I must have really been out of it last week because this small internet controversy surrounding a comment made by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams during a piece about the 60th wedding anniversary of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip where he said "marriage was under attack" totally went unnoticed. It's debatable whether or not Williams was directly implying that the institute of marriage was under attack because of the legalization of gay marriage in America and abroad, right wing bigots to invoke fear and a negative reaction from conservatives and likely supporters of marriage equality often use this popular phrase. Think Bill O'Reiley...enough said.
Blogger Jeremy Hooper of Good As You.Org had this to say, "WHAAAA THE HUH??? "In an era where marriage is under attack"?! Really, Brian?! Because we're pretty sure that sort of terminology is less the stuff of balanced journalism and more that of far-right, social conservative code-wording. And even if the gays are not the specific destructive force to which Williams or his writer are referring in this intro, the hyperbolic idea that this institution is being "attacked" is one that is most often associated with anti-gay marriage campaigns. So at best, this was bad news writing; at worst, it's a prominent journalist and news outlet taking some irresponsible rhetorical bait. Either way, we're less than thrilled'.
Brian Williams issued a statement shortly thereafter to fan the flames from bloggers, gay activists and inevitably GLAAD (God I love this organization when they're right):
"I was the recipient today of several emails from well-intentioned people, telling me I was being attacked in parts of the blogosphere for something I wrote and said on the air in last night’s broadcast. It was a closing piece about Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip celebrating their 60th anniversary. I noted this accomplishment, especially in this era when, as I put it, marriage seems “under attack” as an institution. My meaning? Our national divorce rate, which is currently somewhere between 40 and 50 percent. Others took it upon themselves to decide that I was somehow attacking gay marriage. The simple fact is that nothing could have been further from my mind, as many others easily understood.
In fact, one comment shared with me today came from a respected member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, who said, “It seemed to me he was talking about the sky-high heterosexual divorce rates. Marriage IS under attack — by straight people. It had nothing to do with the gay marriage movement.”
Sure Brian. GLAAD President Neil Giuilano summed it all up for me in his organizations response to Williams' statement:
Dear Mr. Williams,
Thank you for acknowledging the concerns raised by GLAAD and a number of online journalists today regarding your comments on yesterday’s broadcast about marriage being “under attack.”Your blog entry today confirms that your use of the phrase on last night’sbroadcast was not in any way intended to disparage gay couples, and that expression is appreciated.However, the primary issue is whether a phrase that has been used predominantly in an ugly anti-gay context can be used in another, tangentially related context (here, marriage in a general sense) without invoking the stereotypes that imbrue its common usage.
The phrase ”marriage under attack” — like “defense of marriage,” which you use elsewhere in your blog entry — is a meme designed and used by far-right anti-gay activists to scare people into opposing legal protections for gay couples. Media professionals who talk about marriage-related issues in their reporting should simply and factually discuss them, rather than uncritically repeating rhetoric calculated to make people feel threatened by and afraid of loving, committed couples.GLAAD’s work is rooted in the fundamental understanding that words and images matter. We expect that future NBC News reporting on marriage — both generally and for gay couples specifically — avoids these kinds of linguistic pitfalls.
Neil G. Giuliano