I'm no expert on baking, but I suspect that a layer cake should stand straight, not lean to one side. The Denver Post should have followed that recipe for its latest story on the man who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The Post article is brief and mostly factual, especially for a newspaper that has written a lot of stories on the case for nearly two years. But it favors the gay side, both in what it says and what it does not say. And it leaves a number of unanswered questions on a matter that has several levels.
Cake shop owner Jack Phillips has become something of a cause celebre for religious rights folks, but he's still getting, shall we say, battered. Colorado has just imposed a penalty on him that sounds rather like thought police:
The state's seven-member Civil Rights Commission reinforced a December ruling from an administrative law judge who said Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins when he refused to make them a wedding cake because of religious objections.
In its decision, the panel required Phillips to submit quarterly reports for two years that show how he has worked to change discriminatory practices by altering company policies and training employees. Phillips also must disclose the names of any clients who are turned away.
The article carries three paragraphs of background but sacrifices depth:
Colorado law bans discrimination in a public place on grounds of sexual orientation, but Phillips has argued that forcing him to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples violates his right to First Amendment free-speech and freedom-of-religion rights.
Phillips and his attorney are considering an appeal to the Colorado Court of Appeals. He suggested on Friday that the rights of business owners with similar views were taken away by the commission.
"Not all of life is fair," Phillips said after the commission's decision. "I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down."
Freedom of religion, OK, that computes. If a religion says homosexuality is wrong, its adherents would object to doing anything that might appear to sanction it. But how does making a wedding cake for gays violate free speech?
And exactly what did Phillips mean by "Not all of life is fair"? Was he saying that he had the right to be unfair, or that the court was being unfair to him?
It's possible that the reporter felt she could talk shorthand because the Post listed seven other stories on the case, going back to Aug. 4. But for those who just dropped in -- you and me, for instance -- it's assuming too much.
The article says that Craig and Mullins, the gay couple, has been "inundated with support from people across the country." Aside from the obvious follow-up questions -- "How many? From how large an area? What have they been typically saying? Could I see some of the quotes?" -- what about Jack Phillips, the opposition? Does he stand alone? Or have like-minded people spoken up for him as well?
The latter is likely, since the Post quotes a representative of the Alliance Defending Freedom taking Phillips' side. But the newspaper reveals more favoritism there, calling the alliance a "conservative Christian organization." It then cites the American Civil Liberties Union without attaching a sticker. It's a common subtle way of weighting remarks: One group is normal and mainstream; the other group bears watching.
Other ingredients are missing from this story, too.
Like when it mentions a decision from December by administrative law judge Robert N. Spencer:
"At first blush, it may seem reasonable that a private business should be able to refuse service to anyone it chooses," the judge wrote. "This view, however, fails to take into account the cost to society and the hurt caused to persons who are denied service simply because of who they are."
Spencer said the cake shop owner's argument "would allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner's bias against interracial marriage."
Questions: What cost to society? And is sexual preference equal to race? That argument has been advanced often. Is it accurate? How?
Coverage of the other side is likewise superficial. Here’s Nicole Martin, Jack Phillips' attorney:
"It's either live and work according to his conscience or collect a paycheck and that's not choice at all," Martin said. "It's not a choice Americans should have to make. Appeals take a very long time and they have an emotional and financial toll and that decision just can't be made lightly."
Um, what emotional toll? How is it affecting Jack Phillips? The Post mentioned the feelings of Craig and Mullins. What about those of Phillips?
As I’ve said before, a story doesn't have to answer every question -- just the ones it raises. It's possible the Post reporter was working under deadline pressure, or that the story was cut or condensed on deadline. When either happens, you tend to fall back on cliches and assumptions. But it comes at the cost of context and informing the readers.
One thing is true for journalism as well as cakes: Don’t skimp on the filling.