Exposing Becker’s PR Campaign

You might imagine that the Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist would have attempted journalism in writing what is billed as a “definitive account” of the marriage equality movement. And if you mean by Meet the Press - Season 67journalism, being a stenographer and hagiographer for a handful of interested parties intent on spinning themselves as the new Rosa Parks, you’d be correct. No one doubts the validity and accuracy of the breathless accounts of Chad Griffin, Ted Olson and David Boies that Griffin, Olson and Boies gave directly and exclusively  to Becker.

But is it journalism never to seek any alternative views, or objective facts or actual history outside the bubble of access journalism? Is it journalism to make grand and sweeping statements about gay history, thereby revealing that you know nothing about it?

Now of course I am an interested party here, having been part of the movement for twenty-five years, but who, like so many 0thers, got wiped from history in Becker’s ridiculous book. So take my own biases into account here as well. But here’s the reasoned view of Chris Geidner, the best journalist on gay politics in the country, who has meticulously followed and covered the marriage equality movement for years. If you read one article on this book, read Geidner’s. His bottom line:

The small universe of people who constitute Becker’s sourcing for the book — and her apparent unwillingness to explore alternative reasons for or views of the developments those sources discuss — make the book a dangerous draft of history.

Geidner points out that the book is best understood as “a piece in [a] public relations campaign, orchestrated by Griffin, who is now the head of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights group.” It is designed to rewrite history to make an organization that was long a frustrating, infuriating laggard in the movement to be the indispensable force for real change. All the manifold facts, events, lawsuits, demonstrations, arguments, articles and books that get in the way of this PR campaign are removed, deleted, or simply ignored.

Case in point: the early, epic scene in Becker’s book in which a lone voice for equality, Dustin Lance Black’s, speaks truth to power. Geidner notes:

“If there was applause, Black didn’t remember any,” Becker writes. “Instead, he recalled an ocean of pursed lips and crossed arms, and that he was literally trembling as he walked off stage. … Tim Gill … denounced Black outright, telling the crowd he was naive and misguided.” Video from the event provided to BuzzFeed, though, shows that the speech was interrupted with applause five times. At the end, at least some members of the audience gave Black a standing ovation, the video shows.

The first words after Black’s speech were from the moderator:

Thank you. Righteous, real energy! That’s what we need! Urgency. Thank you.

If there was video of the event and you were a reporter and had a key passage describing that event, wouldn’t you want to check the video to see if your source’s account is true?

Becker didn’t – because it was irrelevant to the self-serving narratives of her exclusive sources. She also asserts, for good measure, that Black was denounced by Tim Gill – but the truth, as Geidner proves with transcripts, is simply different.

And so her book simply distorts and misleads and delivers excruciating contortions of logic and history again and again. (For even more evidence of this, see Aravosis.) Moreover, all the distortions in the book – about every moment in the movement – have the same effect: making Griffin and Boies and Olson into Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr and Lyndon Johnson rolled into one. That’s why this book is such a travesty of both history and journalism and why the NYT’s publishing an extract from it is something their public editor should look into. It’s also why the movement has to take a long, hard look at its biggest organization, HRC, and ask why its executive director, for the first time in the marriage movement’s history, is trying to make one individual – himself – the alpha and omega of the entire breakthrough.

That has never happened before. And it is in effect an attack on the very movement HRC purports to lead.

(Photo: Jo Becker appears on “Meet the Press” on April 20, 2014. By William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

“Nothing Could Be Further From The Truth”

Nathaniel Frank is the latest writer, journalist and activist to be appalled by the shoddy, shallow, dishonest journalism of Jo Becker. You will learn more about the history of the marriage equality movement in his single piece than you will in the entire 400-plus pages of Becker’s p.r. material for Chad Griffin. How Becker’s book came to be written, let alone published, remains “a major mystery that some intrepid reporter may one day unravel.”

David Plouffe On Becker’s Book: “Decidedly Inaccurate”

The account Jo Becker gives of the Obama administration’s response to the issue of marriage equality is one of the few parts of the book that has not been demolished since it was published. Since her account did not square with my own memory, I asked David Plouffe to address some of the claims in the book and he was eager to do so. Plouffe ran Obama’s 2008 campaign and during the time in question was Senior Adviser To The President.

