Resigned to partial coverage

As I read The New York Times’ somewhat celebratory coverage about the first legal same-sex marriages in the Empire State, I sensed that everyone was happy, save those predictable few cranks from the Westboro church.

Among the happy were judges and clerks who came in on their day off to officiate at these history-making unions, which led me to imagine that had I been the editor in charge, I would have asked the scribes in the trenches: Were there any clerks who weren’t happy about their broader duties?

A few taps of the keys took me to a July 13 story by the Times‘ Thomas Kaplan, who answered the question.

Laura L. Fotusky, the town clerk in Barker, N.Y., a small community north of Binghamton, looked at the calendar, looked at her Bible and knew what she had to do.

She drafted a letter to the Town Board and said she would resign on July 21, three days before same-sex marriage becomes legal, because she could not in good conscience issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

“I believe that there is a higher law than the law of the land,” she wrote. “It is the law of God in the Bible.”

Ms. Fotusky’s resignation is the starkest illustration yet that the same-sex marriage debate, although settled in Albany, is continuing to roil New York.

In his well-reported piece, Kaplan included a discussion about the potential effect of the law on people like businessman “Clifton S. McLaughlin, 45, the president of Christian DJ Enterprises in the Bronx, who said in an interview that while no same-sex couples had inquired yet about his services, he would decline their business if any did.”

“I would just let them know that I love them as God’s creation,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “but based on my Christian faith and my belief in God and what the Bible teaches, I cannot and I don’t support gay lifestyles.”

At least two other clerks found the new law at odds with their faith-based conscience. In the July 19 edition of the Post Standard in Syracuse, Paul Riede wrote about one of them:

Ruth Sheldon was knee deep in work Monday. As town clerk in Granby, she was busy with the census of the town’s dogs.

… “I’m getting so many distractions from these reporters and so forth that are calling, and I have an enormous amount of work to do,” she said.

The reporters weren’t interested in the dog census. They were calling about her decision to resign her post rather than honor the state’s same-sex marriage law. Her last day is Saturday — the day before the law goes into effect.

Every time the phone rang, Sheldon, 65, had to shift gears from counting dogs to discussing matters of law and faith. Like the other 931 town clerks across the state, she is suddenly on the front lines of an issue that is drawing international attention.

So we know some were out there, and we know what they were thinking before July 24. But I couldn’t find either of their names in the Times‘ coverage of the day. How about vignettes about how each of the women spent her day?

I referred to the Times‘ coverage as celebratory, a conclusion that I’m not alone in drawing. In a 2004 piece, Daniel Okrent, former (and first) Times ombudsman, concluded that the Times reported about the same-sex marriage issue “in a tone that approaches cheerleading.”

A slice from the lives of the civil servants who stood their ground on conscience would not have been rain on the parade and might have blunted the perception that the Times was the head cheerleader for the event. Once again, the goal is more voices, more points of view. In other words, diversity. In other words, journalism.

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  • Dave G.

    What I noticed was Ruth Sheldon. Knee deep in work. In other words, she just didn’t say the heck with it and lounge around complaining, or just walk away. She quit, but is working hard to finish the tasks at hand – tasks she wouldn’t have to care about once she leaves. Don’t know why, but that just hit me – a person obviously with a strong conviction on other things and not just this one issue.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com GCT

    So, a bad or unbalanced article is one that describes what happened and talks to only gay marriage proponents, while a good article is one where the author only discusses the complaints of those against gay marriage?

  • Julia

    Since there is a tendency to equate the push for same-sex marriage to civil rights for African-Americans in the 60s, I’m wondering how articles in the 60s described passage of the Voting Rights Act,etc. Were opponents interviewed neutrally as as well as proponents? How was it different in the various areas of the country?

    Were election clerks in the South asked how they felt about having to register African Americans without literacy tests, etc. that had been barriers?

    I’m asking since I don’t think on-line newspaper records go back that far.

  • Dave G.

    GCT,

    I think the point was that it would have been nice to have the stories in this article included in the NYT’s coverage of the topic.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    GCT:

    Where the heckfire did you get that? The whole point of the post was to create a variety of stories about a variety of people.

    This is a pro-journalism site. Get used to diversity.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    GCT’s point–I suspect; GCT is obviously entitled to correct me–is that, since same-sex marriage is seen by the core demographics of the NYT’s readership a a clear civil rights victory, paying attention to people so opposed to this victory that they’re willing to forego their jobs isn’t worth it. “Some people hate gays so much that they’re willing to quite rather than do their jobs. Are we supposed to be surprised?”

    Canadian and American constitutional law may differ, or may not, but here in Canada it has been established that if a civil servant does want to perform his/her function for a client on account of any of their personal characteristics–gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, race, etc–they’re guilty of discrimination and either have to change or leave their job. American law may differ. (May.)

    I disagree with GCT’s attitude, if only because I think thoroughness to be a good thing. The NYT’s lack of coverage does not correspond to a lack of media attention generally–conservative media have paid quite a lot of attention to these issues.

