By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2004; 8:56 AM
When San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defied state law by allowing same-sex marriage licenses, a New York Times profile reported him sporting "a wide grin," "describing his motives as pure and principled," and cited his "business acumen, money, good looks and friends in the right places."
But when Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore also defied the law -- by installing a Ten Commandments display in his public building -- a Times profile said that "civil liberties groups accused Justice Moore of turning a courthouse into a church," while allowing that he had also become "an Alabama folk hero."
On the editorial page, the Times criticized Moore, likening him to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, but supports Newsom's protest and gay marriage.
The paper has plenty of company. Hundreds of news accounts have provided an upbeat portrayal of Newsom as a pioneer and the San Francisco weddings as a happy occasion, even as partisan rhetoric hardened last week over President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment to ban such marriages. While those opposed to gay marriage and Newsom's maneuver are certainly quoted, the media spotlight has shone most brightly on the mayor and those (including Rosie O'Donnell) tying the legally disputed knot.
"Call it 'wedded blitz' in San Francisco," reported NBC's Matt Lauer. "As if reliving its glory days as a counter-culture mecca in the 1960s, San Francisco was again the place to be," said Newsweek. A front-page Washington Post story yesterday celebrated the marriage of two elderly women.
"It's a piece of political theater designed to prove these couples are harmless," says Andrew Sullivan, an online columnist and one of the nation's most prominent gay journalists. "I don't think it's unfair for the press to cover symbolism, even though it's an advantage for one side. . . . You can't spin a picture."
But San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders says Newsom's "lawlessness" is "just unbelievable. . . . Most people in the newsroom, particularly in the Bay Area, believe in gay marriage and aren't overly worried about how it becomes legal." And while Saunders personally supports same-sex marriage, she says, "so many people in the media act like this is a brave, noble act on the part of Gavin Newsom when it is really a political grab."
Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham says Newsom "is being treated as a modern-day Rosa Parks. He's a nice guy and a very eloquent public speaker, but he's also not following the law. When Judge Roy Moore wasn't following the law, people were trashing him. He was just ridiculed in the press. . . . If you have a politically correct view and violate the law, you're a hero."
The mayor has not been universally portrayed as a hero. But it's hard to avoid noticing that Moore's defiance (for which he was ultimately removed from office) appealed mainly to Christian conservatives, while Newsom's flouting of California law has been welcomed mainly by liberals and gays.
Times reporter Dean Murphy says his profile of Newsom "wasn't really meant to be sympathetic or not sympathetic. The story started to become, who is this guy and why is he doing this?"
While polls show a majority of Americans oppose gay marriage, some of the country's top editorial pages support it. "Same-sex marriages pose no threat to anyone but rather affirm a commitment of love, an emotion that is universal," says the Boston Globe, published where Massachusetts' highest court has ordered such marriages legalized. "We believe that extending the benefits and responsibilities of marriage to same-sex couples would be fair and beneficial; we understand that many Americans feel otherwise," says The Washington Post. "Clearly those who claim that it signals the end of civilization need to get their outrage odometers adjusted," says the Los Angeles Times.
Deb Price, a Detroit News columnist who married her partner, Joyce Murdoch, in Canada last year, says the coverage has been out of context.
"The news media tends to take this major civil rights movement and turn it into a game of politics, not a look at why gay people want to marry," Price says. "Something remarkable is happening here, and it's being covered as a political football." Few newspapers cover the gay community as even a part-time beat, she says, "which reinforces the pariah status of gay people."
Saunders found herself being mistakenly applauded when she and another female Chronicle reporter emerged from the site of the wedding ceremonies. "When you go to city hall and see all the couples getting married, there's an infectious joy, and that's going to rub off on the media," she says.
People who believe marriage is between a man and a woman, of course, may not have the same reaction to those pictures.
"Some people look at it and feel horrified," Sullivan says. "It's impossible to write a story that accommodates both reactions. It's another example of the culture wars in which the press really can't win."
Footnote: Here's a puffy San Francisco Chronicle profile of Newsom as "America's best-known mayor" (after Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg, that is):
Mild-mannered CNN anchor Aaron Brown led off his newscast Thursday with a stinging attack on House Speaker Dennis Hastert, saying it was "unconscionable and indefensible" for him to deny a 60-day extension for the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks and urging viewers to contact his office.
