UPDATED: On Covering “Anti-Gay” Groups

Julie Bolcer of The Advocate has an interesting nugget from Tom Brokaw on his views regarding coverage of “anti-gay” groups by the mainstream media.  This is an issue we’ve addressed before.

“I don’t think you can shut down free speech,” he said. “We’re a free speech society. They’re entitled to their positions however wrong they may be. How do you begin to censor things?”

Last month, Dan Savage of the It Gets Better campaign criticized CNN on air for interviewing antigay leaders such as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group. He said the attention legitimized the idea that there are “two sides” to gay and lesbian issues.

Brokaw argued that coverage of antigay viewpoints serves a purpose in that it can generate the kind of outrage that prompts nationwide conversations. He said the issue reminded him of his earlier years reporting on the civil rights movement, although he declined to draw a direct comparison.

“I was called a Communist, but there were people who used the n word and said, ‘It’ll never happen in my lifetime,’ and in some ways, that was useful, because the rest of the country saw how outrageous it was and how intolerant it was,” he said.

Asked how antigay views should be presented, he said, “You just say that they’ve got strong opinions. You treat like them like anyone else. You cross-examine and ask them the right questions.”

Agree or disagree, I think Brokaw’s view is the one shared by most mainstream newsroom and journalists. Mainstream newsrooms  can’t exile groups like the Family Research Council just because they are considered a “hate group” by an activist organization.  That doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t be challenged by journalists and have the “hate group” issue raised.

UPDATED: Also in an Advocate column, here’s Jonathan Rauch’s take on the “hate” question.

There are real antigay bigots out there, but they are fading in number and strength. The people who matter now are the persuadables who are struggling to believe they can make room for us on equal terms even if they cannot agree with our “lifestyle”—people who wish us no harm but who are struggling to adapt old ideas to a new situation and who worry about the dizzying pace of cultural change. Our job is to open their eyes, not slap their face.

No, I’m not saying that the b word should be banished like the n word or that we all have to agree on who does and does not deserve to be called a hater. All I am suggesting is that with majority standing must come a mental adjustment: a recognition that rhetorical overkill is a weapon that backfires, one that our opponents are already using to paint us as the real bigots, the real haters, the real threat to minority rights and tolerant values.

Journalists also need to challenge evidence and facts from all sides, although this is admittedly a murky proposition.  Everyone has a study that they can use to prove their point and journalists–especially on the 24-hour news shows–rarely have time to get into thoughtful analysis of social science research.  But when anyone says something is “a fact” or “true,” good journalists shouldn’t just accept it without some proof.  Being skeptical of anyone’s research or evidence–“pro-gay” or “anti-gay”–is a good journalist’s tactic.

It’s also important to remember that activists groups are waging a war against each other, and looking for allies in the press.  Take a look at a Human Rights Campaign memo sent to reporters covering same-sex marriage in California.

MEMORANDUM

To: Members of the California media
From: Kevin Nix, Human Rights Campaign
Date: December 5, 2010
Re: Same-sex marriage

Although the public’s attention is squarely on jobs and the economy, anti-gay social conservatives by their own admission are full steam ahead on denying marriage (and civil unions) to committed gay and lesbian couples. They remain engaged in California’s Proposition 8 case (hearing on Dec. 6) and have said they’re going to state legislatures in January and throughout 2011-12.
Specifically, anti-gay conservatives want to rescind marriage equality in two states where it is legal (Iowa and New Hampshire). They’re attempting to block marriage recognition next year in New York, Rhode Island, and Minnesota and may move into additional states, including Maryland and North Carolina. They have recently dusted off their call for a Federal Marriage Amendment.

People are moving in the direction of basic equality, not away from it. For the first time, two national polls (AP, CNN) registered a slim majority of support for same-sex marriage. More Catholics and political independents, says the Pew Research Center, approve than disapprove.

In your coverage of marriage equality in the coming days and weeks—whether on Prop 8, the House Republican agenda in Washington, ballot initiatives, or constitutional amendments—we ask you consider verifiable facts about the lead organization against same-sex marriage, the National Organization for Marriage, which is playing heavily in all the national and state marriage battles.

The NOM Public Relations Campaign
NOM portrays itself as a more tolerant organization– a kindler, gentler, more reasonable group than, say, Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Examples include:
· NOM’s chairman Maggie Gallagher said last month that “I’m very proud of the message that NOM has carried consistently and with great love.”(emphasis added)
· Brian Brown, NOM president, has referred to his “gay friends and family,” implying he is okay with gay people.
· Brown has said repeatedly that NOM doesn’t “hate anybody.”

We don’t know for sure if NOM “hates” anyone. What we do know—based on NOM’s own public statements—is that they hold extreme anti-gay positions that are the vast majority of Americans would not find reasonable or tolerant. For example:
· NOM doesn’t believe in civil unions, which huge majorities of Americans do support. (See Illinois this week, where NOM fought against the civil unions bill—for gay and straight couples– there that passed.)
· NOM isboycottingthe Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) if next year’s conference includes gay Republicans.
· NOM’s leadership has said publicly that being gay should be a crime and is a “sexual disability.” (See video here.)

Our point here is that the organization has a clear anti-gay animus that extends beyond its stated public policy goals of preventing same-sex marriage. NOM is a “runner up” on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s latest list of U.S. hate groups.

Fears over Facts

NOM’s core argument—gay marriage will ruin the traditional family and uproot the entire institution of marriage—should be challenged. Never have they been able to point to scientific evidence to support their claims. (The scientific research supporting marriage equality is here and here.) Anecdotally, there have been no negative consequences in the six years of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, or since the freedom to marry has been legal in Iowa, California, New Hampshire, Vermont, District of Columbia.
We ascribe to the Patrick Moynihan theory of debate: People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Fear, unsupported, is a powerful tool in influencing public opinion and we hope it is at least challenged before it moves to the public square.
Conclusion

The reality is with Republican gains this cycle in state legislatures and in the House, social conservatives are emboldened to strip or stop relationship recognition for a tiny percent of the U.S. population who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. NOM’s mission is to “protect marriage,” but they are doing little to strengthen marriage for the 90+ percent of people who enter into marriage.

HRC is cooperating with the Courage Campaign to run an website and effort against NOM. It’s a slick website and an interesting effort, but also illustrates the activist group warfare taking place that requires reporters to make smart decisions about being dragged into the battle.

One Response

  1. I do agree that it’s important to interrogate anti-gay groups about just how anti-gay they are. Reporters have an opportunity to expose the contradiction that exists between the friendly image and the damage that they do to gay families.

    Simply, pretending that they don’t exist, on the other hand, is obviously counterproductive.

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