Cold Feet

We may look back one day and wonder why media coverage of the gay-marriage issue never kicked in to the old, familiar fight-for-justice story line evident in the civil-rights struggles of the 1960s.

Now here's a story for our time. Thousands of same-sex American couples flock to San Francisco to get married, and they're all over television, print, the Net. One female pair lands on the front of the New York Post, of all places, having an "I do" smooch while onlookers applaud. "GAYS WED," says the tab's giant headline.

Meanwhile, the man who allowed all this to happen, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, has been in media outlets far and wide. A Google news search on his name this week produced more than 4,700 hits. Newsom often compares the gay-marriage issue to the civil-rights struggles of the last century. "I believe very strongly and passionately we're on the right moral ground," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer last Sunday. "I do not believe in advancing separate but unequal status. I do not believe in advancing discrimination.... These were the same debates we were having on interracial relationships just a few decades ago, where blacks couldn't marry whites."

Thanks to Newsom, to recent judicial developments in Massachusetts, and to the emerging gay-marriage battle in Washington, in a very short time this story has taken on enormous political significance. Suddenly everyone from George W. Bush to Arnold Schwarzenegger to John Kerry is on the spot—and looking as if they'd rather be anywhere else. In a front-page story several days ago, The Washington Times reported that this issue could be a political "thicket" for Bush, that his position could alienate the swing voters he may need to be re-elected.

This story also has one of those "ironic" twists that reporters generally adore. Safe to say, many of the same-sex couples now populating the coverage disagree with the current political leadership of this country and would like to see it replaced by a more liberal one. Yet they are begging to embrace the very institution that President Bush and his supporters consider "the most fundamental institution of civilization," as Bush himself put it this week. In short, the Lefties want to do something so traditional it's downright conservative, and the Righties won't hear of it.

Is there any richer story right now on the news landscape? Yet, if you're paying attention to the coverage, you may have noticed the mainstream media are not totally engaged by it, certainly not as engaged as they have been by analogous stories of the past. Think of the civil-rights story to which Newsom alludes. Or, if that seems a stretch, consider the feminism story of the 1970s, which in some ways is more closely parallel: A great subgroup of Americans suddenly rises up to claim a new place in society.

Yet compared with what I know about those stories—which, admittedly, I only witnessed as a child—the coverage of gay marriage has a tentative, muted feeling. As filtered through the mainstream media, gay marriage seems not so much a righteous cause, inherently worthy of our attention and concern, as another strange, colorful chapter in the never-ending "culture war," a phrase that appears over and over in the mainstream coverage. The media, which are normally so good at creating heroes, have not yet given us a gay Rosa Parks or even a gay Gloria Steinem.

Why? Perhaps the story is still too young. But I think it's also about the journalists. A lot of straight mainstream media people, the sort of people who work at national newspapers and TV networks, would probably tell you they support gay marriage, but in a vague this-is-what-people-like-us-believe sort of way. Even in the age of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, gay marriage still makes a lot of heterosexuals, including liberal ones, a bit queasy. If the polls are accurate, I guess this is one way in which journalists actually resemble everyday Americans.

When the issue landed on Newsweek's cover last July, the headline didn't frame it as a noble struggle, and there was no Steinemesque cover hero. It was just a photo of two guys (or, on an alternate cover, two women) sort of holding each other with the headline: "Is Gay Marriage Next?"—a word choice that seemed subtly threatening, like an intimation of doom.

Meanwhile, the one media sector that is going to town with gay marriage is the one that finds it truly threatening: the Right. That stark New York Post headline, "Gays Wed," had a shock-horror feeling, driven home by the subhed, "Historic 1st Nuptials as S.F. Mayor Defies Law." In a jubilant soliloquy the other day, Rush Limbaugh described the wave of San Francisco unions as "fringe, wacko, off-the-wall stuff."

Maybe it's a good thing the mainstream media haven't caught gay-marriage fever and are not pumping this story as if it were civil-rights redux. Objectivity is the goal, right? We don't want to take political sides. Still, I suspect we're going to look back one day and be amazed we lived through a time when the government tried to prevent gays from marrying. We may also look back and wonder why the coverage never kicked in to the old, familiar fight-for-justice story line.

In the last few weeks, however, one gay-marriage character has begun to emerge as a star. Mayor Newsom is having the political equivalent of what's known in Hollywood as a "breakout" moment, with suggestions that a national career is being launched before our eyes. Newsweek signaled as much this week in its biographical sketch of Newsom, which made special note of his "movie star looks." The last time the media applied that label to a new political face, his name was John Edwards.

But then, Gavin Newsom has one quality that makes him especially suited to be the media's hero on gay rights: He's straight.