AP Readies For A Good Fight - One of These Days

There's nothing like a slow news week for reporters to concoct a bitter and divisive - but hypothetical - battle that's only three years away.

At this time of year, most news outlets are taking a look back at the year that was, while others are attempting to predict what will befall us in 2006.

In a story out of Washington, D.C., however, the Associated Press is taking a longer view. The wire service has set its sights on round two of the bitter battle in Massachusetts over gay marriage — in 2008!

From a wide-ranging interview with Congressman Barney Frank in his Capitol Hill office Thursday (Frank was relaxing in “a dark blue polo shirt during the congressional holiday break,” FYI), AP reports that “Frank sees an ‘angry, divisive’ fight ahead for Massachusetts if a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage reaches the 2008 state ballot.”

“The congressman blamed backers of the initiative petition for trying to provoke a new fight despite a lack of controversy over same-sex marriage,” continued the AP, which quoted the outspoken Democrat deriding the petition’s supporters: “This is a non-issue in Massachusetts.”

Of course, AP also turned to the other side, which conveniently argued that it is too an issue, because we say so! To wit:

The Massachusetts Family Institute said the 124,000 certified signatures it gathered for the petition, nearly double the number required, was a sign of strong public support for outlawing same-sex marriage.

“All they want is an opportunity to vote on the definition of marriage,” said the group’s president, Kris Mineau. “Now that the people have spoken, the good congressman has decided this is a divisive issue.”

The AP noted that the amendment “must be approved by at least 50 lawmakers during two separate sessions of the Legislature” to get on the ballot, then turned back to Frank for the final word in its “he said/he said” battle: “I think by 2008, people will say, ‘Do we really need to have an angry, divisive debate over a non-issue?’”

So is there a controversy in Massachusetts over gay marriage? And how divisive is this looming fight (as distant as that other favorite of political press prognosticators, the 2008 presidential race) likely to be? The AP doesn’t say, but we found some answers.

As the Boston Globe reported last week, the haul of 123,356 certified signatures for the petition shattered a 20-year-old state record for the most “ever gathered in support of a proposed ballot question.” But when Mineau says “the people have spoken,” he’s not giving the full picture. In truth, less than 6 percent of those who voted for governor in 2002 actually signed the petition. (And, as the Globe reported, some of those signatures may have been gathered fraudulently.)

Then there’s the matter of public opinion. After the tumult of the fall 2003 court ruling legalizing gay marriage and the legislature’s constitutional convention in spring 2004, the state has seen a quiet but growing acceptance of the practice since the first weddings took place in May 2004. A Globe survey in March of this year found 56 percent supported gay marriage — as opposed to February 2004, when 53 percent of the state’s residents said they were opposed.

Finally we turn to the state legislature, which in September overwhelmingly defeated (by a 157 to 39 vote) the original constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and establish civil unions — the same proposal that it had approved 105 to 92 back in March 2004. The lopsided vote reflected, in part, the decision of opponents of gay marriage to focus on the new 2008 effort (which would simply ban gay marriage altogether), and it’s true that it won’t take much for a mere quarter of the legislature to sign on and send the measure to state voters.

But with the changing tides of public and legislative opinion — and with nearly three years to go for gay unions to become less novel and more commonplace — it seems to us that what Frank said about this being a “non-issue” by the time 2008 rolls around is quite likely. Instead of making that judgment call itself, AP fell back on flashy quotes of conflict and punted.

There’s nothing like a slow news week for reporters to concoct a bitter and divisive — but hypothetical — battle that’s only three years away.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.