Catering to one side

catering2I took a couple of weeks off from writing about the mainstream media’s overt advocacy for same-sex marriage in California. I was hoping that we’d see a bit more balance in the coverage. Alas, no. I don’t think journalists are even trying. Take, for instance, this Washington Post story from Ashley Surdin. Here’s her angle:

LOS ANGELES — Two things are certain in California’s mounting legal showdown over same-sex marriage: Gay couples will wed this month, and, come November, voters will decide whether the state’s constitution should exclude them from such unions.

If the vote is yes, the only certainty will be confusion.

The story goes on to catalogue the various and sundry ways that chaos and confusion would ensue if horrible meanies had their way in passing an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

The angle is perfectly valid. But what blew me away was the lack of perspective from advocates of traditional marriage. The angle seems well-suited to include their perspective, something the mainstream media have struggled with in recent weeks. I’ve paid enough attention to know that traditional marriage advocates oppose legalizing same-sex marriage by judicial fiat in part because of the havoc it wreaks on social and legal institutions. An article about the havoc wreaked by two potentially contradictory decisions — one from a court and one from the will of the people — would be a great way to explore that traditional position. The article doesn’t include that perspective. It does, however, end with this hard-hitting, totally unbiased walk-off quote:

But Ryan James, 32, and Moe Perez, 39, of Oakland said they are going ahead with their wedding and are too harried planning for their August ceremony to worry about what might happen afterward. Said Perez: “We’re more concerned about trying to find a caterer.”

Ba-dum-dum! That’s how I’d end a press release from a same-sex marriage advocacy group. That’s not how I’d end a supposedly fair story in the Washington Post.

There’s another thing I’ve noticed in stories about support and opposition to same-sex marriage in California, as evidenced by this paragraph from the story:

Recent polls indicate that voters could go either way on the measure. One, by the Los Angeles Times and TV station KTLA, found that 54 percent of voters support the proposed amendment. Not long after, a Field Poll found that 51 percent approve of the idea of allowing same-sex couples to marry.

One of the many ways in which reporters were not critical of the Field poll dealt with the survey method. And we’re seeing more and more reporters cite it, uncritically, as evidence of a huge 18-point shift in opinion over a few days in California.

cateringOne of our readers here, who is either really named Perpetua of Carthage or goes by that name, suggested a possible reason for the discrepancy between the Los Angeles Times/KTLA poll and the Field Poll:

The question reporters should be asking is: Why did the two polls, the LA Times Poll and the Field Poll, conducted at the same time and among the same survey population, provide such different results?

News reporters should be taking the poll questions and results to professors in the field of survey research. I think they will find the answer is in the new Field Poll design.

As she explains on her site, two polls taken in the same time period from the same population show strikingly different results. She thinks it has something to do with the way the questions were asked. In the Times poll, before Californians were asked whether they would vote for the marriage amendment, they were asked whether they supported marriage, civil unions or neither for same-sex couples. The Field Poll only asked the question about whether Californians would vote for a Constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex couples from marrying. The Field Poll showed a dramatic switch from the last time the question was asked in 2006. In that poll, they followed the same format as the Los Angeles Times poll by asking about domestic partnerships.

Perhaps some enterprising reporter will write something about the Spiral Effect, the historic underreporting of opposition to same-sex marriage and how public opinion polls show dramatically different results based on how questions are asked. But somehow I doubt it.

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  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    I think that Mollie has presented a devastating case against the MSM’s coverage of same-sex marriage in California. Do reporters agree that the coverage has been one sided?

    That said, I have one quibble with this post. As Mollie and Perpetua of Carthage note, poll results are notoriously dependent on the wording of questions. So should not pollsters ask Californians whether they wish to define marriage as between a man and a woman? After all, state voters will vote on that language in November, not on the legality or “domestic partnerships” or “prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying.”

  • Michael

    Do reporters agree that the coverage has been one sided?

