It’s a question that I always know I will hear after a lecture on the American model of the press and its emphasis on balance, fairness and the need to cover both sides of controversial stories — which requires journalists to find solid, articulate representatives of the arguments on both sides.
Some student will always ask a question that sounds something like this: “OK, but why couldn’t you just interview really dumb, unsympathetic people on one side of the debate and then articulate, smart people on the other side? Then the article would look like it was balanced, but it would really be just as slanted as an article that only quoted one side. In a way, it would be even worse because the dumb voices in the camp that the newspaper opposes would do even more damage to their cause in the long run.”
Case in point: This is what happens when you are covering a demonstration against legalized abortion and the television crews rush right past the rows of women with “I regret my abortion” signs and then film interviews with the loner male protester with a red face and wild eyes who is carrying a “Send the baby killers to jail” sign that has been smeared with what appears to be blood. Then the news crews interview women who calmly argue in favor of abortion rights. It’s a balanced story, right?
If you want to see this technique used with great skill, precision and even nuance, check out this New York Times report: “‘Ex-Gay’ Men Fight Back Against View That Homosexuality Can’t Be Changed.” Here is the summary paragraph, following the anecdotal lede about a believer named Blake Smith:
Mr. Smith is one of thousands of men across the country, often known as “ex-gay,” who believe they have changed their most basic sexual desires through some combination of therapy and prayer — something most scientists say has never been proved possible and is likely an illusion.
Ex-gay men are often closeted, fearing ridicule from gay advocates who accuse them of self-deception and, at the same time, fearing rejection by their church communities as tainted oddities. Here in California, their sense of siege grew more intense in September when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning use of widely discredited sexual “conversion therapies” for minors — an assault on their own validity, some ex-gay men feel.
Signing the measure, Governor Brown repeated the view of the psychiatric establishment and medical groups, saying, “This bill bans nonscientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide,” adding that the practices “will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery.”
But many ex-gays have continued to seek help from such therapists and men’s retreats, saying their own experience is proof enough that the treatment can work.
You can see hints of that stance in this Times articles. What readers never hear, however, are voices that explicitly make a scientific case for that belief. Instead, the “ex-gay” label is applied to everyone, even when the story makes it clear that it does not apply to various camps within this alleged movement. For example, see this passage:
Aaron Bitzer, 35, was so angered by the California ban, which will take effect on Jan. 1, that he went public and became a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the law as unconstitutional. …
Many ex-gays guard their secret but quietly meet in support groups around the country, sharing ideas on how to avoid temptations or, perhaps, broach their past with a female date. Some are trying to save heterosexual marriages. Some, like Mr. Bitzer, hope one day to marry a woman. Some choose celibacy as an improvement over what they regard as a sinful gay life.
Whether they have gone through formal reparative therapy, most ex-gays agree with its tenets, even as they are rejected by mainstream scientists. The theories, which have also been adopted by conservative religious opponents of gay marriage, hold that male homosexuality emerges from family dynamics — often a distant father and an overbearing mother — or from early sexual abuse. Confronting these psychic wounds, they assert, can bring change in sexual desire, if not necessarily a total “cure.”
Then later on, there is this reference to a headline-grabbing dust-up related to this issue:
… This summer, the ex-gay world was convulsed when Alan Chambers, the president of Exodus International, the largest Christian ministry for people fighting same-sex attraction, said he did not believe anyone could be rid of homosexual desires.
This is not really news. Chambers has made similar statements in the past.
Once again, is there someone who argues that it is normative for someone who struggles with same-sex attraction to be totally “rid,” or “healed,” of same-sex temptations? I know there are some out there who make that case, but I have never run into someone making that argument in mainstream Catholic, Jewish or Protestant circles.
I am sure that the editors believed that this article is, if anything, overly fair to the “ex-gay” stance, with many of the “usual suspects” articulating it’s arguments. It’s true that this article goes out of its way to quote some, repeat SOME, of the believers on that side of the aisle. It’s also clear that the Times team heard about (and perhaps even ran into) people who did not fit into a narrow “ex-gay” mold. I also wonder if anyone discussed the serious Constitutional issues involved in this California law’s attempts to limit the rights of parents, when dealing with issues involving sex and religious faith.
What we end up with is another visit with the usual suspects. I guess you have to be willing to imagine that new ground exists in order to find the voices that help a journalist explore it.