  • James

    Inasmuch as the article about Ms. Fotusky comes from the NY Times, it is a bit much of accusing the NY Times of ignoring her.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    In every time and every place, Caesar demands his pinch of incense. Christians, and others, of course, will respond in a variety of ways: some will decide it’s not that important. They will go along and get along. Some, like Laura L. Fotusky, will rearrange their life to avoid the confrontation. Others will confront (perhaps like Clifton S. McLaughlin) and resist, with various consequences.

    All of these options will occur from a variety of motivations and within a variety of contexts. It should be a bonanza for journalists, if they can move beyond the cliches.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    Passing By, you may not understand that people who support same-sex marriage see it as a core human rights issue, just as people who support same-sex marriage may not see legitimate issues of conscience.

  • James

    What I see missing from the coverage is any probing as to why people like Ms. Fotusky who are resigning their positions so as not to have to sign a marriage certificate for people of the same sex don’t also resign when they are asked to sign marriage certificates between people of different religions or between atheists, or other people whose marriages are also not recognized by my Church or theirs? These are civil marriages not religious marriages. Wouldn’t this be a relevant question for a reporter to ask?

  • dalea

    Julia, from what I remember, newspaper coverage at the time did feature reports on public officials involved in registering voters etc. The difference was that in the South the actual registrars did not play that big a role, so the coverage focused more on city and county elected officials. These officials had much more control over registration with the actual registrars being just clerks. The coverage focused on passive resistance, I think that was the term. Yes, there was coverage back then of both sides.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Are you suggesting that the beliefs of the pro-gay marriage crowd should control journalistic practice and only that side should be covered?

  • dalea

    What is unclear from the articles is whether the clerks are elected officials or employees. A comment points to election, but the story itself is unclear. Would this make a difference in the coverage?

  • Dave G.

    I’m not sure I can agree with the idea that the NYT shouldn’t bother with the other view since most NYT readers accept gay marriage. First, not all do. Do they count for anything in the news cycle, or do news agencies merely tell the stories that the majority wants to hear? Second, not too many decades ago, the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t have come close to accepting gay marriage, and in fact until recently, the majority didn’t. Yet it seems that from the beginning, various news organizations were covering things like the relatively small percentage of Americans who thought homosexuals should have the same rights as others. So the idea that coverage and reporting is based on what the majority believes doesn’t seem to square with what I’ve seen happen in other instances. At least in times past.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Almost all the news stories I read in the MSM before the vote on gay “marriage” emphasised that noone except gays would be affected by changes in the law. As usual such turned out to be a Big Lie on behalf of a liberal position.

    The discussion in the media about who else might be affected by the change in the law should have been covered and discussed BEFORE the vote in NY was taken. …

  • Jerry

    J. Calvin, I don’t have a comment on the topic but welcome to the fray. You made some good points with your first posting. As you can see, fireproof clothing is very helpful when tackling controversial subjects.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com R.F. McDonald

    Dalea: “Julia, from what I remember, newspaper coverage at the time did feature reports on public officials involved in registering voters etc. The difference was that in the South the actual registrars did not play that big a role, so the coverage focused more on city and county elected officials.”

    Was there much coverage in the media of civic officials who would lose personally through their continued opposition to the extension of the franchise, though?

    Dave: “I’m not sure I can agree with the idea that the NYT shouldn’t bother with the other view since most NYT readers accept gay marriage. First, not all do. Do they count for anything in the news cycle, or do news agencies merely tell the stories that the majority wants to hear?”

    Good point. I myself am in favour of covering the stories of these people for the sake of thoroughness. Others, I suppose, don’t think that there’s much to be gained from reporting on the belief systems of people who–protests aside–really don’t like gays. I respect the emotion, but not this implementation. …

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com GCT

    tmatt,
    How laughable. This is a pro-journalism site insofar as it advocates for more pro-Xian journalism, which is quite apparent. You’re not looking for balance or truth and facts. You’re looking for articles to present your specific biases.

    Why should the NYT grant space to a bigot that would rather quit her job than allow for equal rights. There were people who probably quit rather than give marriage licenses to mixed race couples too. Should we be celebrating their “strong convictions” too? Or does it only count when it’s a bigoted stance that you happen to agree with?

    And, diversity? Really? The article you laud is uniformly about how these poor people are being oppressed by allowing others to have the same rights as them. Oh, woe is them. Would you laud a similar article about the plight of the white man that had interviews from KKK members? Sorry, but your stance of hiding behind so-called journalistic diversity is less convincing than the wizard behind the curtain.

  • Julia

    GCT:

    News articles aren’t supposed to be celebrating the interviewees on either side of an issue – at least not in the hard news section.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com GCT

    Admittedly, the “celebrating” is only implied in the OP, while some of the comments are pretty explicit about it.

    Still, the point remains.

