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Coverage was marked by tameness

The lack of hysteria over gay marriages proves a shift in public opinion much more effectively than polls.

June 18, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

The percentage of Californians who support same-sex marriage varies from poll to poll, but if Tuesday's news coverage is any indication, a legal union between partner A and partner B is no longer seen as either the end of the world or the start of the Age of Aquarius.

Hundreds of gay and lesbian couples received legal California marriage licenses Tuesday. But compared with the political hysteria and media frenzy that followed the brief legalization of same-sex marriages in San Francisco in February 2004, the news cycle following this nuptial blitz was a model of restraint.

Wedged in between coverage of the flooding of the Midwest, Al Gore's endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama and the first of two memorials for journalist Tim Russert, stories from various California courthouses were so uniform in their well-wishing tameness that they bordered on dull. Short-and-sweet interviews with the newly married made the top of the network news at 5, but the topic was regularly trumped on talk shows like "The View" and local afternoon news hours by recent studies about the importance of sleep and the health benefits of drinking coffee.

Which, if you support same-sex marriage, is great news -- a general lack of hysteria proves a shift in public opinion much more effectively than any poll. Certainly circumstances are different from four years ago, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began a marital spree that left some Americans euphoric, others horrified. Less than a year later, Californians voted for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 20, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Legality of gay marriage: An article in Wednesday's Section A about television coverage of same-sex marriages said that California voters had approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage sometime in the last four years. California voters passed Proposition 22, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman, in 2000, but it was not a constitutional amendment. A proposal to amend the state Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.

This time around, everyone has had plenty of warning, not to mention a whole season in which to really miss "Will and Grace." Ever since the state Supreme Court declared the same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional last month, there has been a steady drumbeat of what can only be called anticipation.

The media have had a field day predicting how an onslaught of gay and lesbian marriages will affect the state, booking up florists and caterers and perhaps reviving the state economy with a wave of marriage-minded tourists. Gay and lesbian activist groups, meanwhile, reviewed the tapes from four years ago and made it clear to their constituents that sometimes less is more, especially when it comes to cross-dressing.

So when the big day dawned, it was almost anticlimactic. Despite the fact that Californians remain almost evenly divided on the issue, the first day of what will undoubtedly be a slew of same-sex weddings occurred with far more flowers than dissent. What it lacked in tension, it more than made up for in media professionalism; everyone involved stayed very much on message.

With lead-ins that touted celebration rather than controversy, camera crews showed the lines outside various courthouses, while reporters hovered with excited questions like so many wedding attendants. "Happy Couples," CNN announced. "Love, Kisses and Equality in California."

Dutiful reminders that not everyone thought gay marriage was a good idea seemed just that, dutiful, boiled down to frequent reminders that the marriages could be undone if Californians once again voted against gay marriage in November. But this only lent a note of pathos to interviews such as the one CNN did with Jim Winstead and Rodney Naccarato, a handsome couple notable mostly for their adorable 17-month-old son, Zeke, who sneezed and laughed and grabbed at the microphone.

Marrying couples were, for the most part, low-key in manner and dress, and the words coming out of their mouths could have been penned, in a different context of course, by Pat Buchanan: They stressed the importance of marriage to society, the structure it provides couples and families, the benefit it offers children. Sports jackets were de rigueur for the men, linen suits or simple slip dresses for the women, though Hawaiian shirts and cowboy hats were not completely out of place.

So smoothly did things go that at times one sensed the media grooming at work, the reality seemed a little scripted, the point-couples chosen for their good looks or middle-American demeanor.

Protesters were surprisingly few, perhaps because organizations like ProtectMarriage had called on supporters to stay calm and focus their efforts on the November ballot issue. Some viewers vented their disapproval on various news outlet websites, and on TV a few activist leaders voiced concern that same-sex marriage opened the door to polygamy or underage marriage.

Glen Lavy of the Alliance Defense Fund told CNN that he feared the Supreme Court's decision was an attempt to circumvent the democratic process. All of these issues will no doubt be given a louder voice and more attention as November draws near, but on Tuesday, even opponents seemed to have gotten the moderation memo, pointedly directing their frustration at the law and the process rather than at those headed to the altar.

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