Just How Anti-Gay Marriage is That Chikin?

The New York Times story in yesterday’s paper about the Southern chicken chain Chick-fil-A leaves much to be desired.

Here’s the headline:

A Chicken Chain’s Corporate Ethos Is Questioned by Gay Rights Advocates

Chick-fil-A is an evangelical Christian company as well-known for being closed on Sundays as it is for its astonishingly good chicken (seriously: I’m no fan of chains, but Chick-fil-A is outstanding). So what has the company done now to get on the wrong side of gay rights?

Nicknamed “Jesus chicken” by jaded secular fans and embraced by Evangelical Christians, Chick-fil-A is among only a handful of large American companies with conservative religion built into its corporate ethos. But recently its ethos has run smack into the gay rights movement. A Pennsylvania outlet’s sponsorship of a February marriage seminar by one of that state’s most outspoken groups against homosexuality lit up gay blogs around the country. Students at some universities have also begun trying to get the chain removed from campuses.

“If you’re eating Chick-fil-A, you’re eating anti-gay,” one headline read. The issue spread into Christian media circles, too.

Hold on a second. A franchisee, independent of the company, gave some chicken sandwiches to an a marriage seminar in Reading, Pennsylvania, and that makes the whole company anti-gay? I don’t think so.

And that headline the Times quotes is from an inaccurate blog post blaming the corporation for what its affiliate did, though the Times doesn’t point that out.

So does Chick-fil-A really support anti-gay-marriage causes? This is as close as we get to that, way down in the 23rd paragraph of a story padded out with five man-on-the-street interviews:

Over the years, the company’s operators, its WinShape Foundation and the Cathy family have given millions of dollars to a variety of causes and programs, including scholarships that require a pledge to follow Christian values, a string of Christian-based foster homes and groups working to defeat same-sex marriage initiatives

On a petition posted on the Web site change.org, it asks the company to stop supporting groups perceived as anti-gay, including Focus on the Family, an international nonprofit organization that teamed up with Chick-fil-A a few years ago to give away CDs of its Bible-based “Adventures in Odyssey” radio show with every kid’s meal.

But the Focus on the Family thing is weak. Analogy time: Does McDonald’s support Glenn Beck with its tie-ins to Rupert Murdoch’s Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian?

The Times is just the latest to give too much credence to the Pennsylvania angle of this story. An editorial in The Advocate, for instance, inaccurately reported that:

Nationwide fast food chain Chick-fil-A has thrown its support behind “The Art of Marriage,” a series of antigay marriage conferences being held next month in south-central Pennsylvania.

Chick-fil-A itself says a franchisee, which is an independent company, committed to give sandwiches to the conference. Again, there’s no evidence that Chick-fil-A itself agreed to sponsor that conference.

Thing is, there’s plenty of evidence that the company or its founders, anyway, have funded anti-gay-marriage activities before. The blog Good As You, which broke the Pennsylvania story, reports that the company’s WinShape Foundation doesn’t allow gay couples at its retreats and “defines marriage from the Biblical standard as being between one man and one woman.

The Times could have used a lot more of that kind of reporting and a lot less man-on-the-street opining.

The problem with this piece is that the controversy itself is the story, allowing the paper to escape having to do the real legwork of sorting out for us just how legitimate the controversy is.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,