I get a steady stream of emails and phone calls from readers who assert that The Washington Post has a “pro-gay agenda” and publishes too many “puffy” stories about gay marriage, and that it even allows too many same-sex couples to appear in the Date Lab feature in Sunday’s WP Magazine.
“The conservative, pro-family side gets short shrift,” as one reader recently put it, and The Post “caters slavishly to Dupont Circle,” a neighborhood popular with the gay community.
Indeed, that reader got into a vigorous, three-way email dialogue with a Post reporter and me over the issue, an exchange that goes to the heart of the question of whether The Post, and journalists in general, are hopelessly liberal and genetically tone-deaf to social conservatives.
Here are excerpts from that dialogue, with the reader’s and reporter’s names kept out of it at their requests.
The reader wrote that Post stories too often minimize the conservative argument: “The overlooked ‘other side’ on the gay issue is quite legitimate, and includes the Pope, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, evangelist Billy Graham, scholars such as Robert George of Princeton, and the millions of Americans who believe in traditional marriage and oppose redefining marriage into nothingness. . . . Is there no room in The Post for those who support the male-female, procreative model of marriage?”
Replied the reporter: “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”
The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.
“Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’”
The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?
“Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”
That discussion is most revealing about journalists.
Most journalists believe that through writing about life as it is, showing people’s struggles and contradictions, we get closer to the truth. The democracy, being more fully informed, then makes better decisions, and perhaps people’s lives improve as a result.
Alongside that do-gooder instinct is a strong desire for fairness because, being out in the world, reporters encounter a great deal of unfairness. We want to expose that and even rub your noses in it. In a way, we’re shouting, through our stories: “This is unfair! Somebody do something!”
Conservative and liberal journalists alike feel this way.
And because our profession lives and dies on the First Amendment — one of the libertarian cornerstones of the Constitution — most journalists have a problem with religionists telling people what they can and cannot do. We want to write words, read books, watch movies, listen to music, and have sex and babies pretty much when, where and how we choose.
Yet many Americans feel that allowing gay men and lesbians to marry diminishes the value of their heterosexual marriages. I don’t understand this. The lesbian couple down the street raising two kids or the two men across the hall in your condominium — how do those unions take anything away from the sanctity, fidelity or joy you take in your heterosexual marriage? Isn’t your marriage, at root, based on the love and commitment you have for your spouse, not what you think about the neighbors?
That’s why many journalists have a hard time giving much voice to those opposed to gay marriage. They see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing.
Still, just as I have written that The Post should do a better job of covering and understanding the anti-abortion movement, The Post should do a better job of understanding and conveying to readers, with detachment and objectivity, the beliefs of social conservatives.
Patrick B. Pexton, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, can be reached at 202-334-7582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.