"I felt strongly because this was the single most important event and worst national day in my lifetime," Brown says of the commentary. While he usually begins "NewsNight" with an essay, he says, "clearly this was stronger and more pointed." Hastert reversed his position the next day.
"It's good that Aaron has decided to make the jump from news to advocacy," says Hastert spokesman John Feehery, calling the program "a left-wing version of the 'O'Reilly Factor.'"
Feeling the Pain
The Orlando Sentinel series on the painkiller OxyContin that failed to mention the criminal background of its featured patient has claimed its first victims. While an internal inquiry continues, the reporter, Doris Bloodsworth, has resigned, and Sal Recchi is stepping down as city editor.
Bumped by a Billionaire
The news has been trumped on CNBC.
The business network, which is nudging its prime-time lineup toward entertainment, is preempting the Monday night broadcasts of "The News With John Seigenthaler."
The reason? As first noted by thenationaldebate.com, CNBC will air reruns of Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice," in that time slot for the next several weeks -- this following the debut of comedian Dennis Miller and the signing of ex-tennis champ John McEnroe.
The Trump show "is also a program about the business world," says spokeswoman Amy Zelvin, and "its upscale audience on NBC fits with the core CNBC audience of business leaders and executives."
The New York Times editorial page declared Jan. 28 that Dennis Kucinich, with his "minuscule vote tallies . . . should not be allowed to take up time in future candidate debates." Nor should Al Sharpton, who, the paper said, "is running to continue running, not to win."
So why were Kucinich and Sharpton invited to yesterday's presidential debate in New York, sponsored by the Times and CBS? A spokeswoman says the newsroom, which handled the debate, operates independently from the editorial board.
Speaking of that debate, there was a whole lotta press-bashing going on. Al Sharpton ripped Dan Rather and the panel for ignoring him, saying, "I'm gonna call you out on this." Rather defended their focus on Kerry and Edwards, saying: "The people have spoken."
When Edwards, in a rare jab at Kerry, said The Washington Post had calculated that his budget proposals would cost $165 billion more than his estimated revenue , Kerry said: "What's printed in The Washington Post today is inaccurate."
And when the talk turned to National Journal's ranking of Kerry as the most liberal senator and Edwards as the fourth-most liberal, Kerry called that "the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." Edwards said no one cared about "some inside-Washington publication." Take that!
"In a last-ditch attempt to stop John Kerry from clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in Tuesday's contests," says USA Today, "John Edwards took a more aggressive tone against his opponent in a debate Sunday. Edwards said Kerry espouses 'the same old Washington talk' on government spending and trade.
"Kerry responded more sharply than in past encounters, questioning Edwards' sincerity in drawing differences between them on trade issues...
"Edwards needed a dominating debate performance that would give him a big leap toward overtaking the front-running Kerry. He did not appear to score the breakthrough he wanted. The debate featured no dramatic exchanges that would be likely to change the dynamics of the race. Edwards had moments of force and eloquence, but Kerry didn't stumble."
The New York Times also sees, if not a bare-knuckles brawl, at least some fisticuffs :
"Mr. Edwards, scrambling to keep his candidacy alive, tried to draw a stark contrast between his record and Mr. Kerry's. He described Mr. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, as a Washington insider who had supported bad trade agreements, made too many promises and was unlikely to bring about the change Americans wanted.
"Mr. Kerry, who had grown accustomed to far gentler treatment from Mr. Edwards in recent weeks, fired back that his record on trade was essentially the same as Mr. Edwards's, and suggested that the North Carolina Democrat was simply looking for a political issue. Mr. Kerry acidly dismissed the charge that he was a Washington insider by saying that the 'last time I looked,' Mr. Edwards was also a member of the Senate."
Slate's William Saletan praises Edwards . . . but not the panelists:
"This was the performance John Edwards desperately needed to boost himself to a decent showing on Super Tuesday. Did it come too late? We'll find out. Edwards should have done this Thursday night in Los Angeles. The panelists in that debate begged him to take over, but he failed. This morning's panelists begged harder, and he delivered.
"I couldn't keep track of exactly how much time each candidate spoke today, but Edwards got way more than his share. Part of it was his aggression in pouncing on questions and bulldozing through the attempts of a table full of New Yorkers to cut him off. But most of it was the naked determination of the panelists to prod Edwards until he whacked John Kerry. They wanted blood and got it...
