Skewed Language

Read carefully this lead sentence from an Associated Press news item on October 1: "The House emphatically rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage yesterday, the latest in a string of conservative pet causes advocated by Republican leaders in the run-up to election day." Most of us would assume that the words emphatically rejected mean a lopsided vote against the proposal. In this case, it does not. The House voted 227 to 186 in favor of the amendment: 55 percent for, 45 percent against. (And, by the way, thank you for your calls, which again jammed the switchboard at the Capitol.) As a body, the House did not reject the proposition at all. It significantly affirmed it, with a 55 percent majority. The reporter might argue that because a constitutional amendment requires two- thirds approval, the measure did not pass. That's true. It fell short by forty- nine votes. That's a clear victory for the anti-amendment forces, but made possible not by popular rejection, but by the very stringent rules governing the passage of amendments -- and that, over time, we are going to overcome. What we find here is flagrant spin, a revealing glimpse into the sympathies of the reporter. He wants us to view the motion as unpopular and out of the mainstream. In skewed language he continues to color the issue negatively. The same spin is evident in calling the Federal Marriage Amendment "the latest in a string of conservative pet causes." A pet cause is something valued by its owner, but not by many others. It's personal, subjective, emotional, and maybe irrational. Now, both liberal and conservative pundits use the phrase to disparage the other side's agenda. But when editorial phrases like that are incorporated into reporting, it's a not-so-obvious attempt -- in a very sneaky way -- to taint an entire political movement. In a similar vein, on September 26, 2003, the New York Times published a story describing the genocide in Sudan as a "pet cause of many American religious conservatives." Scholar Allen Hertzke asks, "Would the Times have similarly described the plight of Soviet Jewry as a 'pet cause' of American Jews or apartheid a 'pet cause' of African-Americans?" The obvious answer is: Of course not. Hertzke correctly describes such journalism as "patronizing." In fact, state marriage amendment referendum votes have garnered huge majorities -- much more than two-thirds. And though the amendment did not pass the House, the vote was not a defeat. We're in a great position to bring this up in the next session. Besides, every member of the House and Senate is on record as being for or against a constitutional amendment that will protect marriage. That's an important thing to remember when you go to the polls next month. Democracy depends on a well-informed public making wise judgments based on facts, evidence, and insight. Biased media don't just fail to inform. They mislead the mind and plant prejudice in the heart. Read or watch the news with your mind actively engaged in order to unwrap the packaging and analyze the worldview inside. For further reading and information: Find out how your senators voted on the Federal Marriage Amendment. Find out how your congressman voted on the amendment (H. J. Res. 106). David Espo, "House defeats federal gay-marriage amendment," News-Leader (Springfield, Mo.), 1 October 2004. Jim Abrams, "House Defeats Gay Marriage Ban Amendment," Associated Press, 1 October 2004. Allen D. Hertzke, "On This They Do Agree: Evangelicals take the lead in human- rights activism," Wall Street Journal, 10 October 2003. Marc Lacey, "Sudan's 2 Sides Take Big Step Toward Peace: A Security Pact," New York Times, 26 September 2003. (Archived article; costs $2.95 to retrieve.) Church Leaders: Join the National Preaching Initiative to preserve marriage. The BreakPoint "Marriage in America" CD addresses various aspects of the marriage institution and debate: from sociology, law and legal opinions, cultural impact, role of the Church, role of husbands and wives, impact on children, etc. It's a great resource for pastors and other church leaders, teachers, and concerned citizens. Also see BreakPoint's sanctity of marriage resource page. C. John Sommerville, How the News Makes Us Dumb(InterVarsity, 1999).


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary