The air waves were filled to the brim last week with news about two gay marriage issues that were heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, some in the national TV media engaged in extravagant exaggeration in their efforts to convince viewers there is a tidal wave of support for gay marriage sweeping across the country.
Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, for example, told us during one evening newscast that the vast majority of Americans support gay marriage. Then, he said 51 percent are in favor. My math may be a little rusty, but 51 percent isn’t anywhere close to a groundswell.
Don’t get me wrong. Gay marriage is a legitimate issue for both supporters and opponents and is worthy of debate. However, it was crystal clear the major networks and some 24-hour networks were trying their dead-level best to make opponents believe they are completely out of step with the rest of the country.
The polls varied, but they do show a movement towards approval of gay marriage. A Washington Post-ABC News poll had 58 percent in favor of gay marriage and 36 percent against. A decade earlier, 37 percent were in favor and 55 percent against. A CBS News poll had 53 percent in favor, which it said was up from 46 percent in a New York Times-CBS News poll last July.
Conservatives look at the gay marriage issue from a state rather than national perspective. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, said the polls aren’t the right measuring stick.
“The polls that really matter are the polls that are taken when the people actually vote on this,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “When people have voted as late as 10 months ago, 30 states have put the natural definition of marriage into their state constitution on average by a vote of 67 percent.”
Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 that defines marriage as “a union of one man and one woman.” It passed by a margin of 78-22 percent.
Only nine states have legalized gay marriages — Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Washington and Vermont. They are also legal in the District of Columbia. Perkins asked Bob Shieffer, moderator of “Face the Nation,” if the other 41 states are just supposed to throw in the towel.
Opinions are changing, the CBS News poll showed, primarily because people know someone who is gay or lesbian. It found that 61 percent said they approve of gay marriage because they have a friend, family member or work colleague who is gay or lesbian. In contrast, 56 percent of those who don’t know someone close who is gay or lesbian say those marriages shouldn’t be legal.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on two issues: Should it decide to agree with lower federal courts that rejected California’s Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage? And should the court throw out part of a 1996 federal law passed by Congress that denies married gay couples a number of benefits?
Court observers think the justices might pass on a Proposition 8 ruling and throw out the benefits portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Gay marriages would become legal again in California because lower courts threw out the ban, and federal benefits would be restored for gay couples. The legality of gay marriages would then become primarily a state issue.
National Journal, a Washington, D.C., political magazine, said, “A recent Fox News poll showed that while 53 percent of voters think gay marriage is protected under the Constitution, 53 percent also think legalizing it should be left up to the states.”
The magazine in another story said even some liberal justices appeared wary of pre-empting the states. Ronald Brownstein quoted Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“If the issue is letting the states experiment and letting the society have more time to figure out its direction, why is taking a case now the answer?” Sotomayor asked.
As you would expect, supporters of gay marriage would prefer the Supreme Court help speed up the process by taking the issue out of the states’ hands.
Brownstein in his magazine story said American history shows “greater equality for gays is inevitable.” And he adds, “… But the justices are waiting for a cavalry that won’t arrive if they are hoping that the states will establish a common set of rules for same-sex marriage before the court itself must act.”
Conservatives on the court don’t think enough time has elapsed to make clear judgments about the future course of gay marriage. National Journal said Justice Samuel Alito called it a more recent development than “cell phones” and the “Internet.”
Alito said, “Traditional marriage has been around for thousands of years. Same-sex marriage is very new. We do not have the ability to see the future.”
The Associated Press said no one should read too much into the comments made by the justices at last week’s hearings. It said they don’t play a big role in rulings handed down by the court compared to the many legal briefs filed by both sides of the issue.
The national TV media that has become so infatuated with the subject of gay marriage could learn from those who refuse to rush to judgment. Viewers don’t appreciate having these complex and controversial issues shoved down their throats by those who can’t control their bias that is triggered by their personal views and relentless pursuit of higher ratings.
Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].