Below is a Q and A I had with Plouffe today on the events Becker purports to report. My questions are in italics. Plouffe’s answers follow:

AS:  Becker’s book argues that the president’s position seemed stalled on marriage equality in 2011 and 2012 and that he likely did not intend to evolve any further on marriage before his second term. Do you agree?

DP: Absolutely not. The President made a decision that he was ready to “fully evolve” and announce his support for marriage equality. As he put it, “If I get asked if I was still a state legislator in Illinois would I vote to recognize same sex marriages as New York State did, the answer will be yes.” So the only question was when and how to announce in 2012 he would be the first President to support marriage equality, not whether to.

AS: What were the major and minor influences that caused the president to embrace marriage equality when he did?

DP: His evolution was not contrived as some suggest, but real. He spoke powerfully to some of his reasons in the Robin Roberts interview, but also the decision not to defend DOMA was instrumental, as well as the increasing number of states that were recognizing marriage. However, his family and friends and the discussions they had were likely the single greatest influence. His ultimate support for marriage equality was arrived at in a way that while public, was not too dissimilar to the journey many of us in the country took. Also, the President believed his support for marriage equality could change the opinions of some in his electoral coalition – witness the striking change in support in the African-American community which was illustrated in the Maryland ballot initiative results in 2012.

Given the Democratic convention and the Debates, where this issue was sure to come up, and that he had personally decided to support marriage equality, the plan was to make sure the announcement was made by June.

AS: Did Biden force your hand on substance? Or just the timing? What was the president’s personal response to Biden’s public statement?

DP: Not even the timing really. We were planning to do so within a week or two. So it might have sped it up by a matter of days, if that. He was very calm about it. He understood that this would be a historic moment and years from now, if not months (which turned out to be the case for most) all that mattered would be the words he spoke, not the process to get there. I will confess to being exercised because this was a historic moment and I wanted that to be the focus, not why we were doing it or how the timing was forced. He was right, I was wrong.

AS: David Brooks argues today that judging from Becker’s book, this was a decision dominated by elite political strategists. Is that your recollection?

DP: Not all all.

DP: Once he made the decisions, it was a settled debate. All we did was help think thru the timing and some of the questions that would arise from his statement. I understand the Becker book may give people that sense. It is decidedly inaccurate. I sat beside him from his decision not to defend DOMA in early 2011 to his embrace of marriage equality on May 9, 2012. It was his call. And from my unique perch at the time, I can assure you there were no guarantees this would not cost us votes in some of the battleground states. It was one of my favorite days in the whole Obama experience. Doing something historic and right that had risk associated with it – I’m certain that’s how history will capture it, not some of the BS out there now.

AS: Was the president’s reluctance to embrace a federal right to marry a function of his caution or of his understanding that civil marriage has been a state issue in the US?

DP: The latter, exactly. Though I think he believes that ultimately the Courts and the states will move almost universally in the right direction and we certainly have seen progress on both fronts since his announcement. There really hasn’t been an issue at least in modern times that has seen this rapid support growth, and given support levels for marriage equality across the ideological spectrum of those under 35, the path is clear.

AS: Over the first term, the administration had successively endorsed the notion of heightened scrutiny for gay rights cases, had bowed out of defending DOMA in the courts and had ended DADT. How did these events change the debate about marriage equality within the administration? Or were they irrelevant?

DP: I believe that while you had to look at each individually and make decisions based on the unique core facts at hand – and any administration must – there is no doubt that each was a barrier that was overcome and the result of each pointed in the same direction towards progress. Surely some will disagree with this this, but I think the gradual progression on the issues you mention in the first three years leading up to his marriage equality statement helped ultimately build support broadly for the equality case. Some may get frustrated by this, but the President has always had a very good sense of timing, even when it seems slow or not how they would do it on The West Wing TV show. I think in this case, we will look back and understand that each chapter unfolding as it did was the right path for the overall cause.

AS: Was there a sell-by date by which time the administration believed it had to endorse marriage equality before the election?

DP: Yes – our internal clock was June. There was platform language for the convention that had to be agreed to and the debates looming and he would start doing a lot of local interviews as well as national. It would be impossible to imagine not getting the question – directly  (Are you still evolving?) or hypothetically (would you vote for it in the Illinois legislature?) We were actively working thru dates and options in the very near term when the VP made his statements on MTP.

When you read the book, you get the impression that Chad Griffin did almost all of this himself. Think about that claim for a moment. And what it says about his vision of the marriage equality movement and its hundreds of thousands of participants, gay and straight, over the last two and a half decades.

