Biggest U.S. Newspaper Editorials Lambast ‘Bigoted’ RFRA 10 - 1

Newsroom groupthink once again.

One would think the editorial boards of the nations’ top newspapers – journalism’s brightest and best (and our betters) – don’t lightly throw around inflammatory language, slurs and insults.

But it appears that an Indiana law protecting the religious freedom of businesses and individuals is so beyond the pale it had the journalistic high-priests at many of America’s top 20 papers sputtering “bigot,” “homophobia” and “anti-gay.” 

MRC Culture found that, from March 30 - April 6, half of the 20 most circulated national newspapers came out swinging at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and the state legislature for passing the RFRA, calling it “alarming,” “homophobic” and “anti-gay” bigotry. Sensationalist headlines read, “Will Indiana be known as the homophobic state?” and “Indiana’s law invites state-sanctioned bigotry.” Eight of the 20 didn’t weigh in, and only one strongly defended the law. 

“Bigot” and its derivatives were used five times in just three of the short editorials. So the editorial staffs at the most popular newspapers in the country think only “bigots” support laws protecting the rights of religious business owners. But roughly half of Americans support laws like Indiana’s religious freedom bill, according to the latest Pew Research Center poll. On top of that, the RFRA is one of 20 other similar state bills in existence already. 

And they wonder why the newspaper business is in trouble. 

Just one paper, The Wall Street Journal, came out fully in support of the bill. The New York Post took a neutral position while mocking the “hysteria” surrounding the bill. But ten of the twenty papers came out in vehement anger towards the RFRA.

The New York Times editorial didn’t bother to hide its contempt for Pence and the law, using scare quotes and tossing around inflammatory accusations against the governor. In the opening line alone, the paper contended the law was “driven by bigotry against gays and lesbians,” deriding Pence for “complaining” opponents were spreading “misinformation.”

Beneath the headlineHoosier hooey: Indiana perverts religious freedom in service of anti-gay bigotry,” The New York Daily News called the law “unAmerican” and took the Times’ approach of incendiary accusations. “There is no doubt” the board wrote, that the governor’s real purpose was to “empower business owners to deny [their] services to marrying or married gays.” 

One state over, The New Jersey Star-Ledger asked, “Will Indiana be known as the homophobic state?” The paper’s staff mocked Pence’s surprise at the liberal backlash from the bill: “How dare they attack the great state of Indiana for providing cover to a florist who doesn't want to serve anyone who sets off his gaydar?” (Yes, “gaydar.”)

In a follow-up editorial April 3, The Star-Ledger stated “Indiana’s broader vision” was “inspired by people who want to bash gays.” 

Then The Star-Ledger staff really got creative dusting off the old comparison to the Jim Crow South. This law, they claimed, would make Indiana “infamous” like businesses that had segregated seating long ago. They weren’t alone; The Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Washington Post also made this apples to oranges argument.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times preferred to take the condescending approach. The Star Tribune cooed that the country was “in the midst of a rapid social transformation for the better.” This change, staff assured readers, was “for the best,” but change is “difficult” for some people. 

The Chicago Tribune editorial board sincerely hoped that the Indiana lawmakers got on the “right” side of history – the side they as progressives in good standing have predetermined. The board warned, April 1, “Indiana lawmakers are mindful that they’re not just writing legislation – they’re writing history. We hope they get it right.” In another editorial March 31, they claimed that religious liberty laws used to be innocuous but now they “appear dangerous.” 

The Chicago Sun Times’ April 1 editorial claimed the RFRA was “driven hard by anti-gay sentiments,” the work of social conservatives who were “living in the past.” 

While The Indy Star didn’t make the top 20 newspapers in circulation, it’s in-your-face cover image and op-ed demanding, “FIX THIS NOW” in bold capital letters couldn’t be more blunt. Even The Washington Post thought the message was pretty over-the-top, saying, “Tell us how you really feel, Indy Star.”  Fred Barbash said the headline was “the sort ordinarily reserved for the worst natural disasters.” However, The Chicago Tribune, perhaps fearing a loss in the 2015 Left-Wing Indignation Games, called the move of the Indy Star, “excellent” in its own April 1 editorial bashing the bill. 

The top Spanish newspaper in the country, La Opinion, boldly asserted that not only was “religious freedom not in danger,” but it “was a mistake” to even “believe that any kind of religious persecution exists.” 

The Wall Street Journal, the only paper to outright support Indiana’s bill, didn’t agree; in fact, it said, “the political delirium” over the bill, “may be illustrating why such statutes are necessary.” It also was also the only one to defend federalism and state’s rights, as it did in 2013 when the Supreme Court was deciding on whether to uphold DOMA and California’s Prop 8.

The Journal’s strong headline read: “The New Intolerance: Indiana isn’t targeting gays. Liberals are targeting religion.” The Journal asked the public to question who was “really being intolerant” as the media’s wrath rained on Indiana. 

Though many of these papers invoked popular opinion in their arguments, they might want to check the most recent Pew poll which showed Americans were roughly split on whether wedding businesses could refuse to serve same-sex couples.

— Kristine Marsh is Staff Writer for MRC Culture at the Media Research Center. Follow Kristine Marsh on Twitter.