Networks' Assault on Marriage

More weddings take place in June, July and August then at any other time of the year. It provides networks a perfect hook from which to hang feature stories about long-married couples in rewarding relationships, and what it takes to form a successful, satisfying and strong union. Instead, CBS and NBC appear to have a fascination with the breaking, rather than the making, of marriages.

Take for example, how the media covered the breakup of Jon and Kate Gosselin. The Gosselins, parents of eight children and the subjects of TLC's “Jon and Kate Plus Eight,” provided audiences a look at what it takes to raise a set of twins and a set of sextuplets. They announced their separation on June 22, after ten years of marriage.

For the media, raising 8 very young children and keeping a marriage together didn't merit much attention. A Nexis search revealed that the Gosselins' cropped up in 23 news segments between May 2004 (when the sextuplets were born) and May 2009, an average of 4.6 times per year over the last five years. Yet between May and July 2009, that number shot up to 66. The reason is no mystery: widespread rumors of  infidelity on both sides and the subsequent separation announcement.

And divorce was an a-ok option for the Gosselins, according to the media.

NBC's Amy Robach noted during the June 23 “Today,” “Although it's obvious Jon and Kate can't agree on much these days, one thing they are on the same page about is they both think a separation is the best thing for their eight kids.” 

No marriage advocate appeared on the program to encourage the Gosselins' to work toward reconciliation or to argue that divorce would harm the children. Instead, Kate Conye, senior editor of People magazine, appeared on the program and stated Kate “felt compelled to” file for divorce. 

The old saying about the media goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The Gosselin situation is clear proof of that. Networks are more likely to discuss marriages as they're breaking up rather than discuss the hard work, the commitment and sacrifice it takes to make a marriage work.

Marriage Obsolete?

An estimated 90 percent of Americans marry at some point. According to a 2007 Pew poll, 55 percent of married Americans considered themselves “very satisfied” overall, compared to 40 percent of the rest of the population. Yet despite those numbers, some media outlets insisted that marriage is passé.

A recent Atlantic Monthly column, “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” inspired a June 22 “Today” segment entitled, “The Case Against Marriage.”

In the article, columnist Sandra Tsing Loh, in mid-divorce following her adulterous affair, argued marriage is obsolete. She warned readers, “Avoid marriage – or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”  

NBC's Lee Cowan carried Tsing Loh's message, unchallenged, in his report.

Cowan acknowledged that the divorce rate is down, but attributed that and the increased sales of marriage help books to the fact that “divorce is painful, something you want to avoid.” Note that there's no mention of marriage as a commitment that must be honored (much less a sacrament).  To Cowan, divorce is the only solution for those who believe “rekindling [romance] seems unnatural” and that “plenty get so bored with marriage it seems more like a sexless routine than a romance.”

Later, Cowan's colleague Meredith Vieira interviewed Tsing Loh, who contended marriage has outlived its purpose because women are no longer financially dependent on men. She stated:

Marriage was originally conceived as a trade union for women to keep the philandering, wage-earning husband kind of on the farm so that he women and children would not be left penniless. Today we have, in the 21st century, we call the “companionate marriage” where the man works, the woman works, they co-parent, they run the household, gender free, neutral way, feed the dog, etc., etc. And then 5, 10, 15, 20 years in, though, we overlay on top that kind of the women's magazine expectation of keeping the spark alive, so even though, according to evolutionary biology the spark will last for about four years, enough time for two babies to get up and out.

Vieira also spoke with Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist, “Today” contributor and wife of 20 years. Saltz did not explain the joys of marriage like the comfort a spouse can bring, or the satisfaction of knowing that a couple has made it through a difficult time together or that it is the best environment for raising children.

Divorce Helps Everybody

Then there are broadcast segments from this summer that unequivocally promoted divorce as helpful to all involved.

CBS' “The Early Show” touted Peter Giles on July 17. Giles, a divorced father, believed his divorce made him a better father, an assertion host Maggie Rodriguez allowed to go unchallenged. Giles insisted, “The divorce has given me an opportunity to define parenting on my own terms. I may be a different type of parent than my – my ex-wife, but I do feel that we're both exceptional parents, even after the divorce.”

Giles summed up his newly enhanced parenting as “win, win, win,” situation for all parties involved.

Rodriguez asserted, “With the rise in joint custody, many men are finding that without the stress of a failed marriage, they can become more fully involved with their children. In fact a noted researcher finds more than 20 percent improved as parents.” (No word on the other 80 percent.)

The research Rodriguez referenced included a Family Relations study published in 2009 that found between the 1970s and the 2000s, the number of divorced fathers involved with their children increased from 8 percent to 26 percent. “Involved” was defined as “fathers who saw their children weekly and also paid child support. Researchers concluded, “Increasing proportions of fathers are involved in their children's lives without having romantic ties to their children's mothers.”

Divorce expert Jill Brooke backed up Giles' claims, telling Rodriguez, “We're living in a culture where divorce is more the norm and we've learned important lessons. First of all, the culture by being more kids-centric means that more fathers got involved and they had early bonding.”  Brooke continued, “And then when the divorce happened, they said, I`m really attached to this child, and I want more time with them than let`s say, a generation ago. And as a result, you see the rise of joint custody, which by the way now is the majority of – in all divorce cases.”

Neither Brooke nor Rodriguez mentioned the researchers finding that in 2002, 29 percent of children of divorce did not see their non-custodial father at all. Researchers also noted, “Although the level of contact increased, the majority of non-resident fathers did not see their children every week,” a point ignored by both Rodriguez and Brooke.

Nobody brought up the negative effects of divorce on children, like lower grades, higher health risks and the emotional ramifications.

A month earlier, on June 16, psychotherapist Robi Ludwig visited “Today” to explain the beneficial effects of divorce on children.  

 “The studies show that when parents stay together for the kids, and they have a high-conflict marriage,” Ludwig told NBC's Al Roker. “And there's a lot of argument, and they're attacking one another, the child feels very stressed out, and maybe they feel also that their needs are not being met, so what happens is, they're more inclined to engage in dysfunctional behaviors.”

Ludwig also ignored the negative effects of divorce on children and encouraged couples to remain married only if they “can figure out a way to make it fulfilling for [them] and [their] partner.”

David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, recently told TIME magazine that divorce has an immense effect on children. “Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal.”

Weddings, Not Marriages

Networks may not be fans of marriage, but they do love a wedding. For each of the last 10 years, “Today” has thrown a wedding for an engaged couple. Viewers voted on every facet of the celebration, from the attire to the honeymoon destination. NBC devoted segments to silly competitions to first narrow down the number of couples. Once the happy couple was chosen, producers devoted segments to the choice of cake, bridal gown, rings and hairstyle. Little thought appeared to be given to what happened after the cake was eaten, the dances danced, and the dress packed away.

Writer Caitlin Flanagan opined in her June 13 TIME cover story, “Why Marriage Matters,” that weddings evolved into “overwrought exercises in consumer spending, as if just by plunking down enough cash for the flower girls' dresses and tissue-lined envelopes for the RSVP cards, we can improve our chance of going the distance.”

“Today's” wedding contest played right into that very concept. Bridal fashions and other details took center stage while the things that enable a marriage to “go the distance” - commitment, devotion, hard work and sacrifice – were given little discussion. 

If 90 percent of Americans marry at some point in their lives, why not encourage those unions to last? Why not promote long marriages as ideal and showcase couples who have made it?

Their stories are sure to be more compelling and uplifting than hearing about the latest celebrity break-up.