Becker On Fresh Air

To Terry Gross’ immense credit, she had Jo Becker back on her radio show to defend the ridiculous premise and framing of her book, namely that the revolution of marriage equality began in 2008 with an epiphany by Chad Griffin. Gross tries repeatedly to get Becker to withdraw her idea that the “revolution” “began” in 2008. But Becker won’t. Money quote:

GROSS: So getting back to that first paragraph in your book, if you had it to do over again, would you have written this is how a revolution starts?

BECKER: I would.

GROSS: Because?

BECKER: Because I believe that this was a revolutionary step that they took, and not to say that it hadn’t been considered, but they were the ones that took the step.

But the case that actually made the difference federally was the Windsor case, argued by Roberta Kaplan, and not the case Becker has to hype because of her sources. And challenging Prop 8 was not a revolutionary step. It was risky, sure. But taking the issue to the federal courts had been part of the strategy for the previous twenty-five years. The idea that this was first dreamed up by Chad Griffin – after all of us had been clueless and cowardly beforehand – is absurd as well as insulting. She has no clue what she’s talking about.

Becker also describes 2008 as “a really, you know, dark moment in the gay rights movement.” Seriously?

In 2008, we had higher levels of national support for marriage equality than in any previous year – and close to double the support we had when the revolution actually began; we had won in California and Massachusetts; we were on the verge of winning in Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and DC. And we had elected Obama, who was about to end the HIV Travel ban, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and remove the federal government from supporting DOMA. A terrible campaign in California (Griffin was right about that and I was too) lost us that state in a close race in the fall election. But momentum was clearly with us. Before the Perry decision, we had also won New York, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, and Minnesota. All those victories came through the more democratic process of state legislatures. Before the Perry ruling, we also had marriage equality in 13 countries – and a wave of others followed that had nothing to do with Olson or Boies or Griffin.

The book is an attempt by a tiny few to co-opt and claim credit for a movement they had previously had nothing to do with. No one with any knowledge of the movement has defended it. And, judging from her Fresh Air interview today, Becker can’t either.

The Best Of The Dish Today

I spent the day monitoring the latest p.r. push by the Human Rights Campaign (i.e. the Becker book on the marriage equality movement), and absorbing the debates among the earliest Christians about how exactly they came to believe that Jesus was God. The fruits of Dishness, I guess.

On the Obama front, has anyone noticed that the latest surveys from Gallup and Rasmussen show his approval rating climbing back up quite sharply?

On the ex-sherpas front, I can’t help bit think of this classic Onion piece on the douchebags who want to climb Everest or sail around the world alone.

On the HRC front, another one of them pops up on HuffPo to defend their record on marriage. Steve Fisher insists that HRC was front and center under Elizabeth Birch in the 1990s. How?

To build a movement of Americans on the side of LGBT equality, she led the creation of a slick logo built on a carefully calibrated hrcfashion.jpgmessage about equality … With the logo as a calling card, HRC built a membership base of hundreds of thousands who have been called upon to lobby, take action and help move the bar in their home states, neighborhoods and workplaces … She and her team created the Corporate Equality Index, a mammoth project that annually graded (and thus coaxed) corporations on their LGBT employment policies.


Look: I’m not denying that these were decent initiatives and helped us all in the long run. But logos aren’t arguments. And on marriage, in the early and critical years, HRC said close to nothing and refused repeatedly to do anything. When some of us begged them to spend money on Hawaii’s marriage breakthrough, we were told to go raise the money ourselves. Pity all the donors had been told by HRC not to bother. For that matter, try and find a speech given by Birch in those years making the case for marriage equality. Try and find a clip of an HRC official on television making that case. Good luck.

As for Fisher, take a look at this NYT story from December 2004, reporting that HRC had decided even at that late date to drop marriage equality as an issue. And who in that piece is quoted backing this surrender? Steve Fisher!

Some gay rights activists, including the leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, said they believed that aggressively pursuing same-sex marriage only played into the hand of Republicans and religious conservatives, who skillfully used the issue this fall to energize their voters. Steven Fisher, the campaign’s communications director, said the group’s emphasis in coming months would be on communicating the struggles of gays in their families, workplaces, churches and synagogues … He also said the group would adopt a selective and incremental approach to winning rights rather than reaching for the gold ring of marriage right away.

You can spin but you can’t hide.

Today, we covered American oligarchy and Iraqi “democracy.” We took a look at responses – here and here – to Thomas Piketty’s new book on inequality. And we wondered what Chris Christie has been smoking lately. The Window View contest was a real, if romantic, teaser.

There’s still time to join this month’s book club – just download the e-book version of How Jesus Became God here. This reader did:

I just want to point that even before the book discussion begins, you are already doing what Ehrman specifically warns us not to do; you are treating the book as if it addresses the question of whether or not Jesus was (or is) ACTUALLY God.

Over and over and over – until I was ready to throw up my hands and scream “YES, I get the point already” – Ehrman emphasizes that he is investigating what early Christians believed about Jesus. He repeats endlessly that historians cannot make judgments about theological truth, only about historical investigation.

And as others have pointed out, the ideas in the book are not controversial among biblical scholars – except among those like the authors of the “response” book, who begin their investigation with the conclusion already determined.

I know, I know. But stay tuned for a Christian response (mine) to the book  – and then our debate.

A post update you might have missed: a reader in tiny Latta, SC gives his perspective on the firing of the town’s lesbian police chief. You can leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish.

17 more of you became subscribers today. Join them here.

And see you in the morning.

The Ones Who Really Forced The Spring

A timely reminder of how old the struggle for marriage equality really is in the US:

And this is how revolutions begin:

But, of course, as I noted in my 1998 anthology on the subject, the issue of gay marriage goes back much, much further in time. We even have martyrs executed for the cause. From Montaigne’s notebook as long ago as 1581:

On my return from Saint Peter’s I met a man who informed me humorously of two things: that the Portuguese made their obeisance in Passion week; and then, that on this same day the station was at San Giovanna Porta Latina, in which church a few years before certain Portuguese had entered into a strange brotherhood.

They married one another, male to male, at Mass, with the same ceremonies with which we perform our marriages, read the same marriage Gospel service, and then went to bed and lived together. The Roman wits said that because in the other conjunction, of male and female, this circumstance of marriage alone makes it legitimate, it had seemed to these sharp folk that this other action would become equally legitimate if they authorized it with ceremonies and mysteries of the Church.

Eight or nine Portuguese of this fine sect were burned.

Update from a reader:

The videos you posted remind me that I saw first-hand how the revolution was truly underway well before 2008.  When I was in graduate school, my close friend and research partner invited my wife and me to her wedding at a little farm up in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.  This would have been some time around 1996 or 1997.  It was a beautiful service, conducted by a former Catholic priest using a traditional marriage liturgy that was quite familiar to me as an Episcopalian and to my formerly Catholic wife. The only thing that was unusual was that my friend and her partner were lesbians. Both families were there, along with a few close friends.  It was a small, joyous affair and we celebrated them, their love, and their commitment to each other.  In that way it was just like any other wedding I’ve ever attended, including my own.  Virtually normal indeed.

So to whom does credit for the “revolution” belong? Not to the lawyers and political activists that Becker lionizes. Not to you, despite your early advocacy. It belongs to women (and men) like these, the courageous clergy who blessed their unions, and their families who loved and supported them and continue to do so.  That would be a much more human story to tell.

The Best Of The Dish Today

Never forget E.B. White!

Today, I argued that Obama was on the verge of another meep meep in foreign policy with Syria and Iran; that Rand Paul’s criticism of Reagan’s spending and deficits is a vital part of resuscitating conservatism; and that the Onion should have the last word on the circumcision debate. Plus: climate change’s threat to global security; and the power of psilocybin in tackling anxiety.

Some brief links on the Becker book. Ronan Farrow had a terrific interview with Becker today – tough but fair. Check it out. Lisa Keen has a superb takedown, as does Kevin Jennings. Petrelis piles on to HRC’s spin. I think it’s safe to say that there have been episodes of the 700 Club that have gotten a better reception in the gay community.

You can leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish.

35 more of you became subscribers today. Join them here.

And see you in the morning.

Chad Griffin Responds

This embed is invalid

The head of the Human Rights Campaign doesn’t take on the distortions and exaggerations in the Becker book, but he does necessary damage control by saluting just a few of the countless individuals who, far from allowing marriage equality to “languish in obscurity” for years, actually made everything we are tackling now possible. The statement is made under obvious duress, but it’s also graceful. And true.

