Family values and the NCAA

If you're part of an organization trying to get your message out, you usually have to spend money to place ads where people can see them. Communications shops usually prefer getting stories written about them. Not only is it free but you can communicate more thoroughly with your audience. So while Focus on the Family seems to have been running more advertisements as of late, they have to be taking note of all the earned media they're getting.

First there was the Superbowl ad controversy. And now there's this:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association removed a Focus on the Family banner ad from one of its Web sites this week, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Wednesday.

The NCAA made the decision after some of its members - including faculty and athletic directors - expressed concern that the evangelical group's stance against gay and lesbian relationships conflicted with the NCAA's policy of inclusion regardless of sexual orientation, Williams said.

The ad in question was not about sexuality. It featured a father holding his son and the words, "All I want for my son is for him to grow up knowing how to do the right thing." Like the Tebow ad, it included the address of Focus on the Family's Web site and the slogan, "Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life."

Focus on the Family spokesman Gary Schneeberger said that if such material were "all of a sudden labeled hate speech, we have deeper problems in our country than we even know."

It's enough to make the conspiratorially minded among us wonder whether Focus is baiting its critics into appearing intolerant and histrionic.

The above excerpt comes from an Associated Press report written by none other than Eric Gorski. He had moved on to the higher education beat, about which I'm still terribly upset, a few weeks ago. But here he was able to blend his understanding of the religion beat, his longtime coverage of Focus from his days as a reporter in Colorado Springs, and his new beat. It works well and the story is very balanced and informative.

Inside Higher Ed ran a piece that reads like it comes from inside higher ed. It's very sympathetic to the NCAA position. So, for instance, we learn that Focus on the Family (but not its critics) "created a stir" when the group announced it would run a pro-family ad during the Superbowl:

(When the Focus on the Family ad actually aired, some commentators suggested that critics had overreacted, because the conservative group soft pedaled its often strident message by featuring Tebow's mother celebrating the fact that he had made it "into this world" despite her very rough pregnancy -- before showing the former University of Florida star, an outspoken Christian, apparently tackling her.)

I'm not sure why that excerpt is in parentheses but I think the use of the word "strident" indicates the perspective of the reporter. (Strident: making or having a harsh sound; grating; or having a shrill, irritating quality or character.) As does this excerpt which comes after a brief description of the ad:

That message may seem innocuous, Pat Griffin, an emerita professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in an interview Tuesday, "but if you have any awareness of what Focus on the Family is and their position on issues of family and life" -- championing traditional definitions of marriage, deeming homosexuality to be immoral, and fighting to eliminate abortion -- it's very clear what their message is.... It's very disingenuous to say, those are innocent messages, messages anyone can join in."

The reporter doesn't bother finding anyone to defend the ad (pictured below), defend free debate, or suggest that Pat Griffin's views are in any way objectionable.

Now maybe the pulling of a small ad from a website isn't big news. But one of the big reasons why I've developed an interest in media coverage of gay activism is because of the fact that so many stories about gay rights involve tension with religious organizations. I was reading this amazingly prescient 2006 story by traditional marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher that predicted quite a few legal, academic and civil rights struggles as they relate to the push for same-sex marriage. Here's a brief excerpt from a portion dealing with scholarship on the topic:

Generally speaking the scholars most opposed to gay marriage were somewhat less likely than others to foresee large conflicts ahead--perhaps because they tended to find it "inconceivable," as Doug Kmiec of Pepperdine law school put it, that "a successful analogy will be drawn in the public mind between irrational, and morally repugnant, racial discrimination and the rational, and at least morally debatable, differentiation of traditional and same-sex marriage." That's a key consideration. For if orientation is like race, then people who oppose gay marriage will be treated under law like bigots who opposed interracial marriage. Sure, we don't arrest people for being racists, but the law does intervene in powerful ways to punish and discourage racial discrimination, not only by government but also by private entities. Doug Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Texas law school, similarly told me we are a "long way" from equating orientation with race in the law.

By contrast, the scholars who favor gay marriage found it relatively easy to foresee looming legal pressures on faith-based organizations opposed to gay marriage, perhaps because many of these scholars live in social and intellectual circles where the shift Kmiec regards as inconceivable has already happened. They have less trouble imagining that people and groups who oppose gay marriage will soon be treated by society and the law the way we treat racists because that's pretty close to the world in which they live now.

It's safe to say that the values regarding marriage espoused my most religious groups are not shared by most people in newsrooms. And this is a really serious difference of opinion about what marriage is. I wonder if it's not just scholars who live in social and intellectual circles where the shift has happened but for many journalists, too.

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