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March 16, 2004

Not Getting the Obvious Conflict

Perhaps you, too, will find it difficult to believe that Political Science Professor Jacob Levy really doesn't understand why the San Francisco Chronicle has decided not to assign same-sex marriage stories to a pair of lesbians who were recently "married" in that city's spate of activism-driven ceremonies. Here's Levy:

I get the Chronicle's intuition, of course: the reporters now have a personal stake in whether the SF marriages are eventually upheld as legal. But one doesn't prohibit all married reporters from reporting on every legal fight over the meaning, benefits, and incidents of marriage. Married reporters cover the debate over the marriage penalty, arguments about divorce law, and so on. Having a stake in the legal consequences of one's marriage hasn't ever been a disqualification from reporting on marriage.

It's almost enough to leave one speechless. Luckily, the Chronicle's executive editor, Phil Bronstein, offered the explanation that Levy requires in the very same letter to which the professor is reacting (emphasis added):

It is that notion alone - being personally involved in such a specific way in the story one is covering - that drove our decision that Rachel and Liz should no longer cover same-sex marriage. Specifically, we believe that the central issue and defining moment of the same-sex marriage story is same-sex marriage, while it may or may not be a central and defining issue in, say, the tenure of Newsom as mayor, or in the gay and lesbian civil rights movement.

Comparing this to having a stake in the marriage penalty is beclouding to say the least, both in the directness of involvement and in the emotional force behind the issue. I almost feel like a dupe for stating something that seems so obvious, but participating in controversial weddings and then covering them is not the same as being married and covering discrete issues that affect every married couple.

However, I will concede that Levy is just attempting to flip the pillar already laid on its side by media bias. He goes on:

Moreover, the reporters also would have had a stake in the outcome of the story had they not gotten married but simply intended to once the legal situation was resolved.

That, folks, almost brings Levy around to being right. By getting married, all the lesbian reporters have done is to crack open the curtain of journalistic pretensions toward objectivity. And by acting as though their "marriages" have no more specific import than the average heterosexual marriage, all Levy has done is to highlight just how massive an illusion the public is being asked to believe.

Jacob Levy has punfully taken note of this post. In response to his confirmation that his is a sincere question, as well as to questions put forward in the comment section, here, I thought it worth expanding on what I find so obvious.

Those marriages — of themselves — represent the controversy that makes the story newsworthy. Engaging in them, at this time, is akin to signing a petition for the legalization of same-sex marriage, or marching to show advocacy.

In a comment to this post, Jenny engages in a game that a sufficiently creative person could pursue for days on end. (Here's my submission: "Could an Earthling cover debates about efforts to track and destroy potential-impact comets?") With the possible exception of a hypothetical reporter in the midst of a divorce covering divorce law debates, Jenny's questions are suitably contrived to serve her rhetorical purposes. However, there are certainly circumstances in which a reporter's interest in any issue can become sufficiently direct as to merit reassignment of its coverage.

A paper is certainly free to allow anybody to cover anything. And frankly, I adjust for the very bias at issue as a matter of course in my own reading. As Levy notes, these reporters were just as likely to be biased before the marriage as after. The solution that I would prefer is the dropping of the objectivity curtain altogether; it's practically so attenuated as to be translucent, anyway, particularly for the SSM issue.

Nonetheless, as I wrote in the multiblog miniblog "Into the Ether" (see my sidebar), I admit that there is a measure of unfairness in the San Francisco Chronicle's decision. After all, I haven't heard of a single instance in which a mainstream media outlet has removed one of its fundamentalist Christian reporters from the gay marriage story.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 16, 2004 8:14 PM
News Media

hmmm. so should an engaged journalist not be allowed to cover marriage penalty debates? or a soon-to-be divorced journalist not cover divorce law debates?

or what about women of reproductive age covering abortion issues? DC residents covering lead-in-the-water-supply? or older male journalists covering viagra?

Posted by: jenny at March 17, 2004 3:19 PM

There are fundamentalist Christian journalists?

Posted by: Caowyth at March 17, 2004 4:58 PM

Yes there are - but not in the mainstream media.

Posted by: m at March 20, 2004 3:04 PM