Cruising for critical coverage

Norwegian Dawn   Miami 2002Sometimes I joke that mainstream media cheerleads so much for same-sex marriage that they seem to be trying to convince readers and viewers that same-sex marriage is better than traditional marriage.

And sometimes it’s not a joke — particularly with the New York Times. Last month I highlighted a piece from Tara Parker-Pope that argued that same-sex couples “have a great deal to teach everyone else about marriage and relationships.”

That story ran almost four years after New York Times public editor Daniel Okrent eviscerated his paper’s handling of the same-sex marriage issue. I’ll repost a few paragraphs:

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ”For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy” (March 19); that the family of ”Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home” (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ”Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes” (Jan. 30). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

It goes one from there. Anyway, I thought of Okrent’s words when I read a piece in the Times yesterday that presented, as he put it, the “social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading.” Apparently the Times doesn’t care to look at the same-sex marriage issue in any different way. The article, by Ariel Kaminer, is about how the gay family cruises run by Rosie and Kelli O’Donnell handle on-board entertainment. Here’s a sample:
rosie mag

Wearing T-shirts and Crocs, straining at their waistbands and beginning to contemplate middle age, they might have passed for the guests on any other cruise. If, that is, they were not quite so wholesome, so relentlessly focused on being good parents and raising happy kids. At the dock, the ship seemed to serve as a kind of reverse quarantine, a metal container moored off 12th Avenue to prevent the passengers’ expansive child-friendly values from wiping out New York’s social ecology.

That’s how the whole article goes, written as if the experience on the cruise is nothing but lollipops and rainbows. I have never seen so many positive words per paragraph since I received the Ricky Schroeder Fan Club newsletter. (Feel free to make fun of me, but Silver Spoons was good television.) Seriously — after talking about how everyone gets into the spirit of helping and how this cruise is the only place in the world where nobody is judged, the reporter quotes Seth Rudetsky, the musical director for the cruise’s entertainment:

Mr. Rudetsky was more emphatic. “It’s the greatest entertainment in the world,” he said. Add in the cruise’s inclusive spirit, and, he said: “It’s like, what if the world were perfect? And the taste is just so amazing. In part because it’s my taste.”

It would be one thing if Purity Balls were covered this way. But if they’re not — they’re not and neither should they be — why the double standard? Heavy-hitting coverage and a critical eye are good things, not bad things — for everyone. It’s okay to discuss potential downsides to gay marriage, as Okrent wrote in his 2004 piece. He noted that other papers had run stories that gave more rounded coverage to the effects of same-sex marriage. Here’s how he ended that piece:

On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning

What’s happened in the last four years at the Times? Why is coverage still so one-dimensional? Is it the same fear that the New York Times value system can’t withstand the scrutiny? What can be done to give us better, more complex, more diverse, coverage of same-sex marriage?

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  • Michael

    Do people turn to the Arts section for deep analysis of same-sex marriage? This was in the Arts section, not the news pages. If it had been in the news section or the editorial pages, your complaint would be valid. But its a fluff piece in the entertainment section. Was the reporter obligated to call Maggie Gallagher or the Archbishop of New York to comment on an entertainment piece?

    If that’s the standard, should the entertainment pages contact athiests to critique the Christian values in a story about WALL-E? About the next Tyler Perry movie?

  • saint

    More advocacy posing as journalism. One should also recall Camille Paglia’s words a few years ago about The Gay Inquisition and the media’s complicity in it. Now in epidemic proportions.

  • Michael

    I’d add that for an advocacy piece about same-sex marriage, it does a pretty lousy job given that the term isn’t even mentioned or barely referred to. It talks about LGBT families, which I guess needs to be countered with quotes from James Dobson talking about the horrors of same-sex parenting in order for it to be considered balanced.

    I’m curious what would have been required to make the story more acceptable? or what counter Entertainment story about the objections to gay and lesbian people having children would make an appropriate counterpoint and pass the GetReligion non-cheerleading test?

    Or is any Entertainment story about gay people that doesn’t include comments from James Dobson or the archdiocese now considered cheerleading?

