The Washington Post's coverage of the recent change in marriage law here has been, unsurprisingly, of the partisan cheerleading variety. I've read a few reports and pondered if they would have been written terribly differently if they'd been issued as press releases from the communications shops of organizations advocating for same-sex marriage. "Gay marriages to boost sagging economy!" "Mexico City shows that gay marriage is awesome!" You get the idea. It's so unbelievably lopsided that I'd actually grown weary of remarking on it (after these three pieces last week). But yesterday's ombudsman column comparing proponents of traditional marriage to racist bigots has dragged me back in.
First, let's take a trip down memory lane.
Last year, a Washington Post "Style" reporter wrote a fairly favorable piece about the National Organization for Marriage's Brian Brown. To be precise, it was favorable to him but not to the movement he is part of. In Brown, the reporter noted, she'd found a "sane" supporter of traditional marriage -- unlike those other people, the frothing at the mouth loonies who are bigoted and evil.
Now, I had criticized the piece for being fluffy (which I do for many of these profiles -- the old Kate Michelman one comes to mind), but also for throwing every other supporter of traditional marriage under the bus. And I thought that while it was nice that the paper included a profile of a traditional marriage supporter, that his arguments should be included in the actual news areas of the paper. Think of it as a small effort to balance the newspaper's coverage on this issue, which deeply divides Americans.
Supporters of same-sex marriage, however, really didn't like the piece (too favorable, they thought) and wrote to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander to complain. He wrote a column apologizing for the story. Not because it treated all but one supporter of traditional marriage as bigots. No. Here's one criticism he leveled at the piece:
Finally, the headline: "Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile." To many readers, The Post was saying Brown's views are sane. The headline, written by editors, not Hesse, should have been neutral.
See, Alexander believed it was not "neutral" to say that it's sane to believe that the institution of marriage should be heterosexual. Nevermind that marriage has, until a few short years ago, been universally accepted across all religions, cultures and peoples as a heterosexual institution. Those majorities of voters in 30 states that have decided to retain the traditional view of marriage as a heterosexual institution are not "proceeding from sound mind" in the view of Alexander. It would not be neutral to say that, oh, Pope Benedict XVI is "sane."
And let's go back a bit more down memory lane. This time to 2004, when previous ombudsman Michael Getler said the Post had mangled same-sex marriage debate coverage:
[C]ritics who say the paper has had few, if any, features portraying opponents of this social change in a positive or even neutral light have a point. The overall picture, it seems to me, could use more balance.
OK, so now the current ombudsman has discussed reader reaction to a photo of two men kissing. It ran on the newspaper's front page and online last week. He heard from upset parents who felt that the picture was inappropriate for the front page, and men who said they'd cancel their subscription if they saw "another photo of men lip-locking."
Others used slurs to complain about the photo. (What is it about the debate that causes such vitriol, I wonder? Almost every time I write about it, I receive threats and get called horrible names myself and I find it most discouraging. I wish people would learn how to discuss their differences civilly, sigh.) Anyway, a couple dozen people canceled their subscriptions, citing the photo. He asks:
Did the Post go too far? Of course not. The photo deserved to be in newspaper and on its Web site, and it warranted front-page display.
News photos capture reality. And the prominent display reflects the historic significance of what was occurring. The recent D.C. Council decision to approve same-sex marriage was the culmination of a decades-long gay rights fight for equality. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the District. The photo of [two men] kissing simply showed joy that would be exhibited by any couple planning to wed -- especially a couple who previously had been denied the legal right to marry.
There was a time, after court-ordered integration, when readers complained about front-page photos of blacks mixing with whites. Today, photo images of same-sex couples capture the same reality of societal change.
Booyah! You get that, readers who didn't like the front-page photo? You're nothing better than racist, evil bigots. This is, of course, precisely the argument made by one side in the debate that the newspaper is supposed to be covering in a balanced manner -- that lesbigay status equals race.
I'm beginning to wonder if anyone at the Post has met a single supporter of traditional marriage other than that one reporter meeting Brian Brown. I mean, are they even trying to be fair? The week after even the Post has become aware that there might be some unintended consequences to rewriting marriage law, you'd think they'd reach out to those people who have concerns. Apparently not.
And you have to wonder what happened to Alexander's stated claim that the Post needs to be "neutral" about such things. So let me get this straight -- it isn't "neutral" to consider an opponent of same-sex marriage "sane," but it is "neutral" to compare opponents of same-sex marriage to racist bigots?
Good to know, Mr. Ombudsman!