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Making mud out of history
Network and cable newscasts struggled to understand the import of Tuesday’s SJC ruling. Why are we not surprised?
Marriage comes to gay and lesbian couples: complete coverage

Listen to Henry Santoro's FNX interview with news editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Forum: Tell us what you think about same-sex marriage

National Democrats should embrace the issue. By Dan Kennedy

Why the court ruling is so strong. By Harvey Silverglate

Next steps on Beacon Hill. By Kristen Lombardi and Susan Ryan-Vollmar

Media overdrive. By Camille Dodero

People are talking. By Chris Wright

Plaintiffs rejoice. By Adam Reilly

Right wing plots counterattack. By David S. Bernstein

City councilors back SJC decision. By Deirdre Fulton

From our archives: Meet the plaintiffs in Goodridge et al. By Kristen Lombardi

HUGE NEWS DAY today," declared Fox News gasbag Bill O’Reilly this past Tuesday evening, at the beginning of his one-hour show The O’Reilly Factor. Sure, Tuesday, November 18 was a big news day if you define "news" as senseless celebrity scandals and gruesome murders. Exhibits A and B? Two lurid morsels out of the Golden State that tied for top story: law-enforcement officials searched Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, possibly for evidence of child molestation, while the scary superstar filmed a music video in Vegas; and a judge ruled that Scott Peterson can stand trial for the double murder of his brutally slain wife and their unborn son. These were followed by two other stories worth reporting — President Bush crossed the pond, only be greeted by angry anti-war protests in London, and a tanned action-adventure star officially assumed the governor’s post in California — and two more that weren’t: Rosie O’Donnell lost money on her hapless foray into Hairspray-meets-Rent theater, and Martha Stewart left a courthouse while cameras followed. Sandwiched between these white-knuckle adventures in pop-culture-personality gossip was this tidbit out of the Bay State: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had ruled that the Commonwealth’s refusal to allow lesbian and gay couples to wed violates the state Constitution.

No, the court ruling wasn’t ignored — it was all over the Web in the hours after the 10 a.m. decision was released (on, Drudge Report, and and it led local newscasts all day long (during which broadcasters did an admirable job explaining the ruling and its initially confusing 180-day waiting period to viewers — New England Cable News, in particular, stood out from the pack). But by nightfall, the SJC ruling had taken a backseat to clips of Peterson jogging with his pooch and airplane-aerial views of Jacko’s topiary gardens. Both Larry King Live and Hannity & Colmes spent most of their broadcasts dissecting these two stories. One of the many indispensable "Fox Facts" flashed onscreen during the latter? "2002: Jackson dangled his baby from a balcony in Germany."

But we shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, the SJC did something that demanded a lot of explanation and didn’t fit cleanly into a sound bite: it made the ban on marriages between same-sex couples unconstitutional, but not technically legal.

How was this development explained to the public? "Massachusetts practically says ‘I do’ to same-sex marriage," MSNBC Flash News reported in the early afternoon. Later, on the 7 p.m. newscast, MSNBC evening anchor Brian Williams tried to explain: "Massachusetts same-sex couples cannot be denied the benefits of marriage, but it stopped just short of granting gay couples the immediate right to get married. There are strings attached to these attachments." Huh? Three hours later, over at CNN, the normally cutesy Aaron Brown played it straight when he described the ruling as "complicated and emotional."

In essence, what it all meant was that there would be no weddings of same-sex couples today, tomorrow, or next week. So unlike in Canada, when the Ontario high court ruled not only that gay couples could wed but that they could do so immediately, there were no visuals of lesbians and gay men actually getting married to tell the story for the visual media. Instead, broadcasters dug up file footage of gay couples in tuxedos. Television stations replayed a clip of plaintiff couple Gloria Bailey and Linda Davies announcing their official engagement. They spliced in recordings of male couples kissing at the altar, short-haired women smiling at each other affectionately, and funniest of all, two bearded men across the table from each other, drinking coffee in a brick interior café. (Television producer to intern: "Find me footage of gay men getting married." Intern to producer: "Can’t find any gay-matrimony footage — but will this reel of two neat-looking fellas in sweaters sitting at a coffee shop do?")

EVEN IF THE blow-dried hairspray set didn’t get it, Republican politicians and conservative culture warriors did. In a written statement, Bush said he would "work with congressional leaders and others to do what is legally necessary to defend the sanctity of marriage." In other words, expect a GOP push for the congressional proposal to amend the US Constitution to ban the marriages of lesbian and gay couples (see "Embrace the Wedge," page 17). Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said that he disagreed with the SJC ruling and would work to make it invalid by amending the state Constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual-only affair. (By golly, there would be no Dwight D. "Like It or Not We Have To Abide by the Court’s Decision in Brown v. Board of Education" Eisenhower–like conduct from him!) Professional scold and problem gambler Bill Bennett clucked about a devaluing of the institution of marriage. And Catholic League president William Donahue, perhaps predictably, compared the marriages of same-sex couples to incest.