  • Dave

    There’s no religion ghost in this — no failure of the Times to Get Religion, only failure of the Times to see marriage equity the way conservatives do.

    As I’ve said before, conservative complaint boards are a dime a dozen in the blogosphere. A blog that consistently tackles authentic lapses in MSM religious coverage is a rarity. Please, GetReligionistas, don’t make it rarer.

  • Stephen A.

    YEAH! Gosh, Mollie, why are you DARING to ask for balance in coverage here? (/sarcasm)

  • Dan Crawford

    Unfortunately, neither Dave nor Michael would be convinced were a book-length catalog of cheerleading were given them.

    Be that as it may, the belief “that same-sex couples ‘have a great deal to teach everyone else about marriage and relationships’” was actually anticipated in a 1994 “teaching document” on human sexuality given to the world by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church. Among the gems in that document, the HOB asserted that gay relationships had much to teach heterosexuals about “sex-roles in marriage”, quoting no less an authority than a New Jersey newspaper’s interview with a gay activist-professor in a New Jersey college. Say something, keep repeating it and it becomes an “obvious truth”. The NY Times is not the only offender – I’d urge anyone to spend one night watching television and list the “truths” about same-sex relationships accepted as “self-evident” by entertainment and news programs.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MZ’s comparison with the purity ball coverage is spot on.

    If you can find balance and debate there, as would be proper, I imagine there are people who would take Rosie on in this debate.

  • http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com Eve Tushnet

    Michael, I’d say it’s more about which stories aren’t being covered, you know? Or which stories are considered appropriate for fluff pieces in the Entertainment section, and which are appropriate for newsier, more controversy-oriented coverage.

    You’re saying that once the decision is already made to put gay family cruises in the fluff-appropriate genre, controversy isn’t necessary. That makes sense–fluff and controversy are incompatible genres–but I think Mollie is questioning the decision to fluffify this story when, as she notes, “purity balls” (…meh) don’t get the same approach. I’m trying to picture a fluff-entertainment piece on e.g. an ex-lesbian’s wedding, a Courage outing (heh) to see an opera, or a fundraising banquet for a crisis pregnancy center, and… I just can’t see the NY Times going there, ever. (I’m ok with that because fluff bores me, but I would rather have no fluff than double-standard fluff.)

    And that really IS a journalism issue–which things are fluffy and which are newsy/controversial?

  • Darel

    Mollie, I take your final set of questions to be rhetorical. We of course all know that the elite American print media are among the most definitive supporters of the normalization of homosexuality imaginable, outside the staff of the Human Rights Campaign.

    A better question: Why take the Okrent ‘evisceration’ seriously? Is there any evidence that the Times’ public editor has any important role to play in advancing “balanced journalism” (his words) regarding homosexuality in his newspaper beyond that of internal gadfly and (perhaps unwitting) propaganda shill?

  • Dave

    Dan Crwford (#6) writes:

    Unfortunately, neither Dave nor Michael would be convinced were a book-length catalog of cheerleading were given them.

    I don’t need to be convinced of the MSM bias on this issue. That’s stipulated. What remains also clear is that this is a political bias. It is not a failure to “get religion,” whose discussion is the purpose (we are told) of this board.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Something can represent both political bias and religious bias. This is all theology of the body stuff. Just because some people look at this from a secular standpoint doesn’t mean that the issue isn’t fraught with religious subtext.

    I get and respect that you don’t look at this as a religious or religious ghost story. But try and see that many, many, many others do.

    There are always going to be topics that readers care more about than others. There are always going to be topics that some see more religion in than others (As you may have noticed, I’m less likely than my colleagues to see religion in political stories, which comprise most of our posts!) But these larger topics of sex, sexuality, marriage, family, etc. are actually some of the most popular in terms of reader submissions and discussions.

    I think these debates are valuable and very important for the mainstream media to get and learn from.

  • Verily

    Here we go again.

    What’s happened in the last four years at the Times? Why is coverage still so one-dimensional?

    Since many religions deal in the language of universal truth, why do they get so upset when an engine of pluralistic society asserts that they believe a different universal truth?

    Is it the same fear that the New York Times value system can’t withstand the scrutiny?

