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

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."

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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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