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Marriage of Convenience

How the New York Times got the president's marriage initiative wrong.

11:00 PM, Feb 17, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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WHEN THE PRESS GROTESQUELY DISTORTS YOUR ISSUE, don't get mad, set the record straight--clearly, affirmatively, with documents and web links at the ready, so that people can check your accuracy for themselves.

That philosophy informed an impressive presentation yesterday morning at the National Press Club by defenders of the Bush administration's initiative to promote healthy marriages by funding pilot projects in marriage education for interested couples and individuals. Tired of the din that has arisen since mid-January erroneously portraying the initiative as new, politically motivated in an election year, a sop to the religious right, and somehow deviously connected to the issue of same-sex marriage, the marriage-education vanguard came to Washington from half a dozen far-flung states to make their voices heard.

Their effort may even do some good. This miscellaneous alliance of social workers and social reformers, scholars and teachers, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, have been working together so long and so intelligently to develop ways of promoting marital stability in the interests of children, their parents, and society at large that they were able to spring into action when the uncoordinated chorus of distortion mushroomed overnight. It's an interesting story.

IT ALL BEGAN ON JANUARY 14, when the New York Times ran a front-page story, above the fold, headed, "Bush plans $1.5 Billion Drive for Promotion of Marriage." The authors were Robert Pear and David D. Kirkpatrick, the latter newly assigned to a year-long beat covering that exotic species, conservatives. The two were apparently on unfamiliar ground. Relying on unnamed "administration officials," their first sentence announced "an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage," possibly to be touted in the president's impending State of the Union. The initiative, the story continued, had been in the works "for months," cooked up by the administration and "conservative groups." The third sentence made the link with "pressure from conservatives eager to see the federal government defend traditional marriage" in the wake of the gay-rights court decision in Massachusetts.

This was a remarkably misleading series of assertions. There was, in fact, no new Bush administration initiative; the old marriage initiative (announced in February 2002, passed by the House in May 2003, costing $300,000,000 a year, about a third of it to evaluate program effectiveness) was not mentioned in the State of the Union; and the backers of marriage education are, if anything, predominantly liberals concerned about the welfare of children and struggling mothers and fathers, with no common views on religion or homosexuality. To be sure, the body of the story included some accurate reporting, but the political misframing of the issue was picked up by journalists across the country.

Especially columnists. In fact, the Times's own Maureen Dowd set the tone the very next day ("Not satisfied with colonizing the Moon, scouting for Martians and civilizing Iraq, President Bush is lavishing more gazillions on another audaciously quixotic plan. He wants to become the national yenta"). A flood of editorials and other opinion pieces recycling the Times's distortions continued to bash the administration even after the State of the Union was silent on marriage.

Not everyone, it turned out, was willing to buy this. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a sociologist long active in the marriage movement and co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, undertook an analysis of the Pear-Kirkpatrick article and its progeny in the media. This backgrounder is one of the documents released at yesterday's briefing. It's worth quoting a closing paragraph:

What had heretofore been in fact a serious, ongoing, and largely bipartisan discussion of an important policy question--Is offering marriage-supportive programs to low-income couples one important aspect of welfare reform and a legitimate goal of public policy?--is now at risk of becoming profoundly misunderstood by the public, and perhaps even by some legislators, as just an election-year gimmick seeking to play upon passions connected to same-sex marriage.

Also released yesterday is the report "Can Government Strengthen Marriage? Evidence from the Social Sciences," commissioned by the National Fatherhood Initiative, the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, and the Institute for American Values. Along with the media backgrounder and details on the participating organizations and individuals, this report is available at www.marriagemovement.org.

WHAT THE WEBSITE CAN'T CONVEY is the personal commitment of those invested in the project of helping people form and sustain healthy marriages, from the intellectuals to the workers in the trenches. To take just one of yesterday's varied cast of speakers, Marline E. Pearson (a self-identified "liberal Democrat and feminist") teaches relationship skills at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin. "I bristle when I read that this is going to push people into bad relationships," she said, noting that bad relationships are already commonplace. "I have spent my whole life in domestic-violence prevention. Our training aims at helping people develop good interactions and recognize bad ones and exit them, then go back and repair them. How do two people keep their friendship going over years?"

It's fair to insist that such preventive training be tested for effectiveness, and it's reasonable to debate whether it should be part of public assistance to young single mothers. What seems a loss all round is for the conversation to be derailed by innuendo and misrepresentation.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.