That Darn New York Times

That Darn New York Times

At a moment when The New York Times is under assault from the Bush-Cheney administration for fulfilling its central journalistic mission of informing a free people, it might seem churlish to grouse about the Gray Lady’s coverage of same-sex marriage, a right which after all the newspaper does support.

Still, in recent examples of what I will call its zeitgeist style of reporting—occasioned by The Times’ overdeveloped institutional self of itself—Patrick Healy and Sam Roberts posited interpretations of last week’s gay marriage defeat at the Court of Appeals simply unsupported either by the facts or by sound reasoning.

Healy was the more important offender, if only because his “news analysis” appeared front page, above the fold, the morning after the ruling—and well over a dozen hours earlier on the Times Web site.

Under the reasonably mild headline “For Movement, A Key Setback,” a startling sub-head appeared: “Activists Must Decide To Press On or Retreat.” That clearly suggests that gay marriage advocates were suddenly roiled by a heated internal existential debate. But only three gay rights leaders were quoted, none of them sounding remotely squishy on the goal of marriage equality. That is hardly surprising, since no national LGBT leader I know of has uttered a word about retreat since last Thursday. Healy’s only evidence that surrender might be prudent to think about came from a major gay marriage opponent’s spin that the New York ruling was the Gettysburg signaling the civil rights struggle’s demise.

The larger problem with the Healy piece is that it set up two straw men—that New York was the next logical battleground after Massachusetts, and that in the wake of the Boston victory of 2003, gay leaders confidently expected the U.S. Supreme Court to force marriage equality nationwide within a decade.

That second claim is clearly absurd. Given the current composition of the high court, with only two justices appointed by Democrats and the most recent two named by George W. Bush, hell-bent on remaking the federal judiciary in Clarence Thomas’ image, Healy couldn’t possibly have assumed that thinking on anyone’s part. In fact, the marriage drive has focused only on state constitutional challenges, to the exclusion of any federal initiative.

The assumption that New York, home of the Stonewall Rebellion, represented the next possible victory offers more surface logic—if you’re a reporter in Boise. The Court of Appeals has not, for a long time, been the progressive beacon that tradition and sentimental New Yorkers claim it is. Judge Robert S. Smith’s majority opinion voiced outdated prejudices about gay parenting rejected just a week earlier—by the Arkansas Supreme Court!

Any one paying attention to the unfolding national marriage strategy would know that New York’s neighbor across the river has always been deemed a far stronger candidate for success. If you are going to write a front-page Times analysis on gay marriage, you ought to know that.

Sam Roberts, less prominently, but also in less coherent fashion, followed with his own analysis on Monday. Roberts worked from a reasonable assumption—in fact one that might have scared Healy off of his reductionist analysis—that New York is less liberal than either its residents or Americans in general think. (Really, who among us hasn’t privately reached the same conclusion over and over again living here.) But Roberts used a rather unfortunate scatter-shot approach in making his argument. We’re not Sin City. There’s no porno in Times Square. You can’t smoke in restaurants. Gay couples can’t marry. And, finally, “it’s not the asylum, either.”

I kept imagining a cartoon in which some pitiful gay couple is barred from using their favorite glory hole on the way to a wedding chapel, which is locked. When it comes to liberal inanity, one size apparently fits all.

Roberts’ more serious problem was in how he casually approached the matter of polling data. He said that Times research (never before published) showed only 32 percent of state residents and 35 percent in the city support gay marriage. Given the Pride Agenda’s finding that marriage equality enjoys a 53 to 38 percent edge in New York State, I was confounded—and only later learned that Roberts was reporting the preference tally for marriage among three choices, including civil unions and no partnership rights at all. Given that the newspaper has not comprehensively reported these findings to date, that is sloppiness an editor should have caught.

Still, The Times is nothing if it ain’t big. By Tuesday, a sane voice had finally emerged—that of Clyde Haberman, who mocked the Court of Appeals, both in frivolous tones and in deadly earnest satire about the majority ruling’s libel against gay parents.

There will always be a New York Times.