Defective Smoke Alarm

In today’s New York Times, Carl Hulse considers the attempt by Republican congressional candidates to use the issue of gay marriage to their political advantage, despite the Senate’s rejection this week of the Federal Marriage Amendment.

In many of the races Hulse looks at — Senate contests in Oklahoma, South Dakota, and South Carolina, for instance — it’s probably fair to say the amendment would carry the day with voters.

But Hulse goes too far when he quotes Gary Bauer, of the group American Values, as saying, “either the Senate will eventually recognize the will of the American people or there will be a new Senate,” and gives readers no further hint that Bauer might be blowing smoke.

Hulse does give a nod to the thought that the “potency” of the issue has been diminished by opposition to the amendment from Republicans like John McCain and Lynne Cheney. And he notes the conviction of some Democrats that the issue is a low priority for many voters.

But Hulse never turns to recent polls to find out that what Bauer told him is simply untrue. In this case, “the will of the American people,” to use Bauer’s phrase, is split down the middle on the FMA question — as was the Senate itself this week with its 50-48 vote against moving the amendment forward. An NBC poll, conducted in late June did indeed show a narrow majority in favor of the proposed amendment. But an Annenberg survey taken during the same period found 48 percent opposed to the FMA, and 43 percent in favor. No surprise there: Since President Bush first called for a constitutional amendment earlier this year, polls have consistently shown the public to be divided on the issue. (Polls have also affirmed that the issue has gained little traction with most voters.)

There’s nothing wrong with Hulse quoting Bauer. But there’s everything wrong with Hulse failing to double-check the quote against readily-ascertained reality.

Yes, this stuff happens all the time. But that’s all the more reason to watch out for it.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.