    This is going to surprise you both, but I do think the coverage has been one-side in favor of the pro-gay side. I think this does a disservice to the readers and the advocates on both sides of the issues.

    The anti-SSM argument is a difficult one for journalists to cover. I disagree that this specific story would have been helped by giving a voice to the “society is going to crumble” argument because it is completely unrelated to the legal chaos, but the press needs to do a better job of explaining the “society is going to crumble and create chaos” story because that’s what they get paid to do.

    Ths argument is not easy, however, to cover. It’s based on speculation and slippery slopes and “may, mights, and coulds.” Those are not easy stories to cover, because the answer from the other side is “prove it” and well, the anti-SSM can’t. But it doesn’t mean the story shouldn’t be told.

    The pro-SSM forces has have been successful at painting opponents as bigots and–while it is true there are plenty of bigots who oppose SSM because they just don’t like gay people–the press needs to do better at allowing anti-SSM advocates to give voice to their non-animus based fears and let the public decide on their own whether those fears are good enough reason to deny legal and civil rights.

    Journalists like underdogs, and the pro-SSM advocates are the underdogs in this story. The media has played a key role in giving voice to other civil rights struggles and therefore sees a similiar role here. But that doesn’t mean that the other side should be ignored. I think those stories will come in time, but they are harded to write.

    The anti-SSM side is also hindered by a lack of advocates who are good at articulating the position. It’s an abstract, philosophical argument that needs people who can make it without coming off as a little uhinged. The movement pundits are awful spokespeople on this issue, although someone like David Blankenhorn comes to mind as someone who hasn’t been coopted and can explain the argument reasonably.

  • Martha

    To be fair, if the constitutional amendment is carried, there will be confusion.

    Suppose Joe and Jim got married when the Courts said it was legal in June, and now in November the Constitution says this is illegal.

    Are Joe and Jim currently married? Were they ever married? Were they married in June but not in November? Is this a divorce, an annulment, or what?

    Yeah, messy.

  • Dave

    Michael (#2), there is a case to be made that some things will become more complicated by same-sex marriage. The Weekly Standard article by Maggie Gallagher, previously linked, give some sober, non-hysterical examples that are not of the “society is going to crumble” type. It would not have harmed the article in question to include something like that.

  • Thomas

    The anti-SSM argument is a difficult one for journalists to cover.

    It is indeed. The arguments against SSM are far more amorphous, whereas the pro-SSM coverage focused on the reality of happy gay couples getting rights and responsibilities previously denied for what seems like no good reason.

    Regarding Maggie Gallgher’s article, her argument basically was that society would crumble, and that it’s not worth it to “change” marriage because there aren’t enough gay folks around to avail themselves of it. She also seems to think that sexual orientation is something that can be “shaped”, and that the ideal nuclear family structure should be the only one recognized under the law.

    The marriage idea is that children need mothers and fathers, that societies need babies, and that adults have an obligation to shape their sexual behavior so as to give their children stable families in which to grow up.

    This is a point of view that has received MSM coverage far and wide, despite its lack of logic and divorce from reality. While her tone is not hysteric, she is clearly saying that including gays in marriage will cause an irrevocable societal shift towards the abyss.

  • Michael

    The problem with the Gallagher story is that they are also “might, could, may” concerns. Religious liberty might be threatened (although the argument is more an anti-gay rights argument then a specific anti-gay marriage one. Any civil liberties advance for gays could result in the dimunition of religious liberty). I think it is a fascinating story, although Gallagher is not the one to tell it. And it needs someone who can challenge the assumptions that Gallagher and her commenters left unchallenged.

    But I agree that it is one argument worth exploring.

  • Thomas

    Michael, she did indeed get challenged, and there’s a lot to take away from this:

    Interestingly, she points out that it’s pro-equality religion and law scholars who readily acknowledge that anti-gay bias will in the future become as socially unacceptable as racism, and that these clashes will therefore be “severe and pervasive.” As she puts it, “..we don’t arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities.”

