On gay marriage, real names and a real discussion

Howard Owens

I’ve long been an admirer of Howard Owens’ real-names policy for online commenters. It’s one of the reasons I adopted it for Media Nation a couple of years ago. So I was intrigued when he tweeted this morning, “When you manage your comment community correctly, you can run a poll on gay marriage and have the convo remain civil.”

I clicked through to his community-news site, The Batavian, in rural western New York. As I write this, 1,501 people had responded to his survey question: “Do you support gay marriage?” About 45 percent said “yes” and 55 percent said “no.” And Owens was right: I couldn’t find a non-civil comment among them.

What I found was an engaged and engaging discussion (with a bit too much esoterica on states’ rights for my taste), with Owens himself making occasional contributions — an important part of keeping the online conversation on track. Given the volatile nature of the topic, I asked him if he pre-screened the comments or had deleted any after they were posted. His answer: no, and no. Impressive.

I’m not entirely opposed to allowing anonymous comments. At the New Haven Independent, for instance, editor and founder Paul Bass argues that teachers, police officers and other stakeholders wouldn’t dare express their thoughts if they had to reveal their identities. The Independent is often held up as a model of community engagement.

Yet the Independent runs off the rails from time to time, and earlier this year Bass had to tighten up his guidelines — including requiring real-name registration, though anonymous commenting is still allowed.

I can’t say it enough: News organizations have to find effective ways to engage with their users. Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. (You may thank me later for the triple negative.)

A great day for America, but with political implications

Was it partly political? Of course. As Jay Rosen tweeted, “I’m old enough to understand that a president who is with you only when the polling supports it is the best you are ever going to get.”

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So perhaps the most remarkable aspect of President Obama’s decision to endorse same-sex marriage was that he clearly saw it as good politics.

There are many ways of looking at this. For instance, Michael Rezendes reports in today’s Boston Globe that it may help the president with fundraising. But I think the overarching reason is that Obama’s been dragged into the most vicious culture war in a generation, and he was fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Now he’s free to play both offense and defense. His base will be as energized as the Republicans’.

(Non-political, real-world aside: This is huge! Tuesday was a great day for our country, and Obama deserves our thanks and congratulations no matter what political calculations went into this.)

Which brings me to an article I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in November 2003, shortly after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional. I urged Democrats in general, and the presidential candidates in particular, to embrace the ruling. My argument was that if they didn’t, they’d be cast by the anti-marriage right as gay-marriage supporters without receiving any of the benefits of actually coming out and saying it.

I was proved correct the following year, when then-president George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in part on the strength of anti-gay-marriage measures on the ballots in a number of battleground states — all while Kerry kept professing his opposition to same-sex marriage.

We are free to speculate that Obama’s opposition to gay marriage was just as political as — or perhaps more political than — his about-face. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, who’s against same-sex marriage, tweeted yesterday, “Pro-gay marriage in 1996. Anti-gay marriage in 2004. Pro-gay marriage in 2012. When Obama evolves, he evolves!” Jacoby was referring to a questionnaire Obama once filled out when he was running for office in Illinois.

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is doubling down on his opposition to same-sex marriage and even civil unions. And in characteristic Romney fashion, he is saying the matter ought to be left to the states, which contradicts his own position. As Rick Klein of ABC News tweets, “important to add that he [Romney] wants to ban it at federal level, via Constitution.”

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In any event, the president is now on the right side of history, of morality and of human dignity. That it might also help him win re-election is beside the point.