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Media walk tricky line on same-sex marriage

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 7:25 AM EST, Mon February 25, 2013
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."

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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.

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