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Thursday, March 25, 2004

The media's bias for gay marriage.

As we get ready for next week's final round in the Massachusetts legislature's attempt to launch the two-year constitutional amendment process to ban same-sex marriage, two things seem worth mentioning. First, marriage licenses are going to be available to same-sex couples starting May 17 no matter what the legislature — or Gov. Mitt Romney — does. But that's no reason to sit home confident that history is bending toward justice all on its own. History needs your help.

Call your representatives — and no matter where you live, I urge you to donate to the good work MassEquality is doing. They have set a $75,000 goal for March 29, and as of today they have only raised $14,694.

And if you live anywhere near Boston and you haven't previously come up to the State House to be part of the democratic frenzy, I urge you to stop by for an hour or more on Monday. It will be quite the scene, and your presence matters. Although it's awfully convenient for me (working next door and all), I plan to put in an hour at least on Monday. I hope you'll join me.

Second, there's a good side and a bad side to the overwhelmingly sympathetic treatment the media is giving the push for gay marriage. Mrs Philocrites and I have been struck (as viewers of the local Fox ten o'clock news) at the remarkable contrast between the faces in the gay marriage debate: Pleasant, middle-class lesbian parents on the one hand, apoplectic fundamentalists and Catholic hierarchs on the other. If nice was always victorious and these images were truly representative of the national mood, Massachusetts would be leading a relatively brief national march to gay marriage.

So here's the bad news: There's a reason the media is putting a good face on my side of this debate, and proponents of same-sex marriage should be aware of it so that they don't start to get complacent about the difficulty of the road ahead. That reason is bias.

Jonathan Chait, who also supports gay marriage, observes that a lot of the national press keeps saying that President Bush is "rekindling a culture war" by calling for a U.S. Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But when the press puts it that way, it

betrays an assumption that has characterized most of the coverage of the gay marriage debate: that the culture wars are being "rekindled" not by those who are revolutionizing the way society thinks about gay rights and marriage but by those who stand in their way. For many in the media, that is, efforts to expand gay rights simply constitute progress; efforts to arrest that expansion constitute culture war.

Chait believes "the coverage is a function of the kind of people — affluent, educated, and secular — who tend to work in the national media. Indeed, press coverage of the gay marriage debate offers a perfect case study of the degree to which journalists' socioeconomic assumptions influence their reporting." I'd buy that.

When you look at the polling data, you discover that Americans are divided even on the legality of gay relationships — not marriages, mind you, just relationships. When asked by a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last July if "homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal," "should" edged out "should not" by just 48 to 46. An identically worded question, posed by a CBS/New York Times poll in December, resulted in just 41 percent replying yes and 49 percent no. 

Unsurprisingly, the public rejects gay marriage by a far wider margin. Last month, the Annenberg Center conducted a poll asking, "Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex?" Thirty percent said they favored it; 64 percent opposed it. This finding is pretty typical: In most polls, about one-third of respondents favor gay marriage, and two-thirds oppose it. . . .

Needless to say, this is not the picture one gets from media accounts of the controversy, which have tended to focus on the possibility that Bush's support for the amendment will cost him among swing voters. As this week's Time magazine contends, "Many swing voters are also the suburbanites who abandoned the GOP in the past when it got too wild-eyed about culture wars." This may be true as far as it goes. But the voters that Time is referring to — i.e., upperincome, socially moderate, economically conservative folks — don't make up the entire swing vote or even the largest portion of it. A larger bloc of swing voters has essentially the opposite sensibility — culturally traditional and economically populist. "The greatest bloc of contested voters watching politics from a distinct perspective is noncollege and blue-collar America," writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book The Two Americas. "These are the voters for whom church and faith are important and who think values and family are under pressure too." 

These downscale swing voters are substantially more likely to support an amendment banning gay marriage than the more libertarian suburbanites Time focuses on. And, while most of the recent polls on gay marriage are not broken down into useful demographics, such information as there is supports this assumption. The Annenberg poll — which, again, was an outlier in showing overall opposition to the amendment — shows voters with advanced degrees overwhelmingly opposed to the amendment and all others essentially split. 

It's not hard to understand why the national media fails to grasp the continued strength of cultural traditionalism: In Washington and New York, where many journalists dwell, gay marriage is an increasingly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the country, it's not. And, even if the media doesn't realize this, it's a good bet Karl Rove does.

("Look left," Jonathan Chait, New Republic 3.15.04, sub req'd)

So that's the bad news. The good news is that a lot of people are mobilized for change, and a lot of other people are gradually coming to see that their gay and lesbian neighbors are, in fact, really there and that their relationships are worth at least some respect. The long-term trend is favorable to same-sex couples, but the short-term need is for hard work, careful arguments, and strategic thinking.

See you at the State House on Monday.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 25 March 2004 at 10:24 PM

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Next: Nothing to see here. Move along.

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