But the weirdest analysis came from a local guy: Boston Herald blowhard and WRKO gasbag Howie Carr seized on a right-wing conspiracy theory that had surfaced hours earlier on conservative Lucianne Goldberg’s Web site ( Carr accused "South African immigrant" Chief Justice Margaret Marshall of literally being in bed with liberals, given that she’s married to Anthony Lewis, the "radical-chic, politically correct New York Times columnist." Accordingly, Carr labeled the ruling "a victory for the New York Times." Since the Times owns the Boston Globe, he noted, it wouldn’t be hard to predict where the Globe would come down on the issue, given the "confirmed bachelors on the masthead, if you know what I mean."

One of the big problems with attempts to analyze the decision came with Big Media’s impulse to provide "balance," which is always dangerous when the folks in charge don’t understand the issues. For instance, the odious Donahue was paired as a talking head on MSNBC with Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington, DC–based gay-rights lobbying organization. Which is a little bit like pairing a white supremacist with someone from the NAACP to talk about affirmative action. Asked about his reaction to the SJC ruling, Donahue interpreted a phrase from the ruling that defined marriage as "a loving, nurturing relationship between two people" as justification for incest. How’d he reach this conclusion? Incestuous relationships are "based on love as well," he sneered. Stachelberg was left to sputter to MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer, "I couldn’t disagree more with your other guest."

Perhaps the biggest surprise from the conservative culture warriors was how subdued right-wing windbag Rush "Fresh from Detox" Limbaugh was. On his second day back from his highly publicized leave of absence due to a prescription-drug addiction, the cultural commentator didn’t have much vitriol to spit. Ten minutes or so into his three-hour program, Limbaugh replayed his reaction to the US Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision, which overturned a Texas anti-sodomy law — "Gay marriage and adoption are going to happen now" — and congratulated himself for his clairvoyance. His subsequent editorializing was uncharacteristically subdued. "I’m sure people have opinions one way or another whether marriage that’s sacrosanct between men and women is being, shall we say, watered down, because marriage has always meant a union of men and women. Now it can be men and men, woman-woman, or wherever it wants to go — use your imagination."

Least surprising of all was O’Reilly’s take on the issue: an enthusiastic endorsement of the notion that the majority should, indeed, be able to tyrannize the minority. Citing the much-publicized Pew poll showing that people aren’t in favor of civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, O’Reilly said: "The will of the people must be taken into account here, and we can’t allow this country to be run by ideological judges.... If the good people of Massachusetts want a secular approach to marriage, let ’em vote on it. But judges have no right to find loopholes in the law and impose their views on everybody else. It’s happening all over America, and if it continues, the core values of this country will be changed dramatically." He then promised more on the issue after that day’s "breaking" story: "Police raid Michael Jackson’s home in California.

When O’Reilly did come back to the topic, he had legal advocate Wendy Murphy with him. Typically, he drowned out his guest, who probably could have given some useful commentary. "If you’re going to open the floodgates that marriage is no longer between a man and a woman," he sneered, "then you have to let everybody get married, be it the commune people can get married, people who want to marry a duck." Murphy, like Stachelberg, was left to sputter: "That’s so absurd!" O’Reilly’s retort? "I want to marry a duck!"

AND ON IT WENT. The print media, no surprise, were much better equipped to put it all in context in Wednesday’s papers. For one, everyone immediately understood what a big deal the SJC decision is. News of the ruling led the New York Times (MARRIAGE BY GAYS GAINS BIG VICTORY IN MASSACHUSETTS), the Washington Post (GAY MARRIAGE IS A RIGHT, MASSACHUSETTS COURT RULES), and USA Today (MASS. COURT: STATE CAN’T BLOCK SAME-SEX MARRIAGES). Both dailies in Boston blew out their covers for headlines: GAYS HAVE RIGHT TO MARRY, SJC SAYS IN HISTORIC RULING from the Globe, and THEY DO: TOP COURT SAYS GAYS HAVE RIGHT TO MARRY from the Herald.

Still, there was an across-the-board failure to put the ruling in historical context. No one, for instance, compared this ruling in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health with the California Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in Perez v. Sharp, which found that the Golden State’s ban on allowing interracial couples to wed was unconstitutional. Perez, like Goodridge, was decided by a 4-3 margin and was the first decision of its kind in the country. Just 19 years after the California high court ruled in Perez, the US Supreme Court struck down miscegenation laws across the land in the aptly named Loving v. Virginia. Might we expect a similar timeline for the rights of all lesbian and gay couples throughout the United States to wed? And if not, why not?

Guess we’ll have to wait for that news on another day.

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

Issue Date: November 21 - 27, 2003
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