Imagine this: Another unbalanced Post LGBT piece

Oh well, here we go again. I realize, at this point, that I am severely testing the patience of the many GetReligion readers who are convinced that our elite media have little or no interest in balance and fairness when it comes to covering the hot-button issues that severely divide our nation, yet trigger severe group-think in so many newsrooms.

So, to set the stage for this latest bias case study, let’s try to imagine the following fictional scenario.

It’s late January, 2013, and — in a bizarre turnaround in political affairs — President Mitt Romney is naming the key members of his administration.

As director of the often overlooked, strategically crucial, Office of Personnel Management the Republican president repays a crucial debt and appoints a conservative evangelical activist, someone best known for his work with, oh, Focus on the Family or the National Organization for Marriage.

So, The Washington Post eventually decides to run a profile of this social activist turned government executive and, over the course of this 1,700-word text, focuses almost completely on the voices of people who think this appointment is perfectly normal, or even a giant step forward in American life.

Where are the culturally and politically liberal critics of this appointment, the people who believe that their stunned and furious voices should be heard in this piece? Where are the liberal voices offering balance in this piece of advocacy journalism? Well, they are nowhere to be found, in this pretend Post piece. In fact, the only voices critical of this activist come from those who are even further out on the political and cultural right.

Can you imagine this happening? Me neither.

Now, with this in mind, read through the recent Post story that ran under the headline, “John Berry, head of OPM and openly gay, helps Obama reach out to LGBT community.”

Who are the informed, critical, conservative voices quoted in this piece? Come back when you’re done with this quick reading assignment.

So, did you spot any? Instead, readers are given paragraph after paragraph of hagiography that sounds like this:

On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of humanity that has resonated so widely that he’s become a quiet figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.

Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.

There are, however, critical voices. They sound like this:

Speaking in July to gay Latinos gathered in Las Vegas, Berry chose his words carefully, promising that the president still is committed to crossing the next big hurdle to gay equality: workplace discrimination.

“We have not taken it off the table,” he assured activists at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention. But he would not commit to a date when Obama would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors, leaving impatient activists to wonder if the White House is serious about the pledge Obama made during his first presidential campaign.

Weeks before, Berry had told activists the president would not sign the executive order until after the November election.

“He defended the decision,” said Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, who was at the White House when the activists learned the news. “It shows the tension and challenge of being on the inside of an administration.”

This dual role has left some activists wondering whether Berry is their best representative. The same skepticism came up over the Defense of Marriage Act, which the administration initially defended. Berry had to fall in line.

See the balance? On one side, in this report, are those who cheer him. On the other side are those in the LGBT community who think he has not pushed hard enough for the changes they seek.

Would a Post piece about a conservative activist be constructed in this manner? Of course not. It would — and properly so — include the voices of representative LGBT leaders and other progressives. That’s journalism. So what, precisely, in journalistic terms, should this Post feature be called?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Political fluff.

  • The Old Bill

    “Would a Post piece about a conservative activist be constructed in this manner?”
    To ask the question is to answer it.

  • FW Ken/Passing By

    Thanks for the laugh. “Effervescent” gave me an image of a gay Speedy Aka-Seltzer working the crowd. :-)

    But I’m not seeing the religion ghost here, unless you consider any gay story to be haunted. It’s pretty clearly a political story about a federal bureaucrat campaigning for one of the presidential candidates. Snark aside, I would have expected a disclaimer that no election laws were broken in the production of this story.

    Yes, it’s hagiography, and a bit silly in the telling. But it’s what I would expect given the paper. Might that hypothetical puffing of a conservative Christian be found in the Waddington Times?

    • Jay

      Generally speaking, if you’re going to talk about opponents to same-sex marriage/gay lifestyle/etc, you’re also going to be talking about people who have religious convictions that cause them to have that opposition. Not always, but that often is the case. So when tmatt said that this particular piece didn’t have conservative voices to counterweight the liberal ones, especially after reading the stuff about the elder Berry’s relationship with his son’s partner, I could see what he was saying.

  • Chip

    Speaking of religion ghosts, I wanted to know more about the “God bless” closing lines and Berry’s “devout Catholic” family background. Are the lines just Richie Cunningham Americana, as the Post piece implies, or do they indicate more? And would Berry consider himself to be, or would he say he was once, a “devout Catholic,” or would he only apply that phrase to his parents? What type of faith, if any, does he have?

    One other interesting ghost: In 2009, according to the Post, he was hired as “the White House’s [unofficial] secret weapon in the fight to make being gay as acceptable as being straight.” How does this fit in the timeline with Obama’s recent declaration of his “evolving” views on gay marriage?

  • FW Ken/Passing By

    I thought I got “Washintton Times” fixed before Patheos grabbed by text.

    Chip points to two religion ghosts that drifted right on by me both times I read the article. It seems strange that “God bless you and God bless the U.S.A.” rings a political, not a religion bell, as does being “raised Catholic”. They simply don’t register as religion.

    I’m still wondering about the place that hagiography might have in journalism (amateur here). Here’s an example

    http://www.star-telegram.com/2012/09/22/4279146/bishop-vann-leaving-fort-worth.html

    where “balance” doesn’t seem called for. There will probably be some negative material later, but this is a “first day” story and very positive. Is that inappropriate?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Actually, FW Ken, I was very surprised by the tone of the Star-Telegram piece on Bishop Vann. Not a single negative note in it at all, not even the obligatory negative comment from SNAP or Father Tom Reese or Voice of the Faithful. As a Catholic and Catholic journalist, it looked like something that would have appeared in the diocesan newspaper, not in a secular paper. It looks like they just reprinted the press release, which, for a secular paper, is inappropriate.

