NORTH CAROLINA — Last week, North Carolina voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment One to the state constitution, defining marriage as between one man and one woman only. The May 8 vote—coming a day before President Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage—produced renewed national debate about gay marriage as well as jokes portraying this state as backwards.
Amendment One supporters said the measure was aimed at protecting traditional marriage. Opponents of the loosely worded amendment warned it could affect all civil unions, weaken laws protecting domestic partners and adopted children, and cut off benefits for partners of government employees. (One Mecklenburg County commissioner has already challenged the county to consider dropping the domestic partner benefits.)
The debate around Amendment One drew to a head in the weeks prior to the primary, generating big ad dollars for North Carolina TV stations. For the opinion pages at North Carolina newspapers, it offered an opportunity to exercise a unique muscle: convening and leading civic—and civil—discussion. Historically, the opinion function of newspapers weighs particularly heavy in the South, where strong voices like Ralph McGill ushered in a broader recognition of civil rights.
In the case of Amendment One, some papers in North Carolina made better use of that traditional role than others.
In Greensboro, a medium-sized city in the heart of the Piedmont, the Greensboro News & Record invited attention for what it didn’t do. The paper, owned by Landmark Communications, drew fire from a local blogger and earned a spot on Jim Romenesko’s blog for failing to take an editorial stand on Amendment One. The editorial board and the publisher could not come to agreement on the amendment and so chose not to editorialize on the issue at all, according to Allen Johnson III, the editorial page editor, in a reply to Romenesko.
The paper’s columnists and reporters, though, logged multiple stories about people in the community who were fighting the amendment with songs and a play, and staffer Susan Ladd told a compelling front-page story in February of a couple who wanted to get married before their 50th anniversary. (While many of the columns by Greensboro’s Allen Johnson and Jeri Rowe are now buried in NewsBank archives, both columnists explored the nuanced, changing attitudes in the African American community toward gay people.)
But the official voice of the newspaper, the editorial, remained sadly silent.
The Romenesko post prompted John Robinson, the News & Record’s former
managing editor, to take to Facebook to gather opinions on this question: “Would you prefer the local newspaper editorialize in favor of a position you oppose OR take no position at all?” The results of Robinson’s informal survey: Most people wanted their local newspaper to take a stand, regardless of whether they agreed with it.
Robinson elaborated in an email exchange with me on Monday:
Of course the newspaper should have weighed in on the issue, and I know the editorial staff desperately wanted to. To remain silent on a pivotal constitutional amendment—and one that affects so many people in the community—courts editorial irrelevance. I know the paper doesn’t want that, and I hope the publisher learned something about the need for a strong editorial voice.
In small-town Shelby, in the rural western part of the state just where the foothills begin to rise, another publisher did take a stand. Skip Foster, the publisher of Freedom Communication’s Shelby Star, editorialized on April 27 against the amendment, couching his argument in a libertarian framework of separation of church and state. He followed that column with another on May 4, days before the vote, declaring victory for high-level discussion in the letters sent to his paper and in the comments at his paper’s website. Wrote Foster:
For the most part, I have been very pleased with the level of discourse— respectful, intelligent and informed. It’s an emotional issue for many, but folks have tried to respond with their noggins, not their feelings, which helps the debate. My favorite email in the wake of all of this was from a supporter of Amendment One who said he appreciated the civil tone that was fostered around the [April 27] column. That was much appreciated.
Such efforts are easier, perhaps, in smaller communities. Still, Foster’s leadership role—and his emphasis on civil discourse, even as he staked out a position that failed to win a majority in every precinct in the county—shows a welcome independence of thought.