Media coverage on Boy Scouts ranges from excellent to inexcusably biased

Thursday’s announcement by Robert Gates, president of Boy Scouts of America, that the group may need to change its policy on gay leaders drew a predictable avalanche of coverage, some of it very good and some of it a mess.

Some background: The Scouts have been fighting this battle for at least two decades. Some of you may remember the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Boy Scouts of America vs. James Dale that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gay leaders. That was 15 years ago.

As for the latest news, we’ll start off with today's Los Angeles Times Page 1 story:

Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, urged the group on Thursday during its annual meeting in Atlanta to end its ban on gay leaders, saying the prohibition “cannot be sustained.”
“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” said Gates, former CIA director and secretary of Defense.
He recommended that local Scouting groups be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow gay leaders.
Advocates of gays in Scouting cheered in celebration.
“He's made it clear that if the Boy Scouts don't make the change on their terms, the courts will change it on their terms,” said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality.
“Now we need to make sure not only does that ban come to an end, but that it's enforced across the country,” Wahls said, adding, “There needs to be full inclusion for gay adults.”
Others had a more mixed reaction.
“It's one of those things I was hoping I wouldn't have to think about for years to come,” said David Barton, an Orange County Cubmaster, assistant Scoutmaster, Eagle Scout and the father of two boys in Scouting.

The reporter did a very thorough job of calling around to every religious group possible: Southern Baptists, Mormons, a Texas-based values group, Catholics, as well as a gay Scoutmaster who was forced to leave his troop. It was a lengthy, comprehensive piece.

Sadly, a lot of media weren’t as fair as the Times. Check out this story by CNN that doesn’t even bother to include the opinions of conservatives who disagree with Gates. Or this short piece that ran on The Atlantic’s website:

Despite the flurry of recent activity, Zach Wahls of Scouts for Equality told me that the movement to permit gay youths and gay adults began in earnest in the 1970s. One particular turning point was a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that reaffirmed the group’s constitutional right to ban gay members.
That decision cost the organization some of its more politically neutral local sponsors upon which the group relies. “When the Scouts won their Supreme Court case, all the public schools walked away,” Wahls said.

Zach Wahls obviously had a busy day on Thursday, as he’s quoted everywhere. But did the reporter have to take on face value Wahls’ contention that public schools “walked away”  from the Scouts after 2000?

According to this pro-gay site, school districts were subjected to the tender mercies of the Lambda Legal Defense folks who put quite a bit of pressure on schools to kick out the Scouts. Let’s not forget the ACLU, which threatened in 2005 to sue schools nationwide that charter Boy Scout troops. It’s pretty tough to stand up to that kind of full-court press.

This USA Today story was pretty evenhanded in that it explained Gates’ announcement and his reasoning, inserted quotes from two religious organizations that think the Scouts should still ban gay leaders, followed by quotes from two gay-rights groups that think the Scouts must change.

Religion News Service picked up USA Today’s story but posted an edited version that cut out the quotes from the religious groups while retaining quotes from one of the gay rights groups. What’s up with that?

The future of the Boy Scouts cries for many more follow-ups.

Religious groups that were caught flatfooted by this week's announcement may come up with more cogent responses. While it's true each sponsor of a local troop can decide the make-up of its leaders, what will happen when the local ACLU threatens to sue them?

This set of dominoes is going to fall fast. I'm hoping that media organizations that ran articles cheerleading Gates' announcement buckle down and actually cover the debate. That is, both sides of it.

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