    A) An “article” (did anyone notice it was a blog post) was put forth as bad journalism because it didn’t include any dissenting voices.
    B) Another article was put forth as good journalism because it included dissenting voices (and only dissenting voices).
    C) The OP then goes on to talk about how articles should be focusing on the dissenting voices in the interest of “diversity.”

    This makes a mockery of the word diversity, just as interviewing KKK members for their opinions on legal cases involving affirmative action would. It’s bigotry plain and simple and I see no reason for a serious publication to pay it any mind, just as I wouldn’t expect to see holocaust deniers given column space or KKK members.

  • john

    tmatt,
    How laughable. This is a pro-journalism site insofar as it advocates for more pro-Xian journalism, which is quite apparent. You’re not looking for balance or truth and facts. You’re looking for articles to present your specific biases.–GCT

    And your website is called Why I Hate Jesus…’nuff said.

  • Dave G.

    FWIW, I’m having a time figuring out what part of Julia’s statement:

    News articles aren’t supposed to be celebrating the interviewees on either side of an issue – at least not in the hard news section.

    was found to be problematic. I mean, really? We want advocacy journalism? What could that lone Dislike be thinking? I know I’m curious.

  • Dave G.

    Heh. I love the fact that I asked what that lone dislike on Julia’s post was thinking about fair coverage by journalists – and got a Dislike! That made me smile.

  • EpiscoPal

    Clifton McLaughin says:

    “I would just let them know that I love them as God’s creation,” Mr. McLaughlin said, “but based on my Christian faith and my belief in God and what the Bible teaches, I cannot and I don’t support gay lifestyles.”

    I wonder why the reporter did not seek clarification as to why Mr. McLaughlin sees the marital state as a “lifestyle” rather than a life, as in “married life”. It’s not splitting hairs to say that a lifestyle is easily changed, like eating vegan food or driving a hybrid car or littering everywhere you go, whereas a life involves much more commitment. The characterization of gay coples seeking legal recognition for a solid committed relationship is hardly – to me – a “lifestyle”. And yet no one wants to know whay McLaughlin thinks it is.

  • Dave G.

    EpiscoPal,

    The term ‘lifestyle’ probably meant the ‘gay lifestyle’ in the first place. Though you’re right, clarification wouldn’t have hurt. It’s a phrase used by those who don’t accept the views behind non-heterosexual normality to distinguish from those who tend to equate being homosexual as something being beyond choice. That’s probably what she meant, though as you say, we don’t actually know and she could have been focusing on gay marriage as a lifestyle.

  • Julia

    Re: Lifestyle.

    I’m ancient enough to remember when Lifestyle was first used as the new name of the newspaper section about social events, food, diet, clothes, furniture, decoration, etc. that used to be called the Women’s Section. That was in the early 70s, if I remember correctly.

    Instead of everybody wanting pretty much the same things in their material life and accepting a common social scene, this new name of “lifestyle” would now recognize earth mothers, early American, modern, European, working mom, stay at home mom, etc. ways of living life. I was an earth mother back then, raising sheep for their wool to be used in weaving, baking my own bread and raising children in the country with no neighbors.

    Over the years this term “lifestyle” transformed into a lot of confusing things that I still don’t understand. Sometimes I see it used and can’t figure out what the writer is trying to get across. It has gone beyond a newspaper section.

  • Julia

    BTW I brought up the voting registration clerks because I saw Condoleeza Rice talk about her father deciding his political affiliation as a result of which clerk would allow him to register to vote. It seemed that the clerks in the South back then

    had some freedom of action.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    My gay friends use the term “lifestyle” freely, as in “the gay lifestyle”, “I’m open about my lifestyle”,”I’m came out to the parents about my lifestyle”, and so on. In fact, I picked up using the term (in this context) from them and am always amused by objections from gay apologists.

  • Dave G.

    Passing By,

    Interesting point. Sometimes I think the big problem with the media is the tendency to reduce everything to cardboard cutouts, two groups where one has stars on their bellies, and one doesn’t. If there are gay folks who don’t mind the word ‘lifestyle’, I’d never know it based on the debates I’ve watched and read. Usually, it’s ‘Homophobes use lifestyle, tolerant people don’t', with gay apologists, as you say, being the ones objecting to the term every time. I sometimes wonder just how diverse the gay community really is. I sometimes wonder just how diverse those who don’t accept non-heterosexual normality really are. Maybe that’s a problem with the coverage right there.

  • dalea

    One of the problems with the press, which is frequently mentioned here, is its tendency to write about gay people while not speaking with gay people. And the religious press shows serious ignorance about us, which could be rectified by reading the gay press. There have been discussions of the use of lifestyle for 35 years that I am aware of. Rather than wonder, just check out what actual gay people have been saying on the subject.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    James: I don’t know of any “Church” which says that marriage between atheists or “people of different religions” are ipso facto not real marriage. They may not be CHRISTIAN (or Jewish) marriages, but they are marriages. Certainly Catholics would not take this stand, as marriage is NATURAL, not ecclesiastical law.

    Now if someone refused to register the “remarriage” of divorced people, that might be a comparable case.


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