Media Blackout
The marriage amendment gets the silent treatment.


Stanley Kurtz

Are the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe guilty of egregiously biased journalism in their coverage of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment? I’ll report. You decide.

The Post, the Times, and the Globe failed to cover the widely touted kickoff of the campaign for the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) two years ago; they failed to cover last week’s Senate hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act; and they have largely failed to report the views of the Alliance for Marriage (the driving force behind the FMA’s introduction in Congress) on the question of gay marriage. It isn’t easy to substantiate a case of bias by omission, but consider the evidence of journalistic default on the part of these three esteemed newspapers.

Two years ago, I noticed that the Post, the Times, the Globe, and ABC World News had all failed to cover the kickoff of the campaign for a Federal Marriage Amendment. The news conference at which the FMA was introduced featured former Washington D.C. congressman Walter Fauntroy, and was covered by the wire services, several major television networks, a wide array of radio networks, and a number of prominent newspapers. Yet the Post, the Times, the Globe, and ABC said nothing. I chalked this up to liberal bias. But instead of writing yet another story complaining about presumed media bias, I decided to ask each of these news organization why they had failed to cover the announcement of the FMA. I wanted to offer them a fair chance to rebut popular assumptions about an allegedly liberal media. The result was, “The Silent Treatment,” a story in which I laid out the utterly unconvincing explanations given by the Post, the Times, the Globe, and ABC World News Tonight for their failure to cover the kickoff of the campaign for the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Two years later, 75 congressmen are sponsoring the Federal Marriage Amendment, the Senate Majority Leader has spoken on its behalf, the president is seriously considering endorsing it, the media has been awash in stories about gay marriage, and the battle over the Federal Marriage Amendment is set to become one of the key issues in the presidential campaign. Yet even in this charged atmosphere, last week’s dramatic Senate hearing on the legal status of gay marriage drew not a scintilla of coverage from the Post, the Times, or the Globe. (ABC World News Tonight may well have failed to cover last week’s hearing, but I have not confirmed this.)

Two years ago I contacted Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler about his paper’s failure to cover the announcement of a campaign for the FMA. The Post’s National Desk told Getler they hadn’t known of the news conference. The National Desk also implied that, without congressional sponsorship, a proposed amendment wasn’t worthy of coverage. Given the fact that the FMA’s announcement was previewed on the major wire services, the Post’s claim to have known nothing about that announcement is unconvincing. And somehow the lack of congressional sponsorship didn’t stop the rest of the media from covering the announcement of the FMA. In any case, that excuse is gone now. The FMA has plenty of congressional sponsors, and is about as hot as an issue can get. So why didn’t the Post cover last week’s Senate hearings on whether the FMA, or some other action, might be needed to keep the Defense of Marriage Act from falling if Massachusetts legalizes gay marriage? The answer, I fear, is liberal bias.

I recently contacted Matt Daniels, head of the Alliance For Marriage, and the driving force behind the Federal Marriage Amendment, to ask him what sort of coverage he and his organization had received from the media since the announcement of the FMA two years ago. Daniels told me that shortly after I published “The Silent Treatment,” a reporter from the Washington Post got in touch with him. Daniels said the Post reporter interviewed him by phone at least five times, collected information about the organizations affiliated with the Alliance for Marriage, and arranged for a photography session near the Capital. According to Daniels, this reporter seemed to want to portray the Alliance for Marriage as a mere front for the conservative Christian organization, Focus on the Family.

Daniels, who grew up in Spanish Harlem to a single mother on welfare, has both a law degree and a Ph.D. from Brandeis. He once worked for the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI), a completely independent organization that had a loose association with Focus on the Family. Yet Daniels left MFI precisely because he wanted to found an organization that would build a coalition on family issues across traditional racial, religious, and political lines. The Alliance for Marriage (AFM), far from being some sort of front organization for Focus on the Family, is completely independent, both organizationally and financially. AFM brings together representatives of major Jewish and Christian organizations, legal experts from academia (like Princeton’s Robert George and Amherst’s Hadley Arkes), and includes in its coalition key representatives of two of the largest African-American denominations in the country, and of the largest association of Hispanic churches in the nation. Obviously, AFM is a religiously and politically diverse coalition.

