Silent Spring for Networks on Recent Same-Sex Marriage Decisions

Network news covered and even amplified the outrage of gay activists after California voters banned same-sex marriage in last November's election. Now in the wake of three other states' and the District of Columbia's recent affirmations of gay marriage, the networks are strangely silent. 

Prior to April 2009, only Massachusetts and Connecticut allowed marriage between same-sex couples, but that changed almost overnight.

Iowa's state supreme court announced its decision to allow the state to recognize same-sex marriage on April 3, 2009. Vermont state legislators granted gay and lesbian citizens marital privileges less than a week later on April 7 by overturning Gov. Jim Douglas' veto of a bill that allowed gay and lesbian couples to marry. Maine's governor, John Baldacci, signed a similar bill into law on May 6, 2009. And on May 5, 2009, the District of Columbia city council voted to recognize same-sex marriage from states that have legalized the act.

Mum Media

Broadcast evening news reports largely ignored these recent advances in the battle to redefine marriage. CBS failed to discuss any of the states' actions on the issue of marriage. NBC briefly reported the four decisions in three anchor reads (combining the news of Maine and D.C. into one report). ABC reported the Iowa court decision in an April 3 package. On April 27 ABC “World News” anchor Charles Gibson reported same-sex couples could begin marrying in Iowa.

ABC featured sound bites from four proponents of same-sex marriage in its April 3 report, including Richard Socarides, former Special Advisor to President Clinton, who said, “There is nothing more mainstream than Iowa and it sends a powerful message about the mainstreaming of gay marriage.”

Only one defender of traditional marriage appeared in the broadcast nightly news programs. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, told ABC, “It's yet another example of a judicial shotgun wedding where you have an activist court forcing same-sex marriage upon an unwilling population in a state.” According to 2000 U.S. Census data, Iowa's population is 2.9 million people. ABC couldn't find anyone else, in nearly 3 million people, to defend marriage as a union between a man and a woman?

Correspondent Chris Bury, while noting that it was the Iowa justices who “declared the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective,” failed to further explore the issue of judicial activism.

“Homosexual activists, including their media supporters, believe the American people do not have the right to preserve marriage as the union between one man and one woman.  Therefore, they will continue to push for same-sex “marriage” through every avenue that does not involve “we the people,” Mario Diaz, policy director for legal issues at Concerned Women for America, told CMI.

Diaz continued, “The media know that every time the decision is left to the voters they elect to preserve marriage as the union between one man and one woman and they also know that the American people despise judicial tyranny. So the news story is never about how same-sex 'marriage' is imposed on us.”

After Californians upheld the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman by the passage of Proposition 8, the nightly network news coverage revolved around the battle cry of “equality” and the bruised feelings of Prop. 8 opponents.  NBC aired footage of homosexual protestors shouting, “What do we want?  Equality!” on the Nov. 6 and Nov. 9 “Nightly News” broadcasts. The Nov. 9 “Nightly News” also featured an unidentified woman stating, “I had never felt such a sense of being less of a person.” Lorri Jean from the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center appeared in the same report and said, “The majority should not be voting on fundamental rights.” Diane Olson, a “same-sex spouse,” told CBS Evening News on Nov. 5, “The fact that some people would like to undo our 'I do' makes me very sad.”

No network stories discussed the moral and societal implications of changing the definition of marriage, nor did the networks allow any supporters to provide a detailed defense of Proposition 8, a trend that continued into the spring of 2009.

Why the Silence Now?

Opponents of same-sex marriage could not expect to receive the same treatment as the Prop 8 protesters, but the networks scaled-down reports of the recent decisions are a major change.


Massachusetts first legally recognized same-sex marriages nearly five years ago. Between Nov.18, 2003, the day the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of such marriages, and May 31, 2004, the end of the month in which marriages could begin, ABC, CBS and NBC ran a combined total of 19 stories on the topic. Seventeen of the segments appeared to support same-sex marriage, two were neutral. None critically examined the court's actions.

Nightly newscasts on May 17, 2004, the first day same-sex marriages could take place, led with the Massachusetts marriage story. The late Peter Jennings began the ABC “World News Tonight” report, “We begin, however, with the struggle by gays and lesbians for the right to be legally married. Today in Massachusetts, for the first time in U.S. history, the civil marriage laws of a state do not exclude gays.”

On “Nightly News,” NBC's Rehema Ellis mentioned that the Massachusetts marriages would not be recognized in 38 states, and rights regarding medical information and adoption would not apply outside of the state. To further make her point, Ellis played this sound bite from “family law expert” Stanford Katz, “If we're going to have a unified country, all states really should recognize other states' decisions, decrees and laws. Otherwise we'll have a divided country.”

Former CBS “Evening News” anchor Dan Rather noted, “The wedding licenses were issued to comply with a ruling by the state's highest court.” Then-CBS correspondent Mika Brzezinski showcased a lesbian who said the day meant “freedom” to her.

News reports also hit the “civil rights” angle hard on Nov. 18, 2003, the day the Massachusetts court legalized same-sex marriage. Pete Williams did include opposing views in his “Nightly News” report for NBC, but also allowed Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for the same-sex couples suing for legal marriages, to state unchallenged, “Now finally, these couples, who have been together years, if not decades, will finally have the chance to be treated equally and fairly by their government and have the right to join in civil marriage.”

CBS' Brzezinski followed Williams' formula in her report by including other views but Bonauto – again unchallenged –asserted, “Equal means equal and there is no gay exception in the Constitution for gay and lesbian citizens of this commonwealth. That's the bottom line.”

ABC's report by Ron Claiborne featured plaintiff Mike Horgan saying  “Today, in the Commonwealth of Masschusetts, Ed and I are finally full and equal citizens.”

ABC, CBS and NBC all covered the May 15, 2008 California State Supreme Court marriage decision. As CMI previously reported, “ABC, NBC and CBS all featured clips of happy homosexual activists, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome and very brief comments from a pro-family spokesman.”  Stuart Gaffney told CBS that night, “Marriage is the right to marry the person that you love, and I'm here with the person that I love.” San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome told NBC, “It's about human dignity. It's about civil rights. It's about time.”  An unidentified woman told ABC, “It's an amazing feeling to know that our government is recognizing our relationship and our union.”

Yet just five months later in Oct. 2008, networks devoted little time to the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Only NBC's Brian Williams reported the Oct. 10, 2008, decision in an anchor read. ABC's Dan Harris briefly mentioned the ruling in a Nov. 12, 2008 report about Prop. 8 protests: “As for gay activists, they say their loss in California and their anger toward the Mormon Church is only energizing them to fight harder than ever for the rights denied in California, but as of today, being enjoyed in Connecticut.”

Now, nothing.

Silent spring indeed.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.