Post-Maine: Media Plays Armchair Quarterback

Two of the most prominent newspapers in the country–the New York Times and the Washington Post–played armchair quarterback on Thursday, talked to one of the same people–Evan Wolfson–but ended up with different takes on the future of tactics in the same-sex marriage battle.

In the WaPo, Ashley Surdin wrote a news article (that read like an analysis) with the heading “Gay groups say loss won’t alter strategy.”  Now, reporters don’t usually write their headlines, but I’m not really story Surdin’s story/analysis actually came to that conclusion.  She interviewed Wolfson, referred to generic “advocates,” and had another quote from a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force person.  The conclusion: despite losing 30 times in a row, no new tactics.

Except, that’s not really what was reported/analyzed.

But most of the focus on the state stems from a federal lawsuit challenging Proposition 8 that is expected to go to trial in January. Lawyers David Boies and Theodore B. Olson, onetime opponents in the legal battle over the 2000 presidential election, are representing same-sex couples in the case, arguing, among other things, that Proposition 8 violates gays’ right to due process and equal protection under the Constitution.

The federal case marks a shift in direction for the gay rights movement. Activists and legal strategists historically have avoided taking the issue to a narrowly divided Supreme Court, fearing a major setback. And though not all gay rights advocates agree on the timing, there is a growing consensus that there may never be a perfect time for a federal challenge.

“The whole idea that somehow you have to choose between federal and state work is a false ‘either or.’ The reality is, every movement needs to do both,” Wolfson said. “You don’t win on the federal level without engaging in those conversations and legal victories in states and communities. At the same time, you want to be part of a national conversation that helps create a climate for more states to move in the right direction.”

Fairly boilerplate talk from Wolfson, but doesn’t the focus on a federal lawsuit represent an altered tactic?

In the NYT, we get pretty much the same ground covered in an article billed as a “news analysis” by Abby Goodnough. She talks to Wolfson, the NYT favorite gay pundit Richard Socarides, plus Maggie Gallagher and Jennie Pizer from Lambda Legal. Goodnough determines that tactics are going to change.

In Maine, advocates had stuck to a familiar path: using their own personal stories, they tried to persuade voters that gay people were no different from their straight neighbors and deserved equal treatment under the law.

Now, many will argue that that approach is not enough. Some are already pressing for more aggressive tactics, like speeding up a ballot measure to reverse California’s ban on same-sex marriage next year, instead of taking more time to build support. Others want to focus on swaying federal lawmakers to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which Representative Barney Frank, the nation’s highest-ranking openly gay politician, has called foolish at this point.

“The state-by-state strategy that looked clever a few years ago has run its course,” said Richard Socarides, who advised President Bill Clinton on gay issues. “The states that were easy to get have been gotten.”

In other second day stories, the Boston Globe tells us people on all sides are “reflect[ing]” while the San Francisco Chronicle says activists will “return to the drawing board” while pointing the focus back on California.  NPR says that activists may wait it out, but quote the ever-present Socarides about moving to a federal strategy.

The Globe story may have been the best of the lot, in part because parts of Maine are essentially Boston suburbs and because they talked to people closer to the action.

These kinds of stories are important, but it’s telling how little new information there is.  If reporters talked to people other than Evan Wolfson or Richard Socarides (or David Mixner), what would they be hearing?  Why do reporters turn to the same voices who say the same things? And what’s the purpose of the armchair quarterback story anyway?

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