  • dalea

    I am attempting to imagine what the conservative response to the story might be, and am having difficulty figuring out just who would give it and what would the conservative say. Would they say that there should be no outreach to GLBT federal employees? Or that the feds should not employee GLBT individuals? What is the conservative view on this subject? I really don’t know. Perhaps the federal government hiring openly GLBT people is no longer controversial?

    I suspect that this is an issue that causes discomfort to social conservatives. But also suspect that there is not any really good way of articulating why it causes discomfort. Would really like to know more about what bothers social conservatives about this story.

    • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

      I admit to some confusion on that score, too. Who should the reporter have called for comment? What might be a representative quote that would provide ‘balance’?

  • Sarah

    I don’t think your example completely works in this case. If Romney appointed a religious leader, there would be legitimate questions of the separation of church and state. But appointing an openly gay person doesn’t raise that question because gayness is not a religion or even a movement.

    This story is about the WH’s trying to appeal to gay voters.

    Of course the way this story is written invites comments from conservative religious people–how do Catholic Democrats feel about Berry as OPM? etc. What legislation do socially conservative Democrats wish Obama to support in regards to gay people?

    • Becky

      “…gayness is not a religion or even a movement.”

      Yes, it is a religion. It is a morality, a way of living your life (and wanting others to live their lives) in order to be Good. And it is a movement.

      I think you put your finger on the ghost. Anytime you argue what’s right and what’s wrong, you argue morality, and that’s what religion is: how you bind yourself to the Good ( = God, for some).

      Imagine sometime in the future, you’re reading along in the paper and you come across…

      It’s a tale of humanity that has resonated so widely that he’s become a quiet figurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for Catholic rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Catholic relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. It’s okay for Catholic parents to teach their children that marriage is exclusive, fertile, and forever. An openly Catholic man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by gay veterans.

      Speaking in July to Catholic Latinos gathered in Las Vegas, Berry chose his words carefully, promising that the president still is committed to crossing the next big hurdle to Catholic equality: workplace discrimination.

      “We have not taken it off the table,” he assured activists at the National Council of La Raza’s annual convention. But he would not commit to a date when Obama would sign an executive order barring discrimination by federal contractors against Catholics, leaving impatient activists to wonder if the White House is serious about the pledge Obama made during his first presidential campaign.

      Etcetera

  • deiseach

    But tmatt, you’re treating this as though it’s a news article. I don’t; I think of these kinds of things as opinion pieces or “Lifestyle/Arts & Leisure/Modern Style” section pieces.

    It’s not about telling us the facts and figures, it’s “Important Person You Plebs Have Never Heard Of (Because You’re Not Insiders Like Us) Shows Us Around His or Her Lovely Home”. It’s the social diary pages in modern times. It’s a gossip column for the politically connected. I would no more expect to read a critical and balanced examination in one of these pieces than I would to read one in an exclusive interview with Bill Slaughter, star of the “Action Cop Vigilante” blockbuster movie series (access to Mr. Slaugher kindly provided by his agency, Piranha & Lamprey, motto “Nice puffpieces only or your rag will never again get the chance to interviewany of our stars” ).

  • tmatt

    deiseach:
    The Style section is NOT the editorial pages and this was not labeled as an analysis piece, nor was it written in first person.
    You could see the WPost writing this same piece about a similar conservative figure on this issue?
    tmatt

    • deiseach

      Well, c0mpare the story about Valerie Jarrett. The piece was telling us that this was a powerful, important woman with unparalleled access to the President – and I still had to hit up Wikipedia to find out whather position in the Mayor of Chicago’s office was, how come she was in a position to offer Michelle Obama a job, and the family background that made her so well-connected.

      If these are meant to be serious political correspondent stories, they’re doing a poor job. That’s why they might as well be on the Style pages, because they’re fluff pieces showing off insider knowledge. Now, there is a perennial question (over here anyways) about how independent pol corrs really are, since they rely on access for their stories and if they displease the government of the day, that access can be taken away. I don’t know if it’s the same in America, but I rather suspect that hard-hitting investigative journalist may be perceived by any administration as a form of betrayal, either on a public or even a private level.

      And yeah – if a conservative government got into power and a conservative figure who was the ‘right’ kind of conservative was offered a job, I could see any paper being pragmatic enough to do a nice, warm, fluffy piece about Tom Whoever who will be in charge of the Campaign for Paper-Clip Safety and brings a vast experience of work with voluntary and charitable organisations in the field of stationery best-practice to bear on the topic, along with a life-long devotion to breeding chincillas and the five-years-in-a-row winner of Best Marrow from the Produce Judging of his town’s County Fair.

      And I’m sure there are plenty of the ‘right’ kind of conservatives out there, too.

  • FW Ken

    Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz -

    Actually, our major sex scandal was broken in the diocesan paper and picked up by the Star-Telegram. So there you go. The weekend edition of the ST had a follow-up “timeline” of the bishop’s tenure, mainly framed around scandal issues. I emailed the writer to see if his article was just a reprint of a diocesan release (could he put his byline on it?) but haven’t heard back.

    Dalea – I’m socially pretty conservative and would not have changed much, except to tone down the style, which seemed a tad flamboyant. But then, I’m the one who read the religion ghosts as political, so arguably I’m jaded.

  • John Penta

    I have one question. Maybe not religion related, but I don’t see the article raising it…

    What about the Hatch Act? Berry campaigning for Obama at all arguably violates it hugely.

  • Ted Seeber

    Propaganda. That’s all this sort of thing ever is.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X