The most widely circulated papers in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington struggled to hold anti-gay groups accountable while reporting on their respective marriage equality battles, according to a new report from Equality Matters.
Though all four of the states' leading papers endorsed marriage equality in the weeks before Election Day, they all committed the same mistakes that plague mainstream media coverage of marriage equality debates.
By far, the most obvious deficiency in mainstream coverage of marriage equality battles has been the failure to accurately expose voters to the animus and hostility that motivates anti-gay groups.
The groups fighting against marriage equality in all four states each had long, extensive histories of extreme anti-gay rhetoric long before they began their 2012 campaigns:
All four groups toned down their anti-gay rhetoric once they began their public campaigns against marriage equality and instead and began trying to appeal to moderate voters. One Minnesota newspaper, for example, noted the "low-key" ads being run by opponents of marriage equality.
And in all four states, they largely got away with it.
Though spokespersons from these groups were quoted ad nauseum by local media outlets in the weeks before Election Day, a total of just three news items mentioned the groups' extreme anti-gay rhetoric across the four most widely circulated state newspapers.
To its credit, the Baltimore Sun also published an editorial condemning the pastor who argued that gay people are "worthy of death."
For the most part, though, readers were left unaware of the kind of fringe bigotry that motivated the groups behind the anti-equality ads that bombarded the airwaves.
The failure to report on the animus driving these state anti-gay groups significantly alters the public debate on same-sex marriage. Opponents of marriage equality insisted that "supporting marriage as the union of a man and a woman does not make you anti-gay but pro-marriage." The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) even released a video explaining that opposition to same-sex marriage is driven by "biology (not bigotry)."
These groups know that whitewashing their own anti-gay views is essential to swaying on-the-fence voters. By failing to hold these groups accountable, state media outlets deny their readers the information they need to determine which sources of information are credible and trustworthy.
The second major problem with the way state newspapers covered their marriage equality battles has to do with the way that these outlets resolve (or fail to resolve) factual disputes about the consequences of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Anti-gay groups consistently rely on misleading horror stories in their ads to convince voters that same-sex marriage will be taught in schools, threaten religious liberty, etc. Each of these horror stories can be easily debunked, and even opponents of marriage equality have admitted that their ads are not "completely accurate."
When it comes to reporting on those ads, unfortunately, papers frequently shirk away from serious fact-checking, preferring instead to quote both sides of the argument and allow readers to decide for themselves. The Baltimore Sun's news coverage of an incident at Gallaudet University - in which the school suspended its Chief Diversity Officer after discovering she had signed a petition to put Maryland's marriage equality law up for a vote - clearly demonstrated this tendency, even as the editorial board confirmed that the incident had nothing to do marriage equality.
This form of "he said-she said" journalism does a disservice to voters and ends up lending credibility to completely baseless anti-gay talking points. Failing to resolve factual disputes leaves readers feeling confused and unable to separate truth from fiction.
The aversion to aggressively fact-checking anti-gay ads is understandable for print outlets that want to avoid looking like they're taking sides. But it isn't "bias" to debunk misinformation, even if that misinformation is only coming from one side of the debate. Public opinion on the issue of same-sex marriage may be evenly divided, but the truth about same-sex marriage is not.
When it comes to important civil rights issues, "he said-she said" journalism does real damage to those who are targeted by right-wing misinformation. As Kate Riley, editor of the Seattle Times editorial page, said while discussing her paper's support for marriage equality:
"Going back to this idea of exceptional circumstance," Riley said, "I would hope we would have supported the emancipation proclamation. Women's suffrage. These are different. These deserve muscle power."
Pro-equality activists thankfully prevailed in all four states on Tuesday. Had they failed, they would have been justified in turning their ire towards the news outlets that allowed their opponents to get away with being depicted as credible and fair-minded. As LGBT equality continues to come before voters in more and more states, state media outlets should recognize that telling the truth about a major civil rights issue is more important than trying to seem "fair and balanced."
To see the full Equality Matters report, click here.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, major media outlets whitewashed many of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's extreme positions, including on abortion, health care, and the situation in the Middle East. In doing so, these outlets aided Romney's efforts to remake himself as a moderate politician.
Washington state Democrats aren't the only ones fuming about the Seattle Times' unprecedented decision this week to run a full-page endorsement ad this week in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna. More than 100 staffers at the Times' signed a letter to the publisher, denouncing the paper's news advocacy role.
The controversy provides another example that makes a mockery out of the long-standing conservative cry that America's media suffer from a blanket liberal bias.
Times management insists its full-page Republican support wasn't about politics, but about business. Through a new pilot program it's trying to highlight the "power of newspaper political advertising and to attract new revenue for the newspaper."
In other words, the Times is jealous that campaigns are spending an estimated $100 million on media buys in Washington this year, and spending most of it on television. So the best way to get in on some of that campaign money is for the Times to spend nearly $80,000 of its own money promoting not the newspaper's vast reach, but promoting talking points for a Republican politician? ("An easy way to end the gridlock that threatens to cripple state government.") That seems like a strange approach.
Also, if the Times wanted to highlight what a great media vehicle the newspaper is, shouldn't its marketing effort have taken place in August or September, not the middle of October when most of the campaigns' money has been spent or previously allocated. (The Times claims full-page ads in 2012 will spur political spending in future campaigns.)
The Times noted that it plans to run similar ads in support of Referendum 74, a vote to legalize same-sex marriages. However, polls indicate Referendum 74 will likely pass easily in Washington, whereas the state's race for governor remains in a dead heat. In that regard, the Times' Republican ads are worth much more politically.
As Derek Thompson wrote at The Atlantic, from a business perspective almost nothing about the Times' Republican ad push makes sense. And that's why local Democrats don't buy the Times' explanation. They see it as a clear example of a major media player using its substantial resources to try to tilt a local campaign.
"Not even Fox News has ever done anything like this before," wrote Joby Shimomura, campaign manager for Democrat Jay Inslee.