    Do the religious have a fear that their value system cannot withstand the scrutiny that a positive presentation of gay couples and their families present? After all, if one holds that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” and “drawn toward a particular moral evil”, and evidence to the contrary is presented, surely the truth will out, no?

    Or is that the problem?

    What can be done to give us better, more complex, more diverse, coverage of same-sex marriage?

    I don’t know. Perhaps we could give the religious, such as Dobson, Phelps, Falwell, Coulter, The Pope, and Tony Perkins a forum in which to speak and be quoted on the subject. They all are frequently quoted in the MSM. Then the MSM could present a counterpoint in the form of Rosie/Kelli stories.

    Isn’t that what’s already happening, though?

  • Michael

    I’d note that Banerjee’s purity ball piece, in the news section, was written uncritically and didn’t include any dissenters or critics. In that way, it was quite similar to this Arts piecce . . . except it was actually in the News portion of the NYT.

    Purtity Balls are controversial, advancing a prevention approach that appears to be unseuccessful as public health. Pretty controversial, but no critic was mentioned or quoted.

  • Michael

    An additional point. A constant complaint about coverage of gay and lesbian people is the idea that normal things like taking a cruise are controversial and therefore needs a dissenting voice–like Maggie Gallagher or Eve Tushnet or James Dobson–to tsk tsk over the spectacle of people going on a cruise.

    Imagine if every story about African Americans required a dissenting voice criticizing civil rights. Imagine if every story about Evangelicals rquired a dissenting voice by athiests criticizing religion.

    So the question is when can a story about gay and lesbian people run in the Arts section without needing a quote from the paid opponents of gay rights? Is the fact that a small number of religious conservatives afeel “normalization” is a threat justification for viewing gay and lesbian people having children so controversial it needs a dissenting voice in an Arts story?

    I understand the concern about cheerleading and it is something the media needs to be concerned with, but this story and a single story about social science data seem to present a pretty weak case for cheerleading over same-sex marriage at the NYT.

  • Daniel Okrent

    Given that I’m quoted here to support criticism of the piece about O’Donnell’s cruise, let me say offer two thoughts:
    1. The Times’s coverage of this issue has improved vastly since I wrote my piece four years ago. It has a way to go, but any fairminded CONSISTENT reader of the paper would have to recognize that it has published many, many articles that have taken a dispassionate, non-cheerleading view of issues relating to gay marriage. I stress “CONSISTENT” because looking at a single article cannot provide any real perspective on a paper’s coverage policies or attitudes; it’s the coverage over time that matters.
    2. I thought Kaminer’s piece, given it’s appearance in the Arts pages and its feature-ish tone, was perfectly fine. The commenters who make this distinction are absolutely right to view this piece in its context, which is hardly one that calls for the sort of balance an anti-gay-marriage interviewee (Dobson, etc.) might offer. Additionally, the bemusement and irony in Kaminer’s tone seem evident to me.

  • Dave

    Mollie (#11), if you want to cite theology of the body in every story about gay couples’ cruises, then you have to bring it into every engagement or wedding announcement in the Times Sunday Styles back pages, and every coverage of a rape case.

    Fine. Here’s my theology of the body as it pertains to this article: This “cheerleading” is in fact welcoming into human society people who have unjustly been cast into the shadows for too long, in part because of homophobia in religion. I see this as an unalloyed good. I regard this view as reflective of the fact that I have moral discernment. I’m sorry if some GetReligionistas don’t, and can only see liberal bias, but that’s not my problem.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Mr. Okrent,

    To your first point — I am a very consistent reader of the New York Times. However, I wasn’t a media critic at the time you wrote your column. I wasn’t paying attention to overall Times coverage of issues surrounding homosexuality in any consistent manner. Perhaps the coverage has improved greatly. If so, I can’t imagine what it was like before. A quick survey of my New York Times analysis since December 2005 does not paint a good picture.

    There was the 8,000-word mash note to gay parenting that appeared in Nov. 2006. In the same month, I mentioned the appearance of same-sex marriage announcements in the Times. I looked at a March 2007 story in the Times about how normal polygamy is. I thought a positive story on gay Muslims didn’t include enough religious discussion. In addition to the first mention I gave of that “heterosexual couples have a lot to learn from gay couples” piece, I noted another positive piece the Times ran at the same time on four gay couples who were married in Massachusetts when that commonwealth legalized same-sex marriage.

