Over the weekend, The New York Times erred on a key aspect of an issue that could be crucial in the 2004 campaign — gay marriage. Then today The Washington Post, which could have helped clear things up, stumbled as well.

In a story in the Times on Sunday, David Kirkpatrick reported that a proposed constitutional amendment “would allow state legislatures to recognize gay civil unions, a provision that had alienated many conservatives.”

But Kirkpatrick relied exclusively on supporters of the proposed amendment for his information — conservatives who see the proposed amendment as a compromise on their part. (Kirkpatrick’s story focused on how conservatives are using the gay marriage issue to generate funds and grassroots support.) Kirkpatrick was recently assigned by Times editors to cover “the conservative movement.” It subsequently became clear that opponents of the amendment (and impartial commentators who haven’t taken a position either way) believe the measure would not allow state legislatures to recognize such unions.

Then today The Washington Post waded in, with Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei reporting that President Bush plans to endorse a constitutional amendment “that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.”

The Post notes correctly that there’s disagreement over what the amendment means for states’ right to recognize civil unions. It lays out the exact language of the proposal, then tells us, “the amendment’s authors say it is a compromise that would not stop state legislatures from allowing civil unions. Gay rights groups disagree.”

The Post then quotes a gay rights activist who argues that the amendment “is intended to deny any other measure of protection, including civil unions and domestic partnerships.”

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go that far. We’re left with two advocates for either side weighing in on a legal question about which they have little expertise, and on which their prime motivation is to spin the issue in their direction. The exchange cries out for an opinion from a non-partisan, disinterested expert — a law professor, maybe? — who would shed some light on how the language might be interpreted in a court. But the Post leaves us with just the he-said she-said … and misses an opportunity to help clarify an issue on which its competitor had created confusion.

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.