The Washington Post's ombudsman responded to claims that the paper's coverage of the same-sex marriage debate is too "pro-gay," noting that one reporter called it an issue of "justice and fairness." The debate over the Post's stance highlights a growing and significant divide in the way that journalists choose to write about the fight for LGBT equality.
On February 22, the Post's ombudsman Patrick Pexton published a response to reader complaints that the paper "has a 'pro-gay agenda' and publishes too many 'puffy' stories about gay marriage." Recounting an exchange between one reader and a WaPo reporter, Pexton defended the Post's coverage, comparing anti-gay discrimination to the kind of discrimination faced by African-Americans during the 1950s and 60s:
Replied the reporter: "The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that's the 'view of the world' that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law."
The reader: "Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
"Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as 'haters.' "
The reporter: "As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn't marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn't be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?
"Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness," the reporter continued. "The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people's bedrooms, and religion out of government."
Alongside that do-gooder instinct is a strong desire for fairness because, being out in the world, reporters encounter a great deal of unfairness. We want to expose that and even rub your noses in it. In a way, we're shouting, through our stories: "This is unfair! Somebody do something!" Conservative and liberal journalists alike feel this way.
That's why many journalists have a hard time giving much voice to those opposed to gay marriage. They see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing. [emphasis added]
Pexton's defense of WaPo's reporting offers a stark contrast to the "fair and balanced" approach that plagues much of today's news coverage of the fight for LGBT equality - an approach that prioritizes treating both sides of every disagreement equally, even when one of those sides is motivated by bigotry, misinformation, and intolerance.
When the media hesitates to treat LGBT equality as the civil rights issue that it clearly is, they provide anti-gay bigots with a chance to influence and shape the national discussion about LGBT people. On cable news networks, hate group leaders like Tony Perkins are given ample airtime to fear monger about the alleged "gay agenda." Activists like Maggie Gallagher are allowed to peddle blatant falsehoods about marriage equality. And so-called "experts," like Fox News' Dr. Keith Ablow, are given a platform to warn viewers that allowing a transgender person to be on television might corrupt their children. Earlier this year, even the simple question of whether to rescind the Boy Scouts' gay ban was hijacked by conservatives hoping to paint homosexual men as pedophiles. In an effort to appear neutral, objective and "balanced," journalists have given a tremendous amount of credibility to activists who've made careers dreaming up horror stories to justify their deep animus against LGBT people.
In 2010, gay activist Dan Savage told CNN that media outlets would eventually need to experience a "cultural reckoning" when it comes to covering gay and lesbian issues - a point at which those outlets recognize that it's no longer appropriate to take the concerns of anti-gay activists seriously. They'd need to pick a "side" in the fight over LGBT equality, much in the same way the national media eventually picked a "side" in the debate over interracial marriage, the Civil Rights Act, and extending voting rights to African- Americans.
WaPo's Pexton has wisely chosen not to stay neutral in the fight for the fair treatment of a marginalized group, instead opting to stand on the right side of history. News outlets would be wise to follow him there.