"Rather egged Edwards into the fight, in the finest Texas schoolyard tradition, by suggesting that if he didn't throw a punch at Kerry, he must just be running for vice president. When Edwards began talking about his differences with Kerry over trade, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times interrupted him with the dismissive question, 'Sen. Edwards, could I just ask you, if you lose all 10 primaries on Tuesday, are you still in this race?' Later, Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS-TV told Edwards, 'You're worth upwards of $36 million. ... Do you think your supporters know that you live this way?' When Edwards pointed out that his riches came from rags, Kirtzman brushed the answer aside, repeating, 'I just want to remind you of the question that I [asked]: Do you think your supporters know you live this way?' What answer could Edwards or Kerry give to such a question? The question was plainly designed to embarrass the candidate and to showcase what the reporter, not the candidate, had to say. And we wonder why people hate the press."
Dan Balz suggests in The Washington Post that the veepstakes speculation may be off:
"The more interesting question is what it may have revealed about the possibility of a Kerry-Edwards ticket becoming a reality.
"For many weeks now, Democratic activists and party leaders have talked openly about the attractiveness of such a ticket, and by his performance this year, Edwards has certainly earned himself a spot high up on Kerry's short list of possible running mates. But Democrats watching Sunday's debate may wonder whether the chemistry between the two men would allow that, even if practical political considerations and pressures inside the party argue for it.
"Kerry allies say privately that the Massachusetts senator is not a particular fan of Edwards."
The Los Angeles Times wonders what happened to the Golden State primary:
"California is finally having its say in the nomination fight, after waiting six weeks and watching 19 other states and the District of Columbia weigh in. With 370 delegates at stake -- more than one-sixth of the total needed to win the Democratic nod -- California is truly 'the Big Enchilada,' as Richard Nixon used to call it.
"But for many who plan to vote, Kerry and Edwards are little more than a blur, a sound bite here or video snippet there. The field of political battle on Tuesday -- 10 contests, in states stretching coast to coast -- proved simply too big for them to spend much time in California.
"And even though the state set its earliest primary ever, others leapfrogged ahead, leaving California to play a familiar role: choosing among candidates left after others picked over the lot."
By the way, anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes meltdown of the Dean campaign may want to check out my Sunday opus.
And as long as I'm in the self-promotional business this morning, here's a piece on whether journalists in Iraq and their bodyguards should be carrying weapons.
National Review's Byron York sees Kerry as one of those groovy guys from a certain past decade:
"Why does Sen. John Kerry talk incessantly about Vietnam?
"Obviously, it has given him a great political advantage in past campaigns and he hopes it will do the same in his race for the White House. But there might be another reason. Perhaps more than any other presidential candidate in recent memory, Kerry seems to be living in another time, playing a movie of Vietnam over and over in his mind . . .
"Is Kerry's the only campaign to play Jimi Hendrix -- specifically, 'Fire' from the 1967 album Are You Experienced? -- at rallies? Other candidates -- like John Edwards, with his theme song, John Mellencamp's 'Small Town' -- aren't exactly cutting edge, but they have chosen somewhat newer stuff.
"And what about the music on Kerry's bus? Before the Iowa caucuses, Washington Post reporter Ceci Connolly described the candidate hanging out on the bus with Peter Yarrow, his old friend from Peter, Paul, and Mary. 'Pedro, sing us a song,' Kerry ordered one day. Yarrow picked up a guitar and began to play and sing -- and later waxed nostalgic about the antiwar rallies he attended way back when with Kerry and Eugene McCarthy.
"Earlier, Connolly wrote, when Yarrow sang 'Puff the Magic Dragon' at an event in a private home in Ames, Iowa, 'Kerry lifted his fingers to his mouth for a quick toke on an imaginary joint. You can almost see his thick mane of silver hair returning to the shaggy brown do of those days.'
"This man is living in a time warp. No wonder Kerry sees any conflict -- Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II -- as a potential Vietnam. In Kerry's world, Vietnam is running on a continuous loop on that big screen TV -- with Jimi, Kris, and Peter, Paul, and Mary singing in the background."
Or is the other side, as it did with Bill Clinton, trying to paint the Democrat as a tie-dyed antiwar hippie?
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