Supreme Court's Gay Marriage Ruling: Networks Play It Safe

Prop 8 Rally Outside Supreme Court 6/26 - H 2013
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Prop 8 Rally Outside Supreme Court 6/26 - H 2013

There were few flubs in the TV news organizations’ coverage of the Supreme Court’s decisions on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. Broadcast networks broke into regular morning programming a few minutes after 10 a.m. ET when the high court handed down its first decision, declaring DOMA unconstitutional in a 5-4 opinion.

CBS had correspondent Jan Crawford in front of the Supreme Court in Washington while CBS This Morning anchors Charlie Rose and Norah O’Donnell were in the New York studio. George Stephanopoulos anchored ABC’s coverage from the Good Morning America studio in Times Square with Dan Abrams on hand and Terry Moran at the courthouse. And NBC News had justice correspondent Pete Williams in front of the court. Williams, who distinguished himself during the network's coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, reported the court’s first decision for NBC and MSNBC at 10:02 a.m., followed a few second later by Moran, who said on ABC: “There is ringing language in here affirming the rights of gay couples.” CBS News broke in at 10:04 a.m. with Crawford.

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Cable news was wall-to-wall from the court all morning. Fox News, which was also covering the arrest in Massachusetts this morning of former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, reported the DOMA decision at 10:04 a.m. CNN, which along with Fox News flubbed the high court's Affordable Care Act decision, reported at 10 a.m. that a decision in DOMA had come down and eight minutes later reported the details of that decision, with Jake Tapper and Jeffrey Toobin in front of the Supreme Court and Wolf Blitzer and John King in the Washington studio.

The court’s decision on California’s Proposition 8 -- that supporters of the state’s ban on same-sex marriage did not have the legal standing to appeal a lower court's ruling that overturned the proposition -- was reported at 10:26 a.m. on NBC and ABC and one minute later on Fox News. Meanwhile CNN waited 10 minutes, until 10:37 a.m., to fully articulate the ruling. 

Speaking on MSNBC, former Democratic congressman Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of Congress, declared the DOMA ruling was a “major breakthrough.”

“I wish we could push a button and get all of our rights tomorrow,” he said. “But that’s never been the way it’s worked in America in the face of prejudice. You have to work hard politically, legally, socially and intellectually.”

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, the first openly gay woman to host a primetime cable news program, noted that the Prop 8 ruling still left a grey area for many same-sex couples who are married in one state but may relocate to a another that does not recognize their union. As a gay woman, she said, her “rights fade in and out like cell phone service [as you] travel around the country.”

Meanwhile CNN’s King, who called gay rights a “legacy issue” for President Obama, was at the “magic wall” with a digital timeline of the president’s ideological evolution on the issue, beginning in 2004 when as a state senator Obama was running for the U.S. Senate and still opposed gay marriage. 

Fox News’ Bret Baier declared the rulings “a big day for gay rights supporters.” And Baier and Bill Hemmer mused about the strange bedfellows pairing of David Boies and Ted Olson. Boies, a Democrat, and Olson, a Republican, were legal adversaries in the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision. But they joined forces to successfully argue the Prop 8 case.

“How do you have David Boies and Ted Olson on one side of the same issue?” asked Hemmer. “Thirteen years ago they were ideologically, legally and politically opposed to each other.”