December 27, 2009

Headline Writing

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Iowa want to have something like California's Proposition 8 there to overturn the judicial decision extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.  If you were writing a news story about this political effort, you could use any of a number of headlines.  For instance, it would be 100% accurate to say:

Opponents Push to Overturn Gay Marriage Rights

But you could also easily say that this headline is accurate:

Gay Marriage Opponents Push To Let Voters Decide

Guess which of these two headlines FOX News chose.  I'm not going to say that the content of the article is incorrect or that either of the headlines is inaccurate.  What I'd point out is that the first headline is a "pro-gay marriage" headline because it presumes that gay marriage already exists as a matter of right (which, in Iowa, it does) and that the opponents want to overturn them.  The second headline is "anti-gay marriage" because it conveys the idea that same-sex marriage was imposed on Iowa by judicial fiat and not through democratic means.

In the first headline, SSM opponents are trying to take away someone's rights.  In the second headline, SSM opponents are standing up for democracy.  Thus, it is possible to slant one way or the other while still being completely accurate and truthful.

What do I think?  You all already know this.  Not all decisions in our system of government are made through the democratic process, nor should they be.  The majority is not always right, and democracy is not always the best way to resolve some kinds of issues.  The military is our most respected and debatably our most effective governmental organization, and there is nothing in the least bit democratic about it.  Had the issue of civil rights and racial equality been left to purely democratic processes, African-Americans would still have "separate but equal" drinking fountains from the Mason-Dixon line to the Rio Grande.  There would be statutes on the books criminalizing the burning of the American flag in some places, and criminalizing the possession of firearms in others.

That's not to say that I don't think democracy is important or a bedrock principle of our nation.  Many, even most, decisions of the government should be made through democratic means, whether directly or indirectly.  But there are things that must be placed out of the sphere of the democratic process, and individual rights necessarily are among those.  The majority will and often does attempt to take away the rights of minorities, often dressed up in justifications of morality, necessity, or fulfillment of the freedoms of the majority.  But even if the majority has a legitimate claim to some kind of freedom (no one has the "freedom" to prevent offensive speech from being made; your "freedom" is to change the channel, turn away, or argue against the speaker) the proper venue for balancing competing claims to freedom is a court, not a legislature.

The reason for that is that freedom, in our Constitutional structure, is really a limit on the government's exercise of power.  There are limits on the government's power to tell you who you can or cannot marry.  Can a man marry a 12-year-old girl?  That's probably within the government's ability to restrict.  Can a man marry a woman who has previously been divorced from a different man?  That's beyond the ability of the government to control, that's within the individual freedoms of the divorcee and her intended new husband.  What is the principled difference between the 12-year-old and the divorcee as potential marriage partners?  That is ultimately a judicial rather than a political question, because we are discussing matters of individual rights rather than majoritarian preferences.  Yes, there is a role for democracy in the process, but it is not the final word.

And that is the issue of slanting in reporting the news.  The second headline above implies and assumes that the democratic process is to be inherently favored over a non-democratic process.  But democracy is not the be-all, end-all of our form of government.  The be-all, end-all of our form of government is that the powers of the government are limited in a principled way.  H/T to Box Turtle Bulletin.

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