On Feb. 15, Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton made a startling statement:
It is possible that I’ll be The Washington Post’s last independent ombudsman and that this chair will empty at the conclusion of my two-year term Feb. 28. If so, that will end nearly 43 years of this publication having enough courage and confidence to employ a full-time reader representative and critic.
His column today may give some insight into why. Or, as reporter Byron York wrote:
WaPo ombudsman publishes emails revealing paper's mindset on social issues. No wonder they want to get rid of him. http://ow.ly/hYSgJ
Friends, it's bad. And I'm not really talking about the column, although the column is bad, too.
The column covers an exchange between a reporter and a reader. The latter understands what journalism should be and the reporter reveals some breathtaking bigotry about the people he or she is supposed to be covering. Simply quoting that bigotry from an unnamed Washington Post journalist is devastating. Just devastating. If you wonder, sometimes, whether any reporters drip with contempt for religious conservatives, this will not disabuse you of that notion. Pexton sets it up:
I get a steady stream of e-mails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.
“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle.”
Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous three-way e-mail dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.
He quotes from the dialogue:
The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. ... Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”
Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”
The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”
The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?
“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”
That discussion is most revealing about journalists.
Why, we all know how much the Washington Post cares about civil rights, right? I couldn't even begin to quantify how much ink has been spilled advocating for an entire class of humans deemed not deserving of even the most fundamental right to life. Why, sometimes I think the Washington Post almost cares too much about the scourge of abortion, don't you? Oh wait, that's right, they actually don't care about that civil right at all. What's more, they don't even agree that the unborn human's right to life *is* a civil rights issue -- at least for the unborn children involved.
And guess what, unnamed reporter and your army of close-minded scribes: Whether or not there *is* a civil right to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples or other groupings is precisely -- precisely -- the debate at hand. In other words, some people make the claim that changing marriage law is a matter of civil rights. They claim, along with the the ruling in the California Prop. 8 decision, that bias against gays is rooted in religion (a claim with amazing and, to this point, completely unexplored implications). Others say that same-sex marriage is an ontological impossibility -- that gender complementarity is an essential part of the definition of marriage, and therefore there is no civil right for marriage to be redefined as something for which gender is not essential.
Failure to understand the basic (and, frankly, not even that difficult to understand) arguments of those who oppose redefining marriage is inexcusable bigotry, particularly after years of witnessing what happens in the coverage of this debate. Reporters close their eyes, slam their fingers in their ears and shout "racist!" anytime a traditional marriage defender opens his or her mouth.
This is certainly close-minded and simple-minded advocacy, as evidenced by our unnamed reporter above. But it is not journalism. It bears almost no resemblance to journalism, which should be about reporting news in all its complexity and context and not pushing your dogma down people's throats.
Pexton's column becomes something of an embarrassment, too. He reveals himself as blind as the reporter to any angle on this story other than the one advanced by advocates of redefining marriage. The only "fairness" story he can see is from the perspective of same-sex couples wanting to change marriage law. He can't even imagine how redefining marriage law would affect marriage norms, business law, religious liberty, the rights of children, or any of the other myriad "fairness" stories that a truly diverse and open-minded press might be able to stumble upon in the midst of the cheerleading for change.
Pexton goes on to admit that he doesn't even understand the arguments of traditional marriage advocates (an admission that comes, unsurprisingly, after he mischaracterizes an argument related to social norms and ignores the vast majority of what traditional marriage defenders have to say about marriage law). Before that he writes:
And because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment -- one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution -- most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do. We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.
Oh come on. Religionists? Religionists? Who are we, Andrew Sullivan? There is, first off, no excuse for the use of this slur (which means religious zealot) by any professional journalist. Oh, and that First Amendment? Anything in there about religious liberty?
As for whether everyone in the world has a moral code that involves limits or whether it's just those with "religious zeal," Pexton's statement reveals just how blind he and his colleagues are to how changes in law have many intended and unintended consequences that affect everyone's freedom.
To sum up then, Pexton and the unnamed Post reporter refuse to hear the arguments of those who oppose redefining marriage, make incorrect claims as to what those arguments are, issue slurs of racism and religious zealotry against those who disagree and then, amazingly, we're told:
That’s why many journalists have a hard time giving much voice to those opposed to gay marriage. They see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing.
He ends by saying that despite their feverish and idiotic Bible-thumping ignorance, perhaps the Post -- when doing basic journalistic work -- should treat them better.
Wrong. Here's what needs to happen. Right now. Every reporter -- no matter the beat, no matter how much in the tank for redefining marriage, no matter how close-minded they've been to this point -- every reporter needs to stop what they're doing and read "What is Marriage."
It's a very easy-to-read book that succinctly explains the traditionalist arguments surrounding marriage. Refusing to learn the arguments of those who oppose changing the law must end. It simply must end. The ignorance and bigotry with which reporters have covered this topic is a scandal. It's destroying civil political discourse, it's embarrassing and can't continue.
Reporters don't need to change their deeply-held biases in favor of changing marriage law. But they do need to learn even a little bit about the arguments of those who oppose such a change.
No reporter working today should ever make the error of comparing arguments against marriage redefinition with anti-miscegenation laws. It's clownish and easily disputed.
I thank Pexton and this unnamed reporter for revealing their ignorance and bigotry when it comes to coverage of this topic. It is helpful to have this transparency. But the solution lies not with zealous indoctrination by media types about how "fairness" requires redefining marriage. The solution to the problem of the bigoted way that reporters handle this topic lies with reporters themselves. Reporters: open your mind to the actual (not imagined) arguments of your opponents. Learn to report their views as accurately as you would want someone to report your own beliefs.
When it comes to news writing -- and not voting or op-eds -- stop thinking of people who retain traditional arguments on the institution of marriage as your opponents. And, most importantly, start doing your jobs.
Image of reporter seething with contempt for traditional marriage advocates via Shutterstock.