By Herndon Graddick, GLAAD President
Judging by its coverage of President Obama’s announcement that he now supports marriage equality, it appears CNN still has a little “evolving” of its own to do.
The bulk of the media’s coverage of this issue has been focused on what this statement will mean politically for President Obama and the Democratic Party — and what it means for the future of marriage equality, now that a solid majority of Americans and the president support it. This includes CNN, which had several thoughtful pieces and interviews on these ideas. For example, Anderson Cooper’s panel of Alex Castellanos, Paul Begala and Evan Wolfson broke down the issue purposefully, in a way that would help the audience better understand the significance of this announcement.
So with a wealth of political thinkers, analysts and strategists to go to — why has CNN turned to Tony Perkins three times in the last few days to represent the “other side?” He was on with Piers Morgan Tuesday night to talk about the vote in North Carolina. He appeared with Wolf Blitzer Wednesday evening to talk about the President’s support for marriage equality, and then was interviewed by Soledad O’Brien Thursday morning on the same topic.
All of this is fine, as long as Perkins is put into the proper context. Which he sort-of was by Morgan and O’Brien, but Blitzer didn’t even come close.
Here’s the crux of the problem — and the exact reason why GLAAD’s Commentator Accountability Project was born. Tony Perkins and others of his ilk cannot be used to exemplify those who simply oppose marriage equality. CNN is more than welcome to interview him on the issue of marriage equality, of course. His is unquestionably one of the loudest voices in the nation speaking about the issue.
But when Perkins gets interviewed, a responsible journalist needs to tell the audience exactly who Perkins is speaking for. Based on his own statements — Tony Perkins represents people who believe supporting LGBT equality is akin to being a terrorist. Who believe marriage equality is the same as bestiality. Who say that gay people are “vile,” “hateful,” “spiteful” “pawns of the enemy.” Tony Perkins does not represent people who oppose marriage equality. Tony Perkins represents those who oppose LGBT people — period.
If CNN wants that side represented in this discussion, then Perkins is absolutely the right man for the job. But they need to make it clear to the audience that that’s what he’s there for. And by not doing so, they have not told the whole story. Wolf Blitzer’s interview with Perkins is a perfect example of this.
Blitzer asked Perkins how he felt when he heard the news, that Obama supports marriage. Fine. He then asked Perkins “What’s wrong with giving gay Americans the same rights as heterosexual Americans?” Then he asked Perkins whether he agrees with Romney about giving same-sex couples hospital visitation rights. He followed it up with “What about allowing gay couples to be on each other’s health insurance policies? Would you have a problem with that?”
What on earth was Blitzer doing here? Why were we spending so much time finding out exactly which rights Perkins does and doesn’t support gay couples having? Finally he ended the interview.
Blitzer: “Do you accept the concept that gay people are born that way?” (Which Perkins answered by incorrectly claiming “there is no conclusive evidence to suggest being gay is genetic.”)
Seriously. That’s what he closed with. Blitzer had five minutes to discuss the significance of a sitting president endorsing marriage equality with one of the leaders of the country’s anti-gay movement, and the audience learned next to nothing about this issue.
Blitzer could have given his audience the answers to all of these questions in nine seconds. Watch:
Blitzer: “Joining me is Tony Perkins from the Family Research Council, which has been labeled a ‘hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay activism.”
Boom. Done. Now the audience knows exactly who Perkins is, has a pretty good idea of where he’s coming from, and Wolf has four minutes and fifty seconds to ask the real questions that should have been asked of Perkins yesterday.
“You have said that gay people have an ‘emptiness within them.’ But now that more LGBT people are coming out and becoming respected members of their communities — to the point where a majority of Americans, including the President, are supporting marriage equality, how are you going to continue to make that case?”
“Your organization has distributed a pamphlet that depicts gay men and lesbians as physically and mentally ill pedophiles who can be cured. Members of your organization have called for gay people to be deported, and for being gay to be illegal. Do you think we’ve reached a tipping point in this country where your organization’s goals are no longer attainable? What are you hoping to gain from continuing to spread these messages?”
“You’ve said that marriage equality will ‘open the door to all manner of moral and social evil,’ and yet it’s been legal in parts of this country for eight years, it’s been legal throughout Canada for seven years, and in parts of Europe for more than a decade. And now the President says he supports it. Is it possible you’ve overstated the case here? What kinds of social evil have been unleashed so far, that can be directly tied to same-sex couples getting married?”
Follow up — “What kinds of social evil do you think will be unleashed, and what is your evidence for thinking that?”
Morgan and O’Brien in particular did a better job of establishing Perkins’ “credentials” on this topic by asking more challenging questions. But again, the audience didn’t get the full story. O’Brien asked Perkins what was the “root” of his argument against marriage equality. Perkins said something about no-fault divorce from the 1960s and how it led to co-habitation.
Let’s ignore the fact that no-fault divorce allowed more people to get OUT of marriages, and marriage equality would allow more people to get INTO them, so this is a silly argument. Let’s instead focus on the fact that he’s lying.
The root of his argument against marriage equality is the fact that Perkins believes gay people are “pawns of the enemy.” It’s his belief that gay people are “operating outside of nature.” It’s his belief that being gay leads to “eternal damnation.” It’s his belief that gay people are trying to “recruit (kids) into that lifestyle.” It’s his belief that marriage equality is the same as “man-horse marriage.”
But he’s not going to tell Soledad O’Brien that. And he certainly doesn’t want her audience to know that.
To cable news viewers, he’s just the conservative guy who comes on sometimes to talk about gay stuff from a Republican point of view. But Perkins’ own statements will show you that those positions don’t come from politics. They are the result of pure animus towards gay people, and a belief that they’re doing the work of “the enemy.”
You can expose how extreme Perkins’ positions are by challenging them, like O’Brien and Morgan did. But you’re still not telling the whole story, unless you tell your audience what’s at the heart of those positions. We are once again asking journalists to hold anti-gay activists like Perkins accountable for their own statements against LGBT people, and to deliver that critical information to their audiences.