Pod people: Same-sex marriage on the march

On this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed Dave Brubeck’s sacred music and religious life — and how substantive discussion of same were missing from many obituaries about the jazz great. We also discussed the general cheerleading of coverage dealing with same-sex marriage.

The hook for that was the stories leading up to the Supreme Court’s decision about whether to hear the rulings related to California’s Proposition 8 decision. On Friday, as tmatt noted, the court announced it would take up that case, as well as the one related to federal benefits for same-sex couples.

In a post about this tenor of coverage from last week, I wrote

I can’t help but think that the same media that has written for approaching a full decade on one U.S. Senator’s thoughts on a gay-related court case might have a tad more interest in the particulars of an important court ruling with implications for religious exercise, gender roles and kinship. But maybe that’s just me.

There’s still time for the court to say it’s going to take up one of the cases. Let us know if you see any coverage that deviates from the expected narrative.

Reader The Old Bill responded:

Yes, Mollie, it’s you. You think a reporter should report on what is happening, not what he feels should be happening. The press treats a complete change in what marriage has always been as something that has but one side. Anyone who might question this is, as the judge said, irrational and “on the wrong side of history.”

What is reported depends a lot on what is assumed.

I saw no deviation from that standard narrative this weekend in the early reports on the SCOTUS decision. The terminology of one side of the debate has been more or less adopted by the mainstream media. It’s not uncommon to see the phrase “marriage equality” used — outside of quotes, much less scare quotes — in mainstream reports. While those opposed to changes in marriage law say that “same-sex marriage” is an ontological impossibility — akin to saying “square circles” and calling for “shape equality” — the media usually fail to mention this perspective or put it at the end of a story in quotes from the token opposition.

There just hasn’t been any coverage of the substance of arguments against changing marriage law, much less a discussion of the consequences of same, outside of some one-sided enthusiasm. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know if you follow this, no matter your personal views on marriage law. So in the New York Times article announcing the SCOTUS decision, we learn in the fourth paragraph:

The court’s move comes against the backdrop of a rapid shift in public attitudes about same-sex marriage, with recent polls indicating that a majority of Americans support allowing such unions. After the elections last month, the number of states authorizing same-sex marriage increased by half, to nine.

This paragraph comes right after a paragraph saying that the court is to decide whether one of the cases is constitutional, an interesting juxtaposition of popularity and principle. In the 15th paragraph, we get this brief, anodyne quote from someone opposed to changing marriage law:

Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the court should address the broader question but say no. “What’s at stake,” he said, “is whether the Constitution demands a redefinition of marriage and whether states can even vote on this issue.”

Just interesting.

Also interesting was that the only other next-day story from the New York Times was reported by five reporters and was outspokenly only about one side of the debate. The headline is “Worry Tempers Joy Over Gay Marriage’s Moment in Court.”

The entire article is just quote after quote after quote after quote of  people who, like those in the New York Times newsroom, all think the same thing about what the definition of marriage should be. And that’s fine, I guess, but isn’t it weird to not have an article about those people on the other side of the debate?

Do they have worry and joy, too? Do their views matter at all? Why can’t we talk about them in news articles? Why the complete lock-down on just talking to them and hearing from them and learning what they think about this step?

If you have five reporters covering that story, maybe you could peel one or two off to talk to a real-live supporter of traditional marriage laws. Or is it, as the Times public editor put it in her column criticizing the paper for failing to cover the Bradley Manning hearings, “Such decisions seem to say: ‘It’s news when we say it’s news.’”

That’s a lot of power for a paper to hold, but it should be used wisely. There’s nothing to fear from simply hearing from multiple sides of a given issue. Perhaps there’s even much to gain from such a journalistic approach.

On same-sex marriage: What is the chief justice thinking?

People who study the dynamics of this U.S. Supreme Court have, from the get-go, assumed two or three things about Chief Justice John Roberts.

First of all, he is a very cautious man, one who is very worried about the prestige of the court and the perception that it is above politics. This is not a man who wants to decide bitter, divisive, hot-button, explosive issues with 5-4 votes.

Roberts does not want to create judicial earthquakes. This is not a jurist who wants to blaze dangerous trails long before it is clear that the American public is ready to walk them. The last thing he wants is another Roe v. Wade, followed by decades of bitterness and civic strife.

Seen from this perspective, the Obamacare decision appeared to be an exception to the rules. While many conservatives called him a traitor, others noted that Roberts did that cautious thing that he does — he backed a narrow decision that made it harder to accuse the court of playing politics. After all, what is unusual about the federal government creating a new form of taxation that affects the whole population?

With that in mind, folks here inside the DC Beltway are asking a rather obvious question about the stunning news that the Supremes are going to address the nation’s hottest and most divisive issues — same-sex marriage and, perhaps, even whether sexual orientation can considered a condition leading to special, protected status for civil-rights claims, similar to race, gender, age, religion, etc. The court has, in the past, avoided a definitive statement on that issue, even in Romer v. Evans.

So the question many are asking: Why would the ever-cautious Roberts want to take on same-sex marriage at this point in the judicial game? Or look at that question from another point of view: Why would liberals on the high court want to take on this issue at this point, at the START of a second Barack Obama term? They know that their hand will only grow stronger in the next four years.

Thus, in recent weeks, most mainstream press coverage — while seeming to yearn for a clear gay-rights victory — has focused so much attention on the voices of liberal experts who were not sure that the timing was right for, well, a judicial earthquake. With all of that in mind, take a look at this Washington Post report, which begins by stating:

The Supreme Court put itself at the center of the nation’s debate over whether gay couples have the same fundamental right to marry as heterosexuals, agreeing Friday to review state and federal efforts to preserve a traditional definition of husband and wife.

In agreeing to hear cases from California and New York, the court raised the possibility of a groundbreaking constitutional decision on whether the right to marry may be limited because of sexual orientation. At the same time, the justices also will have the ability to issue narrower rulings on a subject that continues to divide the American public.

The cases will probably be heard in historic sessions at the court in late March, with decisions to come when the justices finish their work at the end of June.

As you would expect, a key part of this Post story focuses on the pivotal justice on the court — which would be Anthony M. Kennedy, a Republican who leans conservative on most economic issues and to the left on most cultural issues. Is it time for another landmark opinion that proves Kennedy is not one of THOSE Catholics?

The strategic implication is clear and has been for months: Will Roberts be able to prevent another 5-4 earthquake, with Kennedy providing more sweeping prose like the following in his Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, the famous meaning-of-the-universe passage which he then referenced in the landmark gay-rights case Lawrence v. Texas:

These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.

Thus, the Post notes:

Central to the outcome of the term’s signature cases will be Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who normally sides with the court’s conservatives but has written some of the court’s most important cases upholding gay rights. For instance, he wrote the Romer decision that the 9th Circuit used as the template for overturning Prop 8.

But some gay rights activists have worried about asking Kennedy and the court to move too far too quickly on what would be a sea change in the way Americans view marriage.

I was not surprised that, in this early Post story on this explosive topic, there was absolutely zero attention given to religious-liberty concerns. Those discussions will come later, when it will be all but impossible for mainstream newsrooms to avoid them — since religious doctrines and traditions were at the heart of the debates about DOMA and Proposition 8.

But here is what did surprise me about this story. Did I miss something or is one very important name — John Roberts — missing from this report? What will we learn about Roberts and his role in the court taking on this hot-button issue at this particular moment in time?

Trust me. People from coast to coast will want to know the answer to that one. Does Roberts have a plan to protect his beloved court?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X