For failed LGBT bill, Florida media serve as unabashed cheerleaders

Ohhhh, they were so close, but the score was tied and the clock ran out.

No, this ain't football; it's about coverage of a gay-rights addition to nondiscrimination laws in Florida. LGBT forces and their allies in Tallahassee have been trying for years, and this week it got as far as a state committee. Then it died in a 5-5 deadlock vote.

Oh well, there's always next season. And cheering them on again will likely be mainstream media -- as they did this week.

Check out this pom-pom shaking by the Associated Press:

The fact that the bill (SB 120) was even heard was a big step for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates.
“What we’ve seen here is a debate that hasn’t been seen up to this point. This is a positive first step. We have Republicans who are coming and fighting for this issue,” said Patrick Slevin, campaign manager for a coalition of businesses pushing for the anti-discrimination law.
Although there are signs that some Republican attitudes are changing on gay rights - two Republicans voted for the bill in the Judiciary Committee and Republican Rep. Holly Raschein is sponsoring the House version of the bill (HB 45) along with nine GOP co-sponsors - it took only five Republicans to stop it from advancing.

The bill would have added LGBT people to those protected under the state's 1992 Civil Rights act, applying to housing, employment and other "public accommodations." What many people feared was the possibility of men entering women's restrooms and locker rooms on the pretext that they were transgender.

At least, that's what the news stories say the people feared. Of the four articles I saw last night, none of them quote any bill opponents. Nearly all of the sources are from bill sponsors. And none are religious leaders, although one article jabs an accusing finger their way.

After a few actual facts, the articles load up on the "Right this wrong" and "Wait till next year" quotes.

Like where the News Service of Florida -- in a story picked up by the Orlando Sentinel and the Florida Times Union in Jacksonville -- quotes Patrick Slevin, manager of the business-backed campaign for the bill: "We are confident that Florida leaders will do the right thing and end this state sanctioned discrimination.”

At least AP and the News Service article reveal that Slevin represents a coalition of businesses like Marriott, AT&T, Disney World, Wells Fargo and Office Depot. They fear they’ll lose "hundreds of millions of dollars" if Florida is seen as curtailing gay rights.

AP's story was the "two" of a one-two punch. On Monday, before the bill died, AP produced a near-rant:

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When it comes to LGBT issues, Florida’s Republican lawmakers are known more for trying to keep transgender people out of bathrooms, protecting pastors from marrying same-sex couples, and seeking exemptions for private adoption agencies who don’t want to place children with gay and lesbian couples.
But this year, some Republican lawmakers are backing a bill that would give lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender residents protection against discrimination.

The article goes on pretty much like that, about Republicans who may be seeing the light. Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, calls it a "breakthrough for the South." And Holly Raschein, sponsor of the House version, says a lot of young Republicans (How many? Like who?) tell her it's a matter of liberty to pass the bill.

Closest to balance are two paragraphs -- at the end, of course -- for John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. He scoffs at the idea that the bill is needed to attract the best and brightest to Florida firms. Why? Dunno. The story ends at that point.

Even worse was who ran this article: Crux, the otherwise distinguished Catholic-themed magazine of the Boston Globe. With its talent and know-how, Crux could have easily added differing viewpoints. But as of this writing, I don’t even see a follow-up on how the Florida bill failed to get out of committee.

Not that Florida media are the only offenders. In South Dakota, the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls criticized a "discrimination" bill that would allow folks not to serve LGBT people. The Argus Leader does cite a couple of supporters of the bill. But both comments are bookended by those of opponents, who say the bill endorses discrimination and violates the Constitution.

The most skeptical coverage I see on the Florida bill is out of Sarasota, where the Herald-Tribune ran an incisive 800 words. It notes, for one thing, that the economic pitch is a "strategy that advocates have used in the past to convince government officials and corporate executives." And when it cites Equality Florida, it carefully marks the group as an "LGBTQ-rights organization that promoted the bill." I saw no other article admit that.

Nor did I see anyone else report these concerns without a cynical slant:

Questions raised by opposing senators revolved almost solely around what rights the bill would afford transgender people using public accommodations, such as bathrooms and locker rooms. Could a transgender woman, a person who identifies as female despite being born biologically male, use the ladies room? (The bill would allow a person to use public accommodations that align with their gender identity. Statutes include public restrooms in this, but don’t address gymnasiums.)
Some expressed further concerns that the bill would allow sexual predators a loophole giving them access to women’s facilities. Others wanted to ensure the bill promoted religious freedom.

But the Herald-Tribune follows that paraphrase with a direct quote from Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He sneers that people seemed hung up on "this whole locker room, restroom thing."

And no one, not even Crux, asked an obvious question: What do religious leaders say about all of this? The News Service of Florida simply quotes Joseph Abruzzo, sponsor of the senate bill, quoting them:

But the panel's boisterous two-hour hearing on Monday showed fierce opposition to the proposal from the religious right --- mostly on the question of public accommodations such as rest rooms and locker rooms.
Abruzzo added that he'd met with "the pastors" Tuesday without getting their support.
"I understand where they are coming from," he said. "But at the end of the day, I know even they believe that they don't want people to be discriminated against."

So here we go again with a story that talks about the religious without talking to them. And leaving several questions unasked. Just how fierce was that opposition? What terms did they use? What were their reasons? How many were they? What religions are they affiliated with? And how many voters do they claim to represent?

Ironically, the Florida News Service quotes Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, thanking "those individuals that haven't had their voice heard in this process." You mean like those shadowy guys on the religious right? Apparently it's OK to muffle their voices.

Someone should have thrown a flag on this play.


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