In the Feb. 28 issue of National Journal, William Powers advances the provocative premise that media coverage of the gay marriage issue “has a tentative, muted feeling” — and he thinks he knows why.

Powers, who writes the magazine’s “On the Media” column, says on the surface the story is the kind of thing reporters usually love — covering a social movement (remember the civil rights revolution or the rise of feminism?) that arises when “a great subgroup of Americans suddenly rises up to claim a new place in society.” What’s more, he notes, the story contains an ironic twist of the sort few journalists can resist: An impassioned liberal group “begging to embrace the very institution that President Bush and his supporters consider ‘the most fundamental institution of civilization,’ as Bush put it this week. In short, the Lefties want to do something so traditional [that] it’s downright conservative, and the Righties won’t hear of it.”

And yet, he writes, to anyone who gets their news through the mainstream media filter, gay marriage is presented as “not so much a righteous cause, inherently worthy of our attention and concern, as another strange, colorful chapter in the never-ending ‘culture war’ … The media, which are normally so good at creating heroes, have not yet given us a gay Rosa Parks or even a gay Gloria Steinem” on this one.

Powers’ conclusion: Wary journalists approach this story the way they would a live rat, because, frankly, it makes them uneasy, just as it makes much of the populace uneasy. “Even in the age of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy gay marriage still makes a lot of hererosexuals, including liberal ones, a bit queasy,” he says. “If polls are accurate, I guess this is one way in which journalists actually resemble everyday Americans.”

Powers suspects we’re going to look back one day and be amazed that we lived through a time when the government tried to prevent marriages. “We may also look back and wonder why the coverage never kicked in to the old, familiar fight-for-justice story line,” he writes.

It’s an unorthodox premise, but that’s one of the things that keeps us coming back to Powers’ column week after week.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.