Analysis: Dr. Phil on Marriage Debate

November 21, 2008
In what is believed to be the first national talk show to devote its full hour to California's battle for marriage equality, Dr. Phil offered up a sweeps month episode that claimed to examine both sides—literally, as the audience was divided down the middle with those for on one side and those against on the other. Sitting on the panel were San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, HRC president Joe Solmonese, and attorney Gloria Allred debating anti-gay Pastor Jim Garlow of Skyline Church, Maggie Gallagher of National Organization for Marriage, and Jeff Flint from the Yes on 8 campaign. Dr. Phil tells the audience that he is looking to present each side of the campaign and that he won’t take a stand either way as it should be a "personal decision." If he means that the majority voting on a minority's civil rights should be a personal decision, then, uh, Phil, we disagree. Let's examine the rest of the hour. . . Segment 1: The now-familiar talking heads were met with wild, unnatural applause from their respective followers after each statement. With all the hooting and hollering going on, you might think for a moment that they were overflow audience from The Jerry Springer Show (but they are dressed too nicely). The challenge of this kind of talk-over-each-other forum is that whoever gets the last word in before the commercial break often seems to score a hypothetical point for their side. Gallagher erroneously states that gays & lesbians don't need marriage: "All the practical rights and benefits for people to live their life are still available through civil unions." Wild applause and cut to commercial.

Point 1: Team H8

Segment 2: The topic is the campaign ads on both sides. "Did they go too far," asks Phil, pointing out that at $74 million this was the most expensive social issue campaign in history. There is a surface discussion about the Prop 8 ads which presented misinformation about the religious and education ramifications if Prop 8 should fail. Joe Solmonese points out that the Prop 8 campaign couldn't find any California public school educator to put in their ad to support their bogus claims about same-sex marriage being taught in schools. “First they call you haters and bigots if you disagree with them on marriage," Gallagher spewed. "Now they call you liars if you disagree with them about the consequences of gay marriage.” Uh, Maggie, if the shoe fits. Check out the screengrab (right) to see an unintentional message being sent to viewers. After 20 minutes, Gloria Allred finally gets a word in and lays into Gallagher. Solmonese thankfully brings the conversation back to the differences between marriage and civil unions.

Point 2: Equality

Segment 3: Opens with b-roll of a handwritten sign that boldly reads "GAYS HATE GOD." Ick. Having been on the frontline of the rallies, I know the rallies have brought out many gay people and allies of faith. The sign seems like an anomaly or perhaps a plant by anti-gay operatives—either way, it unnecessarily stokes the flames. "Man-on-the-street" interviews follow about the church and its involvement in the campaign. Shot at what appears to be Garlow’s Skyline Church, church members deliver the false messages they've been fed through e-mails, mailings, commercials and likely their pulpit. Where is The View's Sherri Shepherd? Back on Phil's stage, Garlow takes this opportunity to further exaggerate a myth of widespread post-election violence happening against churches and anti-gay demonstrators. Newsom interjects and says that any violence is wrong but points out that gay and lesbian couples have long been the victims of violence. He adds that we are talking about civil marriages and that this shouldn’t even be a religious issue. (Translation: Pick up your toys and go home Garlow.)

Point 3: Equality

Segment 4: Going into the second half, Dr. Phil pulls the gloves off to talk about the techniques used by Prop 8's to extort money out of companies that supported Equality California. Jeff Flint tries to explain and Dr. Phil calls it what it is: "threatening and intimidation."

Regarding boycotting going on by "No on 8" supporters, Gallagher cries foul and attempts to draw a difference between boycotting the businesses of individual donors vs. the businesses that donated.

Newsom refocuses the topic by talking about the devastating change that has happened by altering the Constitution.

Point 4: Equality

Segment 5: We're nearing the end of the show and there have been no gay couples talking about why marriage is important to them. Until now. This segment features video packages of two couples: David and Bob and Jennifer and Dan. Both couples have two young children so there are nice parallels drawn between the families. "We’re the couple down the block with two kids,” says Bob in their video package. "Marriage commits permanence," adds David, against a background of photos from their traditional Jewish wedding. Bob continues: "After Prop 8 passed on election day I felt betrayed...I felt angry. We want the legal protections of what marriage offers. We want the best for our children. We just want to be equal.” “We feel like second-class citizens,” concludes David. “If it’s us now, who’s it going to be next?” Now it's time for Jennifer and Dan's package where they will try to explain why their union is superior. Jennifer doesn't believe gay couples have lost a civil right, just the word 'marriage.' It's interesting to watch the two packages back to back. Both feature scenes of the parents at home with their respective kids: David and Bob's segment is about themselves and how marriage affects their own family so the footage is all about them and their happy family; Jennifer and Dan have no real grounds to explain how marriage between a same-sex couple directly affects their own family, so much of their segment is spent talking about "them" and showing scenes from the anti-gay TV ads and, yes, shots of David and Bob at home. Following the packages, the two couples are live in Dr. Phil's studio audience for follow up. David is passionate and bridges the gap to show the comparisons between the two families: "We have what you have."

Point 5: Equality

Segment 6: We're in the home stretch and going into the last segment. "I’m always looking for a way to bring people together," says Dr. Phil. "Gloria, is there a way to dial down the rhetoric?"

Allred chooses instead to talk about the California Supreme Court protecting the minority over the whim of the majority, reinforcing that this is about a legal marriage license and not a religious issue.

Phil asks Garlow if there’s a way to find common ground. Garlow says the acts of violence and name calling has to stop and then launches into a jumble of election statistics. “This issue has been examined microscopically," he says, trying to convince viewers that voters knew what they were doing when they voted Yes on 8. Allred and Solmonese try to quickly respond but Dr. Phil has to go to a break. I'm sure one of them would have said something to the effect that casting a vote on a fundamental right is not examining the issue, sir.

Point 6: Toss Up

Segment 7: And now it's over. No time for impassioned audience stories or follow up questions.

"We’ve only scratched the surface here,” before he thanks his guests. “For those of you at home, I hope we’ve given you some insight into this most important issue.” True, Dr. Phil reaches a large audience that could benefit from dialogue about equality for same-sex families, but you're left with the uneasy feeling that if Oprah and Phil and all the others had given this much attention to the issue before the election, maybe things would have turned out differently.

As he does every show, Dr. Phil closes the show by walking through the audience to join his wife Robin (reminding viewers that he can still marry). Dr. Phil says he wants to be a healer. Perhaps not segregating and dividing the audience would have been the first step. Based on my highly unscientific scoring criteria, Equality seemed to win by episode's end. But as the credits roll and the camera pans through the audience, the relatively blank faces of the audience members on both sides say it all: Nothing really came from this.