One of the most frustrating elements of news coverage of the 2004 election for me was the persistence of the phrases “moral issues” and “moral values” in descriptions of socially conservative voting patterns. Obviously socially liberal positions come from at least as moral a place as do socially conservative ones. I doubt that reporters meant to imply that they don’t, but using “values” as a shorthand for social conservatism left readers with that strange and inaccurate impression. I was particularly disturbed at the tendency to describe support for anti-gay measures in that way, because while the issue of gay rights is emphatically a moral one, I don’t think that the right lies with the discriminatory side.

So I approached the coverage of the passing of this year’s four anti-gay ballot measures with trepidation. I found, however, that the 2008 coverage wasn’t as ready to equate morality with social conservatism, and in some cases mainstream news reports acknowledged that the winning side hurt people by denying them their civil rights. The main New York Times article opens with the moving image of “a giant rainbow-colored flag in the gay-friendly Castro neighborhood of San Francisco…flying at half-staff” over the success of California’s Proposition 8. And for the most part, support for the bans was attributed to “social conservatives” or “religious conservatives,” rather than the “values voters” of 2004. By framing Proposition 8’s passage as “paradoxical” in an election that was so historic for the history of civil rights in the U.S., a CNN story acknowledges that gay marriage is indeed a civil-rights issue. And it was heartening to see news organizations recycle the (accurate) language of Proposition 8 itself, which points out that the measure seeks to deny a right, “the right of same-sex couples to marry in California.” There were a host of good stories speculating about the emotional, legal, and practical effects of Proposition 8 on same-sex couples who had married in California.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seems to think that this descriptive evolution is a problem—or that is in part how I read his election day blog post about the relationship between his papers’ reporters and social conservatism. Kristof’s post dismisses—correctly, I think—the claim that the Times has a political bias, but it frets about the paper’s socially liberal ethos. There may be truth to some of his complaints, and I haven’t thought much about the way the Times addresses issues like gun control and abortion. But Kristof also mentions the Times‘ coverage of gay marriage as a problem. He points approvingly to a 2004 column by then–New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent in which Okrent laments the absence of stories exploring “partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates,” among other issues that he thinks are necessary elements of “the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires.” Presumably he is suggesting that such stories are relevant to the question of whether gay marriage should be legal. In somewhat sarcastic language, Okrent bemoans the preponderance of positive stories about people who have been granted this right:

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ”For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy” (March 19); that the family of ”Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home” (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ”Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes” (Jan. 30). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

Okrent’s column drew a great deal of mail, some of which he published in a subsequent column. One letter, which made a strong impression on me and which I have remembered often since, made the following concise argument:

In making the case that The Times’s coverage of the gay marriage issue has shown a liberal imbalance by printing articles portraying gay marital bliss over articles describing potential marital strife, you confuse balance with illogical overextension.

During the civil rights movement, it was not incumbent upon newspapers to run articles about the risks of African-Americans drowning in public swimming pools as arguments against desegregating those pools.

Astoria, Queens, July 26, 2004

Kristof and Okrent seem to want to cloud what should be a straightforward question of discrimination and equality in the interest of appeasing a (large) segment of the population that does not want to consider the question in those terms.

Same-sex marriage and adoption are civil rights issues. So many newspapers have had to face their institutional regrets for not covering the Civil Rights Movements of the 1940s, 50s and 60s in terms of objective right and wrong. That ugly period in media history should serve as a cautionary tale to media organizations working to cover modern civil rights issues. Perhaps the coverage of gay rights in the 2008 election indicates that in one area, at least, the lesson is finally being heeded.