There Probably Isn't Any Neutral Way to Report on Homosexuality

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Journalists could do better at conveying the best traditionalist arguments against gay marriage. But some people won't be satisfied unless gays are stigmatized as in bygone days.

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If I ran a web publication that aspired to serve my home state and all its residents, how would I cover gay marriage? It's a question I'm pondering anew after reading commentary by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton; a reporter at that newspaper who regards gay rights as the civil-rights struggle of our time; Get Religion blogger M.Z. Hemingway, who argues that most journalists neither understand nor convey the best arguments against gay marriage; and traditionalist Rod Dreher, who believes reporters hate traditionalists, "and consider us not worthy of the basic fairness they would use in approaching their reporting on criminals and terrorists."

Am I alone in being sympathetic to everyone involved?

Suppose for a moment that gay rights are a civil-rights issue of our time -- and that the news media does a terrible job reporting on the people whose opposition to gay marriage isn't rooted in bigotry.

That's how I see it.

As an editor-in-chief, I'd be transparent about the fact that my deeply contested premise would influence some coverage decisions. What vexes me most about traditional newspapers is the fiction many of them maintain that they're running neutral enterprises without any grounding premise. Better to state where you're coming from, defend it, and open your pages to smart dissents.

How would I defend the proposition that gay rights are a civil-rights issue? As a kid at a mostly white elementary school with a few Latinos and Asians but no blacks, I was taught about MLK and Rosa Parks, who were presented as heroes on the order of George Washington. The Cosby Show shaped my notion of what black people were like. Racists were synonymous with bad people. It would've been unthinkable for one of my classmates to use the n-word.

I was never taught about gays at all. My first notion of their existence came from Jack Tripper, the Three's Company character who pretended to be gay in the most cliched way so that his landlord would permit him to cohabitate with two women. In fourth or fifth grade, I remember everyone playing the game "Smear the Queer." At the time, I was oblivious to the slur. I don't know if I was particularly naive. Maybe my classmates were too. But the game was openly played under that name at birthday parties supervised by parents and on a playground supervised by teachers. At my high school, "gay" was used as a casual putdown, and though it was often meant in the way that Louis C.K. describes, I shudder to think about how it must've made closeted gays feel.

What I've described is mild compared to the plight of the countless kids who were ruthlessly bullied for being gay, something I thankfully never saw; or the early AIDS cases who would've gotten help sooner had the country conceived of the disease as something that affected straight people; or the longtime gay couples who weren't permitted to visit one another in the hospital; or the gays who were prosecuted for sodomy, which states could freely do until 2003; or the gays who've been beat up on the street by homophobic thugs acculturated by bigots; or the gays who came out to parents and siblings only to be cruelly rejected and disowned.     

Whenever I see traditionalist conservatives characterize gays and lesbians as aggressors in the culture wars, I understand why they feel that way, given the rapidity with which gay marriage went from an unknown phenomenon to a fait accompli. But there seems to be no recognition that there wasn't ever a "neutral" status quo: Gays and lesbians began aggressively asserting their equality because mainstream culture mistreated, demonized, and caricatured them for decade after decade. The press treated them much worse than traditionalists have ever been treated. Ask Andrew Sullivan or Jonathan Rauch how much mockery and how many knee-jerk dismissals they were subject to when they began writing on their respective briefs for gay marriage. I think a lot of cultural liberals presume bad faith on the part of traditionalists because their calls for fair-mindedness and tolerance began only when they became a cultural minority.

None of that is meant to excuse the hackish way gay marriage is covered by some journalists, because at this point everyone who writes about it ought to understand that there are coherent, principled, non-bigoted traditionalist arguments. I happen to disagree with those arguments, for reasons I'd explain to readers in my hypothetical publication. But I'd also do my utmost to accurately convey them, both by inviting traditionalists to make their case directly in my pages, and by commissioning fair-minded journalists to explore interesting traditionalist perspectives.

Airing arguments and perspectives is one service that a publication offers its readers. Another is to report, as accurately as possible, what's actually going on in the world, with no regard for whether the reality being conveyed bolsters or undermines a political or ideological cause. Given the frequency with which the most thoughtful traditionalists have their perspectives misrepresented in the press, I understand why Hemingway writes, "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."