    This is true because people, acting through the branches of government, have decided that we don’t want to support racist ideas as a matter of public policy. Racist ideas have become marginalized, such that claiming a “religious exemption” for putting them into practice doesn’t fly any more. Bob Jones University tried to defend its prohibition on interracial dating by claiming it was religiously based, but a public policy interest in treating people as equals was weighted more heavily.

    For Gallagher, the question amounts to: Will there be similar shifts in public opinion and public policy that will marginalize anti-gay viewpoints? and the answer is yes. Unfortunately, she and those who share her viewpoint believe that their desire to avert this shift trumps any other interest.

    Her argument can be boiled down to this statement: The right to have my viewpoint protected from marginalization is more important than the right of another group of people to equal treatment under the law and an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That sounds suspiciously like a special right.

    Perhaps the coverage of this is indeed biased in favor of the pro-SSM camp. But maybe what that really means is that the societal marginalization of the anti-SSM camp’s viewpoint is underway.

  • Dave

    Thomas (#5) wrote:

    Regarding Maggie Gallgher’s article, her argument basically was that society would crumble

    If we are talking about the same article, this is simply untrue. She cited some legal scholars, several of whom were favorable to gay marriage, about some trouble that would occur on the boundaries between church and state. None of the usual sky-is-falling stuff (though her intended readers might think the sky was falling).

    Michael (#6) wrote:

    The problem with the Gallagher story is that they are also “might, could, may” concerns.

    Again, if it’s the same article, this isn’t true either. She led off with the concrete, already-happened case of Catholic Charities of Boston taking itself out of the adoption placement business because of a requirement to treat gay adoptees equally.

    I’m a supporter of marriage equity, but I don’t condone any pretense that it can’t have long-term, unexpected fallout.

  • Stephen A.

    Aside from the fact that the “sky is falling/society is crumbling” argument is a rather weak and inarticulate one (and unconvincing, the worst sin of all) it’s also not reasonable that every article on gay marriage would include it, necessarily, unless the reporter deliberately wanted to undermine the anti-SSM cause simply by its inclusion.

    Not that some people don’t actually argue that way, and thus making it a legitimate viewpoint to mention when it is brought up (again, even if it’s weak) but there are better arguments to be made, and better ones to cover.

    To be fair and, um, balanced, the “it’s not fair” argument is also incredibly weak for the pro-SSM side, and yet, the media has championed it.

    Mollie is absolutely right in this point. The “aggrieved party” tone of these SSM articles are blatantly slanted, and the bias is undisguised. Dwelling on how fabulous the gay weddings will be – and I have NO DOUBT that they will be, BTW – is far from unvarnished coverage of a hugely controversial issue.

    (Mollie is be applauded for the clever, relevant and hilarious title of this post. Catering? Wedding? Get it?! I’m nominating it for a “Postie”, the annual Blog Post Title Award.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Mark had a great headline the other day, too….

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3567

  • Thomas

    Mollie is absolutely right in this point. The “aggrieved party” tone of these SSM articles are blatantly slanted, and the bias is undisguised.

    Why shouldn’t they be? In particular, why shouldn’t they be when more and more people think that one side of this argument has more merit than the other?

    It’s a wee tad disingenuous to suggest that journalists and reporters shouldn’t allow their own views to color what they write, as long as they commit to getting the facts correct. The notion that all media coverage must present both sides of a controversial issue as having equal merit is preposterous. It doesn’t work that way because both sides of this particular issue do NOT deserve equal weight. And, this is why we have Fox, and Drudge, and The Conservative Voice.

    I mean, you do have David Benkof, a self described “gay man who supports traditional marriage” writing for MSM outlets like the NY Post. But dig past the surface and you find a self-loathing guy with a very clear anti-gay agenda. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Benkof

    Can the anti-SSM camp do better? They really kind of need to if they hope to prevail.

  • Dave

    Stephen A. (#9) writes:

    [...T]he “it’s not fair” argument is also incredibly weak for the pro-SSM side, and yet, the media has championed it.