    I also gave better marks to other stories. One looking at Chemistry.com’s ad campaign — which had some same-sex issues. The coverage of an academic battle between a Northwestern psychologist who had written critically about transgendered men and his opponents. I looked at a piece on gay people who oppose gay marriage. I thought this piece on evangelicals who identify as homosexual was good. I thought this huge, photo-driven piece on how normal and boring young, gay marrieds was pretty good, even if it was blatant advocacy.

    That’s just some of my analysis of the Times. My colleagues may have also had other criticisms.

    As to your second point, are you sure you meant to say that Kaminer’s piece was ironic? Are you suggesting that she didn’t mean to present the cruisegoers as attentive or loving parents, etc? I hope that’s not the case. I have trouble believing she was being ironic.

    The only person who has suggested that this piece needed James Dobson is a commenter who was putting forth a particularly weak straw man argument. Asking for less of a cheerleading tone — unless, as you suggest, Kaminer meant to suggest these cruisegoers were actually bad parents — is not too much.

    Perhaps you can point us to the New York Times coverage you think has done a particularly good job of balancing out the debate since you addressed it in 2004.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    By the way, overly mean comments are deleted, particularly ad hominem attacks. People with sense will not be surprised that I don’t particularly like hosting ad hominem attacks against me. We can disagree — firmly even. But we remain civil.

    Be nice or go to those other parts of the blogosphere where nasty comments are rewarded. Thanks.

  • http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com Eve Tushnet

    Michael, point taken re: the tone of the “purity ball” piece. I didn’t remember it well enough. I would certainly not have minded criticism within the piece itself.

    Your second post reinforces my point: One’s underlying beliefs affect which stories one considers fluff-oriented rather than controversy-oriented.

  • cheryl

    To Mr. Okrent’s comment that the “bemusement and irony in Kaminer’s tone seem evident,” I must confess that I had a completely different impression.

    Here’s a representative excerpt:

    “…She may not have single-handedly saved Broadway, as folks on the ship like to say she did by featuring it on her talk show, but for one week at a stretch she does seem to have inspired an alternate universe of family values, where people fight for the chance to adopt children of all races and needs, where they stand in line to be bound by the vows of marriage (a nice Canadian souvenir), where lesbians in the karaoke bar un-self-consciously request Eminem songs, and where — at the disco, late at night — a brawny man who drops to the ground to feel for a missing tooth isn’t the victim of a bar fight. He’s a dad, and his daughter is waiting for a visit from the tooth fairy….”

    That last line made MY teeth hurt.

    Or is that an example of Kaminer’s “ironic and bemusing” tone?

    Sorry, it read like one long Valentine to me.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Michael, I understand what you wrote about expecting anything but fluff in the art pages, but why shouldn’t we expect good journalism in the whole paper? Is it too much to ask?

  • Dave

    Mollie,

    You haven’t deleted any of my posts yet, for meanness or any other reason, but there is a real hazard out there. How can I put this delicately enough not to get spiked?

    Although in disagreement with your general orientation I have come to your defense in a generic sense against charges of using religion as a front for personal homophobia in criticism of gay marriage. A poster to Jason Pitzl-Water’s blog made that accusation in a general manner, and I shot back with your explanation of the Orthodox meaning of marriage, along with an admonition against assuming what is in other people’s minds.

    However, if someone used the instant post on the cruise-ship article to mount a similar accusation against you, I would be hard-put to defend you. I could use your earlier explanation on your behalf, but if I didn’t know about that my hands would be tied. The article is so trivial, and your critique so ponderous, I would be unable to mount a defense.

    As long as you use terms like “religiously fraught” and “theology of the body” to excuse your conversion of conservative complaints into get-religion posts, there are no brakes on this slide into the trivial. I’m relatively new to this board and generally enjoy it; I would hate to see that happen.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dave,

    Mostly you handle it just like you did! The only thing I might say is that it’s important to not question anybody’s motivations. There is just no way you can know what is inside anybody’s heart. You can’t know “why” they’re writing what they’re writing. So just stick with the facts. You disagree with what I wrote — for these reasons. Not you think I’m evil and trying to destroy all people who love differently than me because I’m sexually repressed and full of hate or what have you.

