Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Media walk tricky line on same-sex marriage

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
February 25, 2013 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Howard Kurtz says the media face a challenge in covering the issue of same-sex marriage when advocacy can turn into bias.
Howard Kurtz says the media face a challenge in covering the issue of same-sex marriage when advocacy can turn into bias.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Media has played role in growing acceptance of gay marriage
  • He says a Mississippi paper covered a same-sex wedding and outrage ensued
  • He says in another instance, a D.C. reporter seemed to show bias on other side of issue
  • Kurtz: Paper right to defend story; D.C. reporter shows media's need to remain neutral

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- As same-sex marriage has become accepted in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, the media have -- perhaps unwittingly -- played a crucial role.

It's not that most journalists lean left on such social issues as gay rights, though that's hard to dispute. It's that the power of pictures can neutralize political propaganda.

Once same-sex marriage was legalized in such early states as Iowa and Massachusetts, the photos and footage of happy couples celebrating made clear that no one was really threatened by such unions. The visuals put a human face on the debate.

Even as stories quoted people who remained staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage, the pictures conveyed that the sky was not falling -- and by the time New York, Maryland and Washington legalized same-sex unions, it was, well, less newsworthy.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

But that's hardly true everywhere, as a stunning backlash in Mississippi makes clear.

The first known gay wedding in the town of Laurel, Mississippi, was, naturally, a story for the local paper. And it was a story with a heart-rending twist.

An article in the the Laurel Leader-Call recounted Jessica Powell's wedding to Crystal Craven, who was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and has had three operations in the past year. It was a moving piece that described how Craven, at the wedding, wore a white cowboy hat to hide the scars from her latest surgery. "If chemo doesn't work," she said, "we don't know what happens after that."

Watch: Is the murdered model's beauty driving the Oscar Pistorius coverage?

Gay bishop takes message on road
Open Mic: French on same-sex marriage

The result: A torrent of angry calls, canceled subscriptions and outraged comments on the paper's website and Facebook page.

As recounted by Deep South Progressive, one person wrote: "This is what we have to put up with on the world news every night. Never thought I would open my local paper and see such. Insulting!!!"

Said another: "It's a sad day for traditional family values when this is printed on the front of a newspaper."

The paper's owner, Jim Cegieklski, responded in an op-ed:

"You don't have to like something for it to be historic. The holocaust, bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Black Sox scandal are all still historic. I'm in no way comparing the downtown wedding of two females to any of these events (even though some of you made it quite clear that you think gay marriage is much worse), I'm just saying that whether you liked the story or not, the first known gay wedding to take place in Jones County is still historic."

He added: "I can't help but be saddened by the hate-filled viciousness of many of the comments directed toward our staff."

Watch: Was the press ready to smear Pete Domenici over his out-of-wedlock baby?

The Leader-Call deserves credit for standing by a legitimate story that infuriated part of its readership. There was no attempt to glorify gays; the piece simply recounted the wedding, which was purely symbolic, since Mississippi doesn't allow same-sex marriage. What was stunning was the way some critics simply ignored the fact that one of the women is fighting for her life.

Maybe this resonates more deeply for taking place in the South, where many leading newspapers once staunchly defended racial segregation in a way that is now embarrassing -- and which prompted some of them to apologize decades later.

At the same time, a column in Sunday's Washington Post makes clear that those who believe the press tilts too far toward same-sex marriage have a valid point.

Watch: New York anchor who attacked wife gets the tabloid treatment

Ombudsman Patrick Pexton reports on an e-mail dialogue he facilitated between a reader and a Post reporter he declines to name. The reader complained that the Post minimizes "the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness."

The reporter said: "The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. ... The true conservative would want the government out of people's bedrooms, and religion out of government."

That is bias, pure and simple. Yes, it is a civil rights issue, but the reporter simply can't understand why anyone would have a different viewpoint other than that the government should not interfere on such issues as same-sex marriage and perhaps, by extension, abortion.

If this seems outrageous to you, keep in mind that President Barack Obama did not come out for same-sex marriage until the final months of his first term. Many people are opposed to it for reasons ranging from tradition to religion, and we in the press have to respect that.

Watch: Mark Sanford launches forgiveness tour in S.C.

There was a time when most gay journalists remained closeted for fear of being penalized. A decade or two from now, as today's younger people move into positions of power, opponents of same-sex marriage may seem as wrong-headed and their views as antiquated as those of people who defended keeping blacks at the back of the bus.

The media must be even-handed on this divisive issue, but they might also take a page from a small Mississippi paper that bigotry shouldn't deter them from treating gay couples fairly.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT