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BuzzFeed’s Journalistic Struggles On Same-Sex Marriage, In GIFs


Last Friday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling declaring it had discovered a new “fundamental” right to same-sex marriage hidden deeply inside the Constitution — so deep inside that Justice Anthony Kennedy had a bit of difficulty explaining precisely where it was located or how he found it.

Nearly all major media had been more or less campaigning for marriage redefinition for the years leading up to the Obergefell ruling. Some editors and reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR admitted as much when they claimed that support of marriage as an institution based on sexual complementarity was an idea so beneath contempt that it wasn’t worthy of fair coverage.

After the ruling, any pretense of objectivity that remained largely washed away as media elites joined progressive politicians and corporations in popping open the champagne and guzzling down. The White House lit up in the colors of gay pride, and major corporations’ altered their social media presence to match. Among many other media outlets, BuzzFeed changed its social media avatars and literally marched in gay pride parades.

What was interesting about this was that the decision in favor of redefining marriage and making same-sex marriage a new Constitutional right came, if you believe any of the dissents, at the expense of rule of law, self-government, and “ominously,” as Chief Justice John Roberts put it, religious liberty.

So while progressives celebrated, tens of millions of Americans outside of newsrooms reacted with quite different emotions. The contrast was pronounced and profoundly alienating.

Dylan Byers at Politico talked to BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith about his media outlet’s stance:

For Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, same-sex marriage is an issue which does not have sides. On Friday, he told the On Media blog that BuzzFeed’s Twitter avatar was in keeping with its standards guide: “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”

I will now try to respond in the BuzzFeastian fashion.

This is from the standards guide? Maybe the standards guide should define these issues a bit more. Does it consider the right to end an unborn life a “women’s rights” issue on which there are not two sides? Or what, exactly? What would be an example of a story on which there are not two sides? What does LGBT equality mean, even? It’s unclear, beyond the cheering for Obergefell that Smith justified by referring to the standards guide.

What would it even mean to say that there are not two sides on an issue that was literally just decided on a 5-4 vote? How does BuzzFeed explain to its readers what that number four represents?

New York’s highest court issued a ruling on the same issue as Obergefell in 2006. It looked at virtually the same constitutional issues as Obergefell did and rather than discovering a foundational right to same-sex marriage, it concluded that if the legislature wanted to change the law, it could, but that defining marriage as the union of husband and wife made tons of sense. Or, as the New York Times put it at the time:

New York’s highest court rejected yesterday a broad attempt by gay and lesbian couples across the state to win the right to marry under state law, saying that denying marriage to same-sex couples does not violate the State Constitution.

By a 4-2 majority, the Court of Appeals found that the State Legislature, in laws dating back nearly 100 years, intended to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman, and that the Legislature had a rational basis for doing so…

The majority decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith, found that limiting marriage to couples of the opposite sexes was based on legitimate societal goals, primarily the protection and welfare of children. It could well be argued, he said, that children are better off raised by a biological mother and father, rather than by a gay or lesbian couple.

Wait, what was the name of that judge?


Yep, none other than Ben Smith’s own father. As James Taranto put it at the Wall Street Journal, “Smith’s denial that another side of the question even exists demonstrates a lack of filial piety.” Indeed!

Anyway, Smith has taken a lot of heat for simply being more honest than other media outlets are about a lack of tolerance for views editors disagree with. We should appreciate his honesty.

And in that same vein, we should appreciate the interview he gave Hugh Hewitt on the topic yesterday. The transcript is here but it’s virtually incomprehensible. The transcript is accurate, it’s just that it’s very hard to follow Smith’s train of thought and he suffers from serious verbal tics.

I’m not trying to be uncharitable. I have the same tics, unfortunately. But there are dozens upon dozens of “like,” “I mean,” and “you know” and “sort of” tics and this interview should be a wake-up call to those who share this problem that we need to clean it up immediately. A sample, from Smith’s response to Hewitt’s request that he explain the controversy:

BS: I don’t really think there, I mean, I guess I don’t really think there was much of a controversy, or at least I didn’t see. There were like, I’ve been tweeting with three people today – Tim Carney and a guy named, just, I mean, but I’m not sure like three or four people make a controversy. But I think we have, we drafted and published a Standards Guide and an Ethics Guide several months ago, and I think we’ve been wrestling with something I’m sure you think about a lot, which is, although I think I probably come down somewhere a bit differently from you, which is you know, is it possible to, look, what is the tradition that used to be called kind of objective journalism, mainstream media journalism, the tradition the New York Times and the Washington Post come out of, which is the tradition I come out of? You know, how do you do that in a way that, you know, that’s honest with your readers? And I think you know, there’s always been, for a long time, been this debate both on the right and on the left saying come on, you guys, stop lying, don’t conceal your opinions. We know you have real opinions. And at the same time, of course, everyone has a set of implicit opinions about, you know, you don’t have to say, Hugh, that like you oppose racism and that you favor free speech. Those are obviously baked into your coverage, just as much as they’re baked into the New York Times’ coverage.

The audio helps a great deal, which you can access here.

Smith struggles mightily to explain BuzzFeed’s standards guide, at times downplaying its significance without fully disavowing it. Hewitt asks some questions about the religious liberty concerns raised by the Obergefell decision he celebrated, about which Smith doesn’t have strong views. He doesn’t seem to have thought through the ramifications of redefining marriage very much and displays a somewhat surprising lack of knowledge and curiosity on these issues. Hewitt points out that BuzzFeed takes a strident policy on same-sex marriage but not one on, say, Saudi Arabia’s oppression of religious minorities.

Toward the end of the interview, they discuss that Smith doesn’t believe in God.

Hewitt wonders if Smith and BuzzFeed can cover well anyone who does believe in God. Hewitt asks Smith:

Can you ever get me? And do you have serious Evangelicals on the staff of BuzzFeed with whom to engage in the conversation about going forward what these institutions are going to have happen to them as a result of the marriage decision?

Smith responds that journalists can cover people different from them, simply needing a “certain level of humility and empathy,” and, I might add, humility should include an awareness that there is more than one side to everything.

Anyway, he also says:

BS: We do have, yes, but I also think, second, that newsroom diversity is like you know, it’s really important in having people of faith and particularly religious Christians in newsroom is important, yes, and we do. And I think that’s an important perspective.

BS: I mean, you know, I think good reporters are very good at least trying to understand the people they cover, and I think we have people who have all sorts of different beliefs here, so…but that’s important.

Well there you go! BuzzFeed has “religious Christians” in the newsroom and “all sorts of different beliefs” are important. It’s so true! In a nation that is divided on the clash between sexual liberty and religious liberty, it is a great idea for a major newsroom to make sure its reporters and editors don’t all share identical views on the topic.

The mystery of whether a single person among BuzzFeed’s 1000-person staff is dissenting, much less publicly, from the BuzzFeed editorial position remains. Smith says:

The one thing about claiming a wide variety of views are present in the reporting staff one oversees is that you do have to know a bit about most employee’s “faith/personal views.” After all, it’s easier to pretend there aren’t multiple sides to major issues of the day when you’re only hiring from one side.

As I noted on CNN this weekend, BuzzFeed puts a lot of resources into its LGBT coverage and it does well with that. It does less well with religious news, religious liberty news and news about the complexities of marriage and marriage law. Now that it has helped accomplish its campaign to redefine marriage, perhaps it can pour some resources into coverage of the aftermath of the change. Hiring a few dozen people with different viewpoints on the matter would be a good first step.