A tale of three stories: Confusion over same-sex marriage in Alabama

Few things, it seems, bring out a newspaper's attitudes like a rebellious state. Three papers produced varying accounts of Alabama's reaction to court orders on same-sex marriage.

And we're not even talking about those bad ol' Eastern liberal rags. We're talking good ol' Sunbelt newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Montgomery Advertiser.

The basic facts are the same: A U.S. District Court judge said Alabama's nine-year-old constitutional amendment for traditional marriage was itself unconstitutional. The state asked for a stay, but the U.S. Supreme Court refused. Then, on the urging of Chief Justice Roy Moore, most probate judges stopped issuing marriage licenses altogether.

Now come the different lenses. First up is the Times, which favored colorful writing over consistency:

Like lightning striking a Southern oak, the conflict over gay marriage split the judges of this state Monday.
Some followed the prodding of their own state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who ordered probate judges not to obey a U.S. District Court order striking down Alabama's same-sex marriage ban.
Others agreed with the federal court; they started marrying people in the morning.
Then, there were those who hired their own lawyers — and tried to stand in the middle as best they could.

Trying to grasp that passage is like trying to picture a lightning bolt splitting a tree three ways.

Ostensibly, the story is about the confusion over the conflicting state and federal court orders. The Times quotes three local judges, plus the governor and state attorney general. The newspaper's own leanings, though, are rather clear in quoting two gay couples but not heterosexual ones.

The article does quote a minister who says he doesn't believe the Bible condones same-sex marriage. He also worries about his church losing its tax-exempt status over the issue. (However, he doesn't say how. The Times should have reported that.) But the story also quotes another minister who had already done two weddings and pronounced it a "good day."

The Times also quotes the executive director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union, favoring gay marriage, of course, but nobody from the other side. It could have asked someone at the Montgomery-based Foundation for Moral Law, of which Judge Moore is a former president. With four gay-related cases since 2009, I'm sure someone there would have been happy to speak for the record.

The newspaper did check in at Montgomery, where it found no protests. Or maybe it wasn't the "right" kind of protest. Because there was, in fact, a rally there on Saturday, reports the Montgomery Advertiser -- just not purely for same-sex marriage:

About a hundred people gathered at the state Capitol steps to make a stand for Christianity and the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman in Montgomery on Saturday morning. A smaller group gathered in opposition across the street waving rainbow banners and signs supporting same-sex marriage.
The Sanctity of Marriage Rally was organized in light of a stay that is in place until Monday and without intervention by the Supreme Court over the weekend, same-sex marriage licenses will begin to be issued on Monday. This follows two separate decisions at the end of January by U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade overturning the state's 1998 law and 2006 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

If anything, the Advertiser leans toward the traditional-marriage side. It gives representative quotes from someone on each side, but another two paragraphs to the rally speaker -- the senior counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law.

On the other hand, the story avoids selective labeling. No "pro" this or "anti" that. It calls each position what its backers do: "traditional marriage" on one side, "marriage equality" on the other. And it reminds us that Alabama's voters passed the traditional marriage amendment by 81 percent -- something the Dallas and Los Angeles stories don’t divulge, although each is longer by hundreds of words.

Somewhere in the center is the Dallas Morning News, which actually cobbled a report from wire services. Actually, make that left of center. It quotes three hopeful gay couples and two activists for same-sex marriage, but only one opponent.

The News tries a Times-style narrative of "judicial chaos" and blames Moore, that "firebrand chief justice."  But as the story continues, it doesn't sound that chaotic. It says that most of the 68 counties were planning to deny licenses for gay marriages, but about "40 percent of the state lives in counties that went forward with the same-sex unions." Besides, as the News says, gay couples could simply drive to counties that were issuing marriage licenses.

The article concedes also that public support for same-sex marriage is extremely low in Alabama -- only 32 percent in 2012, quoting a think tank.

All three articles are mostly free of leading labels, although the News mentions "gay rights supporters" once. All three also bring up the infamous effort of Alabama to fight desegregation of its schools five decades ago -- but handle it very differently.

The Montgomery newspaper simply quotes an African American avowed lesbian who compares the fight for gay marriage with the old fight for civil rights. The Dallas paper is more direct, quoting an attorney for a gay couple: "History is repeating itself."

The Los Angeles Times is most strident, recalling when Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of a school and pronouncing "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

"That angry call of defiance defined the state for decades as a stubborn holdout against social change," the Times says. Then it backpedals on the current reaction to same-sex marriage: "The most notable effect of the Supreme Court's action — in a state keenly aware of its past — is what didn't happen. There were few protests, and there seemed to be no disturbances in the major cities."

So, while trying to draw a parallel between opposition to same-sex marriage and opposition to segregation, the newspaper acknowledges that actions and reactions have been very different. But why? No answer here. The contrast is left unexplained.

Ya gotta admire that, in a way. The story is consistent even in its inconsistency.

Please respect our Commenting Policy