For years, the news media has been framing the issue of marriage equality as a debate, rather than a discussion. Almost every pro-marriage message has been strategically met with an anti-marriage counter-message. Virtually every advocate for allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry has been booked alongside an anti-gay activist who was there solely to fight against them. Although polls show the overall tide is certainly moving in favor of marriage equality, every "wave" of that tide that has originated in the news media has been designed to end up as a draw.
These segments may be good for ratings, particularly when they devolve into shouting matches. The problem is, the news media itself almost always fails in its responsibility to educate its audience.
99% of these segments follow the same script: Invite the two sides on. Let them duke it out like Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. Cut to commercial. Lather, rinse and repeat. The news media doesn’t need to fact-check when there are no facts – only opinions. And the public knows that even facts coming from a partisan on either side of any given issue can be spun. Sure, sometimes the news media will do its job after-the-fact, like Chris Matthews did last week when he corrected the record about the organization that anti-gay activist Tony Perkins cited. But in the heat of the vast majority of these debates, impartial parties do not challenge assertions by partisans. Only the other partisans do.
In the case of marriage - this changed drastically on Monday with the broadcast of the Proposition 8 Appeal hearing on C-Span. For many Americans who tuned in, or who saw clips broadcast later, this may have been the first time they’ve heard this issue discussed rationally and methodically, with campaign branding stripped away, and political rhetoric replaced with facts. The televising of the 9th Circuit Court hearing (and subsequent replays) allowed millions of Americans to hear the truth about this issue, first-hand.
Opponents of marriage equality can’t use political tactics in a court of law. Attorney Charles Cooper had to defend the idea of taking marriage away from loving and committed gay and lesbian couples, using legal evidence and merits instead of deceptive campaign ads. For the first time in the media, many Americans could finally see this issue boiled down to facts and evidence. And they saw the case for marriage equality presented by two of the greatest legal minds in America, hailing from opposite sides of the political spectrum: Ted Olson and David Boies.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media about where the case goes from here. We hope there’s also a chance to talk about where the media goes from here. Pundits have their place, but on this issue, in today’s media landscape, punditry does next-to-nothing to deliver information in a trustworthy manner to the people who need it.
So news media, let’s start talking to experts. Respected academics. Reknowned sociologists. People who can teach the public about this issue. Let’s start informing viewers, rather than shouting at them. I hope that producers, journalists, and viewers alike will all see what C-Span was able to accomplish in just those few hours on Monday.