    When the pro-SSM side goes to court, it argues that the state should not discriminate as to sexual orientation. That can hardly be called a weak argument; it’s won cases.

    The media could improve the quality of the discussion by mentioning this when it covers the story.

  • Stephen A.

    Why shouldn’t they be? [i.e. biased and slanted] In particular, why shouldn’t they be when more and more people think that one side of this argument has more merit than the other?

    I urge you to grab a dictionary and look up the words “journalism” and “bias”.

    The twain should never meet. NEVER.

    What you’re describing is being an OPINION EDITOR or a COLUMNIST. Get it right. Learn the difference.

  • Stephen A.

    Further, Thomas wrote:

    It’s a wee tad disingenuous to suggest that journalists and reporters shouldn’t allow their own views to color what they write, as long as they commit to getting the facts correct.

    We see from the lying stats and celebratory storylines that “facts” on the SSM issue are being twisted into something quite different, and quite dangerous: propaganda and demonization of the Anti’s. No, give me balance and FACTS about both sides of the issue, not unilateral decisions by reporters and editors to make their papers into platforms for advocacy campaigns.

    What Thomas is saying here scares the crap out of me, and is very dangerous thinking.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave writes:

    When the pro-SSM side goes to court, it argues that the state should not discriminate as to sexual orientation. That can hardly be called a weak argument; it’s won cases.

    The term “discrimination” in this case is entirely based on the idea that “we can’t do it, and that’s not fair.” The word “fair” is explicitly cited in the ruling. It’s the basis for all arguments on the pro-SSM side.

    Given that, it’s an enormously weak argument, since a lot of things in the law are ‘unfair’ including telling kids under 21 they can’t drink, not allowing cousins to marry, and saying that pre-teens can’t have sex with college students. Unfairness alone is therefore NOT a moral argument, and surely not a basis for our laws. (That’s not to say there aren’t some GREAT legal arguments in favor of SSM. I’d be open to reading about them.)

    If reporters starting advocating for pre-teen sex rights, resorting to front-page sob stories about broken-up love affairs and the yearnings of young people’s hearts being stifled by the mean old legal system – because such laws are “unfair” – it would be a moral outrage, even if nutty, mushy-headed judges were moved to rule in their favor based on such a poor guide as “public sentiment.”

    It would also be a purely emotion-based argument, not an appeal to reason. Reporters should sort out the reason from the emotion (not to sound too Vulcan about this, but) because emotion alone can lead to flawed judgment. And flawed Judgments.

  • Dave

    Stephen, I’m still pulling from my hair the stuffing of the straw men you’ve slain here.

    First you twist the actual argument used successfully by marriage equity advocates in court into your caricature of that argument, and kill that straw man.

    Then you invent another possible application of your caricature and terminate that straw man, too.

    And finally you criticize journalists for not constructing the issue your way, and slay straw man number three.

    Whoops, found another piece of straw…

  • Thomas

    Media coverage of the Loving v. VA case was pretty biased in favor of allowing them to stay married, despite public opinion polls to the contrary. Gradually, public opinion turned the other way, and today, few but the most virulent bigots care if blacks and whites marry. And the result? Barack Obama, Halle Berry, and Lenny Kravitz. Hard to argue with success.

    That’s the direction this is going, Stephen. I’m sorry it scares you, but it just is how it should be.

  • Thomas

    FYI – check out this MSM piece. I think he’s got the issue down cold.

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/article?f=/g/a/2008/06/11/notes061108.DTL

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, no straw men were harmed in the formation of my post.

    It’s probably just a bit too painful for you to see the “equity” argument deconstructed to its basic, and very flawed, position: that it should be legal because it’s unfair. Mere unfairness is, I say it again, is not legal proof of discrimination, since many of our laws are “unfair” or seem so at first blush, and without proper analysis of all the facts.

