The Familiar and False Argument That Gay Rights ‘Shut Out’ Other Civil Rights

Once again, with gay rights in the news, a black commentator tries to talk a fake debate into existence.

By Brentin Mock Mar 28, 2013

Yesterday Keli Goff, a columnist for The Root, argued that voting rights and affirmative action was suffering a "media shutout" at the expense of marriage equality. The premise itself lacks validity: March Madness also won a lot of media coverage this month, but it would be silly to argue that it came at the expense of, say, immigration reform. But the charge not coincidentally revives the manufactured debate of black versus gay rights, a divide that never existed until anti-gay organizations actively sought to create it. Still, even if you accept Goff’s false premise, the argument doesn’t stand up to inspection.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard back to back oral arguments this week on two of history’s largest gay rights cases, on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8. Due to those unprecedented hearings, and also owed to a few traditionally pro-DOMA Republicans coming out in favor of marriage equality, media coverage of the issue has been massive. Goff somehow concludes news editors around the country have blown the events out of proportion.

Wrote Goff:

"I bet you know that Republican Sen. Rob Portman now supports same-sex marriage, spurred by his love and compassion for his openly gay son. I bet you also know that 10 Democratic senators oppose gay marriage. The reason you know both of these facts is that same-sex marriage has become the mainstream media’s civil rights cause célèbre …To be clear, this population deserves rights and protections regardless of how few of them there may be, but not at the expense of other groups."

Goff sought to prove her observation by doing a Google search on "Gay marriage before the Supreme Court" and then comparing the results to those she got by searching "Voting Rights before the Supreme Court" and "Affirmative action before the Supreme Court." 

This is an imperfect gauge. Google searches aren’t uniform. Results vary based on computer and browser settings, cookies, and proximity to events related to the keyword. It also pulls up duplicate hits and non-media webpages that happen to mention the keywords.

Despite the problematic premise and methodology, I was still curious if DOMA was in fact drowning out these other important civil rights issues. I did a Lexis search, which specifically pulls up news results, and searched these terms paired with "U.S. Supreme Court" (There are "supreme courts" all over the nation so you have to specify "U.S.").

It’s no surprise that voting rights earned little coverage over the last 14 days. It was heard before SCOTUS a month ago. "Gay marriage," (a problematic term), "DOMA" and "marriage equality" had huge coverage in this time period, as expected given the recent SCOTUS arguments. 60 days out, "gay marriage" still wins, but voting rights coverage is substantially greater over the past two months compared to its coverage the past two weeks. Over the past three months, voting rights coverage trumps all terms — it’s not even close. It’s important to look at the range of coverage over time because both voting rights and marriage equality have been protracted battles that played out well before the SCOTUS hearings.

Affirmative action, did not generate as much coverage as any of the terms, but there was never a time period when it was "shut out" of coverage. It faired much better in general public engagement. These Google Trends charts show how often people searched these terms over the last 90 days, and when those searches peaked and flatlined. Public interest has been more robust over time for affirmative action, and voting rights to a lesser extent, while marriage equality was flat until this week’s hearings:

Marriage equality:

Gay marriage:

Affirmative action:

Voting rights:

None of these analyses are perfect. There’s hundreds of metrics for evaluating coverage and interest. But what we can conclude is that there has definitely been no media blackout caused by DOMA. There’s little productive value in drumming up contrived tensions between marriage equality advocates and people of color. Each of these cases, at root, is about 14th amendment equal protection under the law. The "media shutout" on civil rights is not a thing.