Did the Post’s eventual article on Matt Daniels and the Alliance for Marriage accurately reflect that diversity? Not exactly. You see, despite the multiple interviews and the photo session, there was no article. In fact, despite the FMA’s new-found national prominence, the Post has never reported on FMA’s chief sponsor, Matt Daniels, or the Alliance for Marriage — at least not in regards to the battle over gay marriage. (Unless you count a quick, sarcastic aside attacking Daniels, in a piece about other matters, by Post columnist Al Kamen.) It’s difficult to escape the suspicion that the Post killed the Matt Daniels story after it discovered it would not be able to label the Alliance for Marriage as a front for fundamentalist Christians.

How can the Post defend it’s failure to cover last week’s Senate hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA)? As noted, excuses about a lack of either congressional interest or political import can no longer provide even a fig-leaf of justification for silence. I suppose (however absurdly) someone might argue that last week’s Senate hearings were a minor event, unworthy of coverage. But how then do we explain the fact that, the very day after the DOMA hearings, the Post’s op-ed page prominently featured an opinion piece by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson decrying the Federal Marriage Amendment. The timing and prominence of Simpson’s op-ed strongly suggest that the Post’s opinion editors were responding to the Senate hearing of the previous day. If the editorial page editors thought that hearing was important enough to call forth a major opinion piece, why didn’t the news editors think the hearing important enough to justify a news article? Obviously, the Post doesn’t want to cover the battle over the FMA; it wants to fight it.

Could it be argued that the DOMA hearing was a partisan and one-sided attack on gay marriage, and therefore deserved no coverage? Even if the hearing was one-sided, it would have warranted coverage-the imbalance being part of the story. In fact, however, the DOMA hearing featured powerful testimony on both sides of the gay marriage issue. It would have been easy to cover the hearing in a way that told both sides’ story. Many of the local TV news accounts of the hearing did just that. So did the Associated Press. But it would appear that fairly conveying both sides of this debate is exactly what many members of the press do not want to do.

This past July, Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt published an opinion piece on gay marriage. That column obviously tilted in favor of gay marriage. No problem there; it was an opinion piece. But Hiatt’s column called for careful consideration of arguments against gay marriage that did not depend upon some sort of vague disapprobation of homosexuality. At last week’s Senate hearing, Maggie Gallagher gave testimony offering just such an argument. Gallagher, a widely recognized expert on marriage, claimed that gay marriage would effectively break the connection between marriage and parenthood, thereby aggravating an already grievous national epidemic of fatherlessness and single parent families. Agree or disagree, Gallagher’s argument was powerfully put. By placing this argument on the public table, Gallagher was doing exactly what Hiatt had called for. Yet, by failing to cover the hearing, the Post itself was making it impossible for a reasoned national debate to take place.

One of the witnesses at last week’s Senate hearing was the Reverend Dr. Ray Hammond. Hammond is the senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston, and a graduate of both Harvard College and Harvard Medical School. And Hammond is the leader of an ecumenical coalition of religious and lay leaders in the Boston area working on issues affecting black and Latino youth — especially those at risk for violence and drug use. Ray Hammond is also a member of the board of the Alliance for Marriage, and testified in opposition to gay marriage. This, I think, is what the Washington Post may not want its readers to know-that there are prominent supporters of the Federal Marriage Amendment who do not fit the stereotype of southern, conservative, fundamentalist Christians.