    I want the press to be even handed in presenting pro-SSM arguments, but also fairly present the anti-SSM points, too. That is NOT happening. Most of what we’re seeing, as in this piece, is puffery, emotionalism, slanted stats and “that’s not fair!” dramas.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Thomas,

    How can you not tell the difference between op-ed (and extreme op-ed at that) and mainstream media news? Seriously . . . Mark Morford????

    Stephen and Dave,

    You both may be interested in the latest post on same-sex marriage and opposition to same — it deals in part with the “that’s not fair” argument.

  • Thomas

    Mollie, Morford’s piece is no more larded with op-ed than your coverage of this issue. Snark undermines your point.

  • Dave

    Stephen A. (#19) writes:

    Mere unfairness is, I say it again, is not legal proof of discrimination, since many of our laws are “unfair” or seem so at first blush, and without proper analysis of all the facts.

    You can say it any number of times (and you have) but that doesn’t make it valid. The legal fact is that sexual orientation is becoming a suspect category, one in which any kind of discrimination is given strict scrutiny for a vital state purpose. Gender is treated the same way; if a situation under law gives rise to an “it isn’t fair” complaint realtive to how the sexes are treated, that complaint has a good chance of being legally valid. And the mainstream media know this.

    Your criticism of the media is hampered by your inability to recognize that “it isn’t fair” can be a legally compelling argument relative to a suspect category even if it isn’t in a schoolyard.

    Mollie: I’ve read the piece you referred to, thanks very much. I’ve sometimes wondered what natural law arguments had evolved into in an age when we’re more strictly observing separation of church and state.

    I would have to judge that the natural-law argument would not survive the strict scrutiny I referred to above. If the more relaxed standard of “reasonable relationship” between the law and some state interest were applied, it might, but not strict scrutiny.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, your contention of the legal facts are vigorously disputed and are NOT (by a longshot) universally accepted, let alone settled law, so they don’t really hold water in a discussion about media bias.

    Further, the media who are regurgitating the Gay Rights Movement’s talking points are NOT going into these legal niceties (wisely, perhaps) but are instead painting Norman Rockwell images of happy, contented gay families who are saying, at the core of these stories, that it’s simply unfair for them not to be able to marry.

    To claim that this isn’t the case, despite the example posted in the original post here and many, many more elsewhere, is to ignore this blindingly obvious media bias that needs to be rectified.

  • Dave

    Stephen:

    Let’s get back to basics. You described “it’s not fair” as a weak argument. I replied that, properly forumulated, it was strong enough to prevail in two state supreme courts. You’ve been trying to rebut that response with everything but the kitchen sink, and your wheels are still spinning.

    Perhaps the Norman Rockwell images of gay marrieds represent bias, but isn’t it also possible that in these first years of gay marriage anywhere, we’re dealing with the crazy-in-love couples who’ve been waiting for this opportunity to cement their unions?

    Give it a while. My suspicion is that human nature will out, a spurt of “gay divorce” stories will become the next hot thing in a couple of years, and then you’ll have the other side claiming it’s being unfairly represented.

  • Stephen A.

    Dave, many Norman Rockwell images were put to use as propaganda, and the same is true now, that’s why vigilence is needed when writing, and reading, the often overly emotional media stories about gay marriage.

    I’m not spinning my wheels, you – and many in the media – are simply asserting things about homosexuality that are untrue and unproven, and are far from settled law. Those assertions should be challenged by reporters, not repeated from the pro-SSM talking points so often that they appear to be settled facts.

    There have already been some gay divorce stories (at least here in New England) the latest being a couple who got married in Mass. who are trying to divorce in Connecticut, where they have no gay marriage. Appeals through the courts there (where judges say there is no law in CT for either gay divorce or marriage) could force that state to adopt gay marriage. This confirms conservative fears that this could force gay marriage on the rest of the nation, “like it or not” as San Fran’s mayor has said.

    This seems to be all about forcing others to respect gay sexuality by forcing a completely new social construct onto society in as little time as possible.


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