But let's be clear: While journalists are obligated to set forth the best arguments from all sides in their "facilitating public discourse" mode, they oughtn't give the impression, in their "conveying reality as it is" mode, that the most thoughtful, non-bigoted arguments against gay marriage are all that's driving the debate. It's been some years since I went door-to-door as a beat reporter, talking to anyone I could find about gay marriage on one of the occasions that the issue flared up in California. I won't pretend that the dozens of people I spoke to in person or the hundreds I interacted with online were a scientific sample. But suffice it to say that it is very easy to find people whose opposition to gay marriage has nothing to do with a principled commitment to preserving marriage as an institution whose primary purpose is procreation and child-rearing.

These people are cool with marriage in its modern, secularist, find-your-soul-mate-but-no-fault-divorce-just-in case incarnation. They just don't want gays to participate. The number of people who object to gay marriage is far bigger than the number who embrace traditionalist notions of marriage. And public opinion is changing so quickly in part because encounters with real-life gays rather than stereotypes thereof tend to make many people more sympathetic to gay marriage.  

I just don't see any way for a publication to be neutral on this question. Either you cover gay people like you cover everybody else, or you don't.

Conveying reality, without fear or favor, would involve deep dives into the tolerant arguments of intellectuals like Rod Dreher and the many rank-and-file traditionalists who, though they've had less opportunity to refine and articulate their arguments, think similarly. But it would also involve something else journalists don't typically do: profiling the many people whose opposition to gay marriage is rooted in bigotry, whether of the knee-jerk "yuck, gays" variety or the thankfully more rare, aggressively anti-gay variety that has been censored out of the mainstream media but remains in American culture. (E.g., take a look at the comments in this Free Republic thread.)

For all our disagreements on gay marriage, I imagine that Dreher and I would find it easy enough to agree with one another if running a publication that aspired to (1) facilitate public discourse by airing all the strongest arguments pro and con relating to gay marriage; (2) convey as fully as possible the complicated reality of American life, with accurate reporting as an end in itself.

But what about cultural coverage? Wrote the Washington Post ombudsman in his column, "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."

This is the thorniest issue of all.

As I see it, the normalization of homosexuality in America is a wonderful development. Thank goodness that if a son or daughter of mine turns out to be gay he or she won't grow up in a world where their inborn inclination to love someone of the same sex is deemed perverse. I look forward to a future where a newspaper that runs a weekly profile of a local family includes gay heads of households not for the sake of diversity but because five percent of local families are that way, and they just naturally come up in coverage as often as you'd expect. Even setting aside gay marriage, however, many traditionalists are deeply antagonistic to the notion of a culture that treats homosexuality as normal in the same sense that it treats left-handedness as normal -- a culture where gay men occasionally kiss on TV just like straight couples do, where some girls attend prom as one another's dates, and where teen-lit includes gay characters.

Is there any way for a publication to be neutral on this question, or to be equally fair to "both sides"? I just don't see it. Either you cover gay people like you cover everybody else, or you don't. Even treating gays and lesbians neutrally -- neither celebrating nor condemning them -- runs afoul of the subset of traditionalists who want to treat them as though they're abnormal, sinful perverts. As I see it, that stigma has been a tremendously destructive force in American life, and elsewhere in the world, it still contributes to gays being persecuted and in some cases killed.

What I wonder is how media critics like Hemingway or traditionalists like Dreher or Eve Tushnet, all of whose work I admire, would run their own "Style" sections if they were trying to publish a mass publication for an entire state, or an entire nation. I am certain, having long read their work, that they're all as horrified as anyone by bigotry, persecution, and violence directed at gays. And I know that they could avoid that ugliness even as they did far more justice than usual to the strongest arguments against same-sex marriage. But I wonder if even their publications would be regarded as "fair" by the subset of traditionalists who insist that maintaining a general stigma against homosexuality is of vital cultural importance. In fact, I suspect that there is no publication that they could stomach publishing that would also satisfy those traditionalists. But I am often pleasantly surprised by wonderful things they produce, so perhaps I am wrong.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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