I call on Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler to publicly address the question of bias in the Post’s coverage of the Federal Marriage Amendment, and of the Senate hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act. I also call on Getler and the editors of The Washington Post to remedy this problem. The Post needs to provide fair coverage of the arguments offered by advocates on both sides of the gay marriage issue. The Post also needs to provide fair coverage of major political events in the battle over the Federal Marriage Amendment. I also ask Fred Hiatt to follow through on his own call for fair and reasoned debate by opening the Washington Post op-ed page to both sides of the Federal Marriage Amendment issue. Why, for example, shouldn’t Maggie Gallagher be allowed to write an op-ed for the Post that might balance the piece by Alan Simpson?

Two years ago, in “The Silent Treatment,” I detailed the implausible excuses made by the New York Times and the Boston Globe for their failure to cover the announcement of the Federal Marriage Amendment. The Times claimed that it would cover this issue thoroughly and impartially, at some future time “if the political momentum [for FMA] seems to be building.” Well, the momentum has built. Where, then, was the Times’s thorough and impartial coverage of last week’s Senate hearing? The Times did very briefly quote Matt Daniels in an article last month on the Federal Marriage Amendment. And the Times did publish a thoughtful article on the political, legal, and social implications of the gay marriage battle in this past Sunday’s magazine. Yet this in no way excuses or mitigates the failure of the Times to cover last week’s Senate hearing.

When I contacted the Boston Globe two years ago, it didn’t bother to justify its failure to cover the FMA announcement on substantive grounds. Instead, the Globe made the unconvincing claim that it passed on the story because it was short staffed. (In that case, the Globe could have run a wire service report.) No state in the union has more of a stake in the debate over DOMA and the Federal Marriage Amendment than Massachusetts. With a decision on a suit to legalize gay marriage imminent in Massachusetts, it is impossible to see how the Globe could have legitimately failed to cover last week’s Senate hearing. And this is not to mention the hearing’s dramatic juxtaposition of two Bostonians on opposite sides of the issue: Ray Hammond, a widely revered figure from Boston’s inner city speaking against gay marriage, and Senator Kennedy, Massachusetts’ leading liberal, and the most prominent opponent of FMA in the hearing room. What a story! How are we to explain the Globe’s silence, if not as a simple refusal to cover testimony against gay marriage by, among others, a Boston hero like Ray Hammond? Last month, the Globe actually ran a story announcing that these hearings were taking place. So why not carry a story on the hearings themselves?

These journalistic failures have real effects. Ethically, of course, this sort of bias is a betrayal of the principles articulated early last century by Washington Post owner, Eugene Meyer. Meyer pledged the Post to tell ALL the truth (emphasis original), and to refuse alliance with any special interest. In reaffirming her father’s principles of impartiality, Meyer’s daughter, Katherine Graham, said that the mission of the Post was to provide a common base of information for the nation.

That common base of information is what we now lack. Television news outlets tend to take their cues from the major papers. Few television outlets even know of the existence of Matt Daniels or the Alliance for Marriage. When covering the Federal Marriage Amendment, TV news shows tend to interview spokesmen for the Family Research Counsel, little realizing that the FRC originally opposed the Federal Marriage Amendment as too liberal (because FMA does not prohibit states from passing benefits packages for homosexual couples).

It is simply bad journalism to treat the Family Research Council as the chief spokesman for the Federal Marriage Amendment, while failing to interview Matt Daniels, whose organization actually drafted the amendment and is shepherding it through Congress. So through a kind of ripple effect, the major papers’ poor coverage of this issue is already muddling our national debate.

More deeply, the issue at the core of last week’s DOMA hearings may in a sense be driven by the press’s bias on this issue. At that hearing, the proponents of gay marriage claimed that we can trust the courts not to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet the public understands that this country’s judicial and journalistic elite are determined to usher in gay marriage — even if that means ignoring democratic procedures, and even if that means disregarding journalistic ethics. The bias of America’s elite journalists — their willingness to utterly silence even moderate opponents of gay marriage by denying them coverage — is proof that the country’s closely related judicial elite cannot be trusted to respect the law on this issue. Short of a constitutional amendment, there is no way to stop gay marriage. Every act of journalistic bias on this issue only serves to drive home the point.

Stanley Kurtz is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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