    I like it when people disagree here on GetReligion. It’s what makes this board such a learning experience. I just like that we all treat each other nicely. Even on hot button topics.

    I cringe when I read so many other comment boards — like the ones reference in Terry’s post on commenting. We have been struggling with that more here recently but we still have great commenters from all across the spectrum.

    In fact, I think we have some of the most thoughtful and commenters in the blogosphere.

    Anyway, if there were one piece of advice I’d learned over my years in debate it’s “don’t question people’s motivations.” Nothing good ever comes from that.

  • Jimmy Mac

    Verily I say unto you, Verily: you go, person!

  • Sarah Webber

    Mollie and Dave,

    I think it would be easier to say that many believers in orthodox Christianity would classify homosexual behavior as sinful and as SSM celebrates homosexual behavior, literally, it is an issue fraught with religious ghosts. My objection to SSM is for that reason. I object to adultery for the same reason. However, adultery is legal in civilian life here in the US (I believe it is still illegal in the military). Legal or not, I consider adultery to be immoral. IF SSM becomes legal (this is a democracy and if a majority of Americans believe it should be, eventually I expect it will), I can accept that, but that will hardly change the morality of it from my Christian perspective. And that’s why, Dave, it will always have religious overtones, from my point of view, and, I will hazard, from Mollie’s as well.

  • Dave

    Sarah:

    Of course it has religious overtones. My positive opinion about it is rooted in part in my native sense of justice and in part in the moral sense of my Unitarian Universalist faith, which has nurtured my sense of justice.

    But the fact that the subject raises religious responses from both of us does not mean that, if the coverage fails to honor that, it is a failure to “get religion.” In the instance, the mainstream media aren’t ignorant of your opinion; they simply don’t share it. It’s not the same as, eg, writing about the number of Anglicans in the world without having any idea what that number is.

  • Sarah Webber

    Dave,

    Your reply got me thinking. I appreciate that you allow me a difference of opinion on religious grounds but I don’t sense I would receive that kind of grace from the MSM. The general attitude I observe is that religious objections to SSM = bigotry. Perhaps I could use this example: a dear friend of mine had an abortion last year, which rather shocked and unsettled me as I put abortion in my immoral category along with adultery and homosexual behavior. It took me a few days to settle it within myself that I did not love her any less for her action, that I could and did forgive her, which is why she probably felt she could confide in me in the first place. I want and strive to be the person who “hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Perhaps, Dave, what both of us want is a far more nuanced take on the subject which the MSM fails, for the most part, to provide.

  • Dave

    Perhaps, Dave, what both of us want is a far more nuanced take on the subject which the MSM fails, for the most part, to provide.

    For the moment, Sarah, I would be happier if the MSM gave any coverage at all to the Unitarian Universalist take on things. Despite the fact that, technically, every utterance of the UU Association is the product of a committee, we do have a thought-out basis for the positions we take. And we are generally ahead of larger denominations that get coverage when they declare their pews open to “out” BGLTs or ordain a lesbian minister.

    A case in point, expanded on in another thread on this board, is the (as far as I can tell) complete lack of coverage of why UU ministers stepped into the breach when Kern County CA officials announced they would issue marriage licenses to all couples but not perform weddings for anyone. And I would like to have seen more notice that the first gay wedding in the country, in Mass, was performed by the President of the UUA.

    At one time I did not care as much, but that was before the right-wing religious view of things got so much ink.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    So, it was OK when Frank Rich was having his weekly anti-Bush tirades printed in the “Arts and Entertainment” section, because that automatically made them “fluff”?

  • Dave

    Will:

    Rich’s stuff was never fluff, and was clearly opinion, not coverage. He was moved to “Week in Review” because his stuff fit in better there.

    I was always impressed by his ability to hang his opinion on some arts/entertainment hook, but that didn’t make it a review column.