’s Tovia Smith, “and for me it’s a question about marriage.” Gallagher continues:

I have always believed that gay people are human beings with human dignity who need to be treated with respect. But that’s different from, you know, having a foundational norm that says there is no morally relevant difference between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. And if you see one, you’re like a bigot who’s opposed to interracial marriage.

Smith breathes nary a word of protest, instead providing commentary that could have been written by Gallagher’s publicist. (“You’d figure being on the front line would have to take a toll on Gallagher, but if so, she doesn’t show it”; “A decade after declaring that gay marriage was threatening civilization, her mission has evolved: from staving off the threat to making the world safe for dissent.”)

Or take USA Today’s front-page piece by Richard Wolf (3/22/13):

They are moms and dads, authors and activists, a former police officer and a former single mother. They’re black and white and Hispanic. One’s a Roman Catholic archbishop, another an evangelical minister. Many have large families—including gay members.

Who is this rainbow coalition? Members of the National Organization for Marriage, the primary opponents of same-sex marriage—and times are tough for them:

At times, it can seem a lonely battle. Outspent and lately out-hustled by highly organized gay rights organizations, opponents have struggled to get their story out. They’re portrayed as bigots, likened to the racists and sexists of yesteryear.

Such portrayals are “untrue, and it’s not kind, and it doesn’t seem to lead to a ‘live and let live’ pluralism,” complains one of these “defenders of traditional marriage.”

The paper goes on to give several columns of ink to these activists to propound their views—like the idea that fatherlessness is the root cause of “youth violence, poverty, drugs, crime, gangs, school dropout and incredibly high murder rates”—and to talk about how well they get along with their gay friends and family members or admire “preachers of equality such as Martin Luther King, Jr.”

So how credible are these claims? Well, no gay people are quoted—friends of these activists or not—and no contrary views or disproving data are presented.

The New York Times version of the story (3/21/13) profiles several young conservatives leading the fight against marriage equality. These activists recognize that they have a messaging problem; as one of them puts it, “To the extent that the other side is able to frame this as a vote for gay people to be happy, it will be challenging for us.”

“To put it another way,” the Times’ Ashley Parker helpfully explains, “opponents of same-sex marriage say they must argue in favor of traditional marriage, not against gay people or gay rights.” See, if you can just obscure the people who will actually be affected, their rights and their happiness, it’s a perfectly legitimate and winnable debate!

The argument in favor of traditional marriage, one activist clarifies, is that is enforces norms of “sexual complementarity” as well as “monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency”—without which you get more divorce and more children born out of wedlock.

At this point, the Times does what USA Today didn’t do, introducing one short paragraph of opponents’ view on this argument. The trouble is, Parker frames it as a he said/she said debate, refusing to adjudicate: “Proponents of same-sex marriage respond that no evidence links it to social ills,” she writes—and leaves it up to readers to decide which side might have the facts behind them, despite the wealth of information available that indeed supports the proponents.

None of this is to say corporate media coverage shouldn’t cover alternative viewpoints on the same-sex marriage issue. In fact, many LGBT activists have strong dissenting views, arguing that extending marriage to same-sex couples further entrenches a system that predicates fundamental rights and access to necessities like healthcare on being in a legally recognized relationship, rather than on simply being a human being. (See, for example, AgainstEquality.org.)

Such views virtually never get aired in corporate media, but there’s never any self-flagellation over that lack of balance. Coverage ought to cover the whole range of debate—but it also ought to acknowledge that there is no sympathetic, loving, tolerant way to deny gay and lesbian couples the social and economic rights of other couples.

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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