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.
The most widely circulated papers in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington covered the debate over same-sex marriage in their state extensively in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Though all four publications endorsed marriage equality, their news coverage largely ignored the extremism of anti-equality groups and often devolved into "he said-she said" journalism that failed to correct anti-gay misinformation.
Earlier this month, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed a bill that would curb the ability of asbestos-exposure victims to recover losses from some of the companies that are legally responsible for their suffering. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved a similar bill last week, joining Arizona, Idaho, and Utah, which all passed laws limiting corporate liability for asbestos-related claims in March. In recent years, these kinds of laws have passed in fifteen other states as well.
The rash of eerily similar bills appearing everywhere at once is not a coincidence. The legislation is a product of teamwork between the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Crown Holdings, Inc., a Fortune 500 company that has spent the better part of the last decade trying to legislate its way out of compensating cancer and mesothelioma victims who were exposed to asbestos by a company they purchased in 1963.
Despite this remarkably successful multi-state campaign to absolve a single corporation of liability to the detriment of thousands of suffering Americans, the ALEC/Crown crusade has been a quiet one, thanks to state media institutions that have failed to provide meaningful coverage of the issue (or, occasionally, failed to cover it entirely). As a result, important laws that profoundly affect the lives of many voters are being approved without serious public consideration.
Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings began its campaign to eliminate its asbestos liabilities through legislative action as early as 2001, when it spent $100,000 to influence legislators in its home state of Pennsylvania. Despite originally failing early in the year, the asbestos measure was resurrected successfully in late 2001 as an amendment to another bill. The move was led by State House Republican leader Rep. John Perzel, who has subsequently received tens of thousands of dollars from Crown Holdings over the past decade.
Perzel was awarded "State Legislator of the Year" from ALEC at the end of 2001. ALEC's executive director hailed Perzel as "a leader who truly personifies the Jeffersonian principles of liberty, limited government, and free-markets." But Perzel is now in state prison, after being convicted this year of helping to divert $10 million in public funds toward Republican campaigns for re-election.
Perzel's 2001 sleight-of-hand maneuver to resurrect the defeated asbestos liability provision is still being felt. With the momentum of a Pennsylvania victory under its wings, Crown Holdings, with ALEC's help, would successfully push identical legislation in 19 other states while employing a strategy of spending big on lobbyists and political contributions.
Sen. Al Franken scored a victory on Tuesday for those calling for more oversight of private military contractors. Not that the Star Tribune bothered to report on it.
Minnesota readers instead had to turn to MinnPost.com -- a Minneapolis nonprofit that continues to school its for-profit competitors -- for news of Franken's amendment:
In one of the most public tests of his political skills since taking office in July, Franken pushed through an amendment Tuesday that would withhold defense contracts from companies like Halliburton if they restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.
MinnPost had 1,200 words up on Franken's amendment the same night it passed.
The Pioneer Press's blog The Political Animal also blogged the story that night: "Minnesota's junior senator opened up a bit of a floor fight this afternoon in Washington, D.C."
A floor fight? Who doesn't love a good floor fight?
Yet Minnesota's largest newspaper was nowhere to be found.
To be fair, the Strib (as the Star Tribune is known locally) did provide its readers with a blog post on Thursday morning mentioning the passage of the amendment -- a blog post attacking Franken for his questioning of a witness during a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
In Thursday's blog post -- "Franken gets testy over statistics" -- Eric Roper focused on Franken's demeanor during the hearing. Here is the lede:
Al Franken used to write books slamming his foes for allegedly manipulating statistics. And as one witness before the Judiciary Committee learned on Wednesday, old habits die hard.
Franken's target was Mark de Bernardo, executive director of the Council for Employment Law Equity, who clashed with the senator on his top issue this week: arbitration. It is a technique to keep legal disputes out of court and the topic of Franken's recent amendment, which passed the Senate on Tuesday night. His bill bars funding from defense contractors who prevent employees from suing over sexual assault and other charges.
Despite the major legislative victory, an unusually terse and irritated Franken emerged on Wednesday as he questioned de Bernardo, who was singing the praises of arbitration before the committee.
Let's chalk up Roper's suggestion that Franken shouldn't be criticizing someone for "manipulating statistics" to his employment of a hackneyed cliche. What's more important is, why is Franken's demeanor the subject of the only reporting (in a blog post) by the Strib on the very important -- and underreported -- issue of oversight of military contractors, as well as on Franken's first legislative victory?
(If his demeanor was so newsworthy, why did Roper completely ignore Franken's praising of Jamie Leigh Jones, the victim of gang rape that inspired Franken's amendment, and the genuinely funny and light-hearted moment between the two that preceded Franken's question of de Bernardo.)
While far too many media outlets are focused on allegations against ACORN, the crimes being committed by and occurring under the watch of military contractors are going virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media. Without Franken's amendment, a woman gang raped while working for a military contractor could be forced to take her case to an arbitrator rather than to a jury. Now, such a victim can receive real justice. Sounds like a victory for everyone, including the people of Minnesota.
Franken's amendment even had Republican support, except for some stalwarts like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who put up a fight -- a storyline the Strib also missed.
The Strib certainly did not have to portray this as a victory for Franken, even though Roper acknowledged it was in an aside two days later, but it is certainly obligated to cover the legislative actions of Minnesota's junior senator. Apparently, the Strib's awful treatment of Franken during the campaign and recount continues ...
As The Huffington Post's Sam Stein wrote: "After operating largely under the radar during his first few months in office, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is slowly beginning to make political ripples."
Let's hope, for the sake of Minnesotans, that the Star Tribune doesn't continue to bury the lede.
From a September 30 post on former Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Eric Black's MinnPost blog:
My friend and former colleague Katherine Kersten connected a few non-existing dots in a Sunday Strib column to imply that the demonic ACORN may have stolen the 2008 MN Sen. election for Al Franken. She offers precisely zero particles of evidence that any improper act by ACORN resulted a single improper vote for Franken being counted, or even rejected. Of course, she didn't say that such a thing occurs, she merely puts together facts from other states, the current ACORN embarrassments in other states, notes that ACORN was active in voter registration in Minnesota, that ACORN supported both Franken and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, and concludes with a question:
"Did ACORN folks pull some fast ones to help get their favorite son Franken elected - a win that handed Democrats the 60-vote, veto-proof majority that they needed to enact their liberal agenda?"
She does not note, as basic fairness might have required, that despite the enormous scrutiny given to the Minnesota election, neither Norm Coleman nor any of his attorneys ever alleged that such a thing had occurred and in fact specified to the Supreme Court that it was making no allegation of fraud in the election.
As I've written before, the lack of any evidence of fraud, or even attempted fraud, in this excruciatingly close, highly scrutinized election is something of which Minnesota should be proud.
The Fox Nation, Gateway Pundit blog, and Mickey Kaus all highlighted a Minneapolis Star Tribune column to claim or suggest that ACORN stole the 2008 Minnesota Senate election for Sen. Al Franken (D). In fact, the column -- which Gateway Pundit and Kaus falsely claimed was a Star Tribune "report" or "story" -- did not contain a single allegation of a fraudulently cast vote, and the Minnesota Supreme Court stated that counsel for Franken's 2008 opponent, Norm Coleman, "confirmed at oral argument that Coleman makes no claim of fraud on the part of either voters or election officials."
Numerous media outlets uncritically reported the assertion by Sen. John McCain's campaign that Sen. Barack Obama "voted against funds for American troops in harm's way." However, none of these outlets noted that McCain himself has voted against legislation to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor did they mention that Obama has voted in the past to provide funds for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.