Writing

What We Talk About When We Report About Love

When I read coverage of the Supreme Court proceedings on same sex marriage, I’m constantly reminded of Calvin Trillin’s writing about the South at the height of the volatility and brutality of the civil rights movement.  The question in particular that I’ve been mulling is when will the media be allowed to stop talking about same sex marriage like it’s an issue with two legitimate sides, equally worthy of discussion and debate?

Eventually, the media got to stop talking about segregation as though it was even remotely ok to make American citizens use separate water fountains because of the color of their skin. How far are we from being able to stop pretending that it’s ok to tell certain American citizens that they can’t share health insurance or file a joint tax return with their spouse?  When do we get to stop acting like there are two sides to this issue?

In the July 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin looked back on his time spent reporting on the Freedom Riders for Time magazine and eventually his book, An Education in Georgia.  He talks about keeping journalistic distance while covering the Freedom Rides in the Deep South, and how he had to maintain some impartiality despite his own opinions. As a reporter for a national publication, he still had to consider the fact that the country “had not yet begun to see segregation as a moral wrong that had to be addressed rather than a regrettable regional peculiarity.”

At the time, Trillin didn’t believe that there were two sides to the issue of segregation. From the remove of the 50 year anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Trillin recalls:

“I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides—the side that thought, for instance, that all American citizens had the right to vote and the side that thought people that acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down—had an equally compelling case to make.”

Of course, the way reporters vote and the way reporters report often differs—as it should. But clearly, somewhere in the last 50 years, journalists changed the way they talk about segregation. At some point, journalists stopped talking about institutionalized racism like an unpleasant regional quirk and started talking about it like it a hate crime.

At the time, however, it was Trillin’s professional responsibility to report the events just as they happened, and to be an impartial observer. In the article, Trillin remembered a conversation with fellow reporter from the New York Times, in which they debated how far they could go and what they could do without crossing into bias (emphasis mine).

As the first bus was about to pull out of Montgomery for Jackson, Claude Sitton, the Southern correspondent for the Times, and I were standing in the Trailways station discussing whether it was appropriate for reporters to be on it. In questions about when a reporter would be crossing the line from reporting on to participating in the civil-rights struggle, I tended to take my cues from Claude, whose sympathy was expressed in the fairness and scrupulousness of his reporting…[during a speech on board the bus] A Canadian reporter was so moved that he stood up and began shouting at [Colonel] Montgomery to stop the bus. Claude spoke sharply to the Canadian reporter. As I remember, he said, “Sit down and shut up. You’re a reporter.” 

This is usually pretty sound advice for reporters. Reporters are not supposed to be participants. At one of the events marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, Trillin found himself repeatedly asked whether he had been a  Freedom Rider, and always felt compelled to say:  “No, I was just a reporter who was on the bus.”

But things change. Or, more accurately—people die. I don’t believe that many people ever change their mind about issues like this, but rather generations shift and people teach subsequent generations new lessons. Of course black people and white people shouldn’t have to use separate bathrooms, pretty much any American kindergartner will tell you now.

The media doesn’t have to talk about the Ku Klux Klan as though it’s a legitimate political lobby with valid opinions—but there was a time, not even that long ago, when reporters who were just doing their job had to act as though the Klan was just another group with strong opinions that deserved a say in our national discourse. Will we see a day when the media will stop talking about the National Organization for Marriage like it’s anything other than a hate group?

Calvin Trillin got to experience the shift—in our national psyche and within himself—at the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Finally, he realized he could stop acting like he was impartial.

“When one of the sessions in Chicago ended with people linking arms and singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I made my usual quiet move toward the door. Suddenly, I felt someone lock arms with me. Instinctively, I started to pull away while looking around to see who it was. It was an older woman in a wheelchair. Was I really going to wrest my arm away from an older woman in a wheelchair? I stayed. Then I joined in. It turns out that I still know most of the verses.”

It is clear that the tide is turning on gay marriage—whatever the Supreme Court rules, the issue isn’t going away and the day is coming—doubtless sooner in some states than others—when all citizens can marry whomever they love.  My question is: when does the media get to stop talking about same sex marriage like it’s an issue with two sides?  When does the switch flip?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

P.S. That New Yorker article is paywall-protected, but if you want to read it and we’re friends IRL get at me and I’ll give you my login. Or just go find it at the library, I guess.

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2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Report About Love

  1. Scott Wright says:

    Exceptionally well said. I feel similarities to a number of other current debates in the media as well. False equivalencies abound.

  2. Great reminder! I come from a more conservative background, and when people from back home tell me of their struggles to even talk about women leadership in their church,for example, I think about this same thing. How are there still even two sides?

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