With any luck, we can get past this ugly, unnecessary spat and get on with the business of making marriage equality a reality in every state. Internal debates about strategy are inevitable and usually good things. But the point must never be about who’s getting credit. It must always be about getting the job done. We owe it to this vital moral cause not to lose sight of that.

Update – a reader writes:

This reader comment on his parva mea culpa made me spit coffee on the monitor:

Truly, he stands on the necks of giants.

He made a nice first start, but it’s not nearly enough, IMO.

Is HRC Hosting Jo Becker Tomorrow?

I ask because of this – now deleted – calendar from Penguin, Becker’s publisher, which we stumbled upon three days ago:

Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 1.04.49 PMWe called the HRC building and press office and, after several attempts, we could not get an answer. They told us that the only event planned this weekend is private and they cannot give us any details about it. Blogger Will Kohler tried to get an answer too and tells the Dish that the HRC spokesman wouldn’t deny or confirm a Becker event. But HRC rents the space out and would presumably get reimbursed for hosting an event. So this is a genuine question for HRC members: is HRC honoring a book that trashes everyone else in the marriage equality movement?

We can’t get an answer from them, which is par for the course. But maybe you can: press@hrc.org. Be nice.

Update: we’re not the only ones getting the run-around. From Metro Weekly’s Justin Snow:

Update: A reader writes:

What about Becker also being hosted at Gibson Dunn, Ted Olson’s law-firm, for a private event on April 28 (as shown in your screenshot)? Even more inside access.

Indeed. An author who is hosted at book signings and events by the “characters” she fawns over in her book is crossing an ethical line. Another one. And, yes, I think, given the refusal of HRC to confirm or deny that the Becker event is canceled tomorrow, we can assume that it’s a party for Becker, and a thank you for the public relations job she has done for the organization. It’s all win-win-win. Except for the truth.

One last update: Because HRC would not respond to requests for clarification, Chris Johnson asked Becker herself at her DC book-signing at Politics and Prose if HRC was hosting her on Saturday:

What Do Rahm Emmanuel And Chad Griffin Have In Common?

They’re both very adept at manufacturing reality.

We discover today that CNN’s documentary series on Chicago under Rahm was coordinated in ways big and small with the mayor’s office. And – surprise! – it turned into a major propaganda coup for the ambitious Democrat. What you see is how a public figure can effectively get the media to burnish his image by leveraging access. This access-journalism in a very competitive climate can become propaganda very easily griffinetal– and is a win-win for both parties. The media entity gets a high profile product which it can use for ratings and ad money; the politician gets the kind of coverage no ad campaign could ever deliver. The only loser is the viewer.

And the more you see the Becker book’s roll-out continue, you see how brilliantly Chad Griffin has leveraged access-journalism as well – with a special Hollywood twist.  Griffin, after all, is a product of Hollywood – a former agent and prodigious fundraiser. And so I’ve come to think that it’s best to see the Becker book and the coming HBO documentary as ways to manufacture a Hollywood-ready story that begins in 2008 and ends in 2013. That’s what Becker’s book is really about. It reads like a screenplay, packed full of emotional subplots, and quirky characters. In interviews, she has even referred to real people, like Dustin Lance Black, as “characters” in her story. In the big positive front page review in the New York Times (that’s two NYT cover-pieces on this book) Linda Hirshman sees the book and the HBO documentary for what they are:

Perry was more than a lawsuit; it was a Hollywood production. Griffin’s outfit, Americans for Equal Rights, was started by professional P.R. consultants — Griffin and his business partner, Kristina Schake — at lunch with the Hollywood actor, director and producer Rob Reiner. AFER was always about changing the culture; it even had its own writer and producer, Dustin Lance Black and Bruce Cohen, from the acclaimed gay-themed biopic “Milk.”

My sources tell me that the HBO documentary that Griffin also gave exclusive access to is as breathless, as fawning and as narrowly focused as Becker’s book. The entire movement for marriage equality is distilled into a five-year courtroom drama for perfect dramatic effect. Hirshman notes who the star of that future movie will be:

Supreme Court civil rights landmarks have an irresistible narrative arc. First, the protagonists are oppressed; in the marriage equality story, the protagonist who started the revolution was “a handsome, bespectacled 35-year old political consultant named Chad Griffin,” and he had spent most of his life “haunted by the fear that if he told anyone he was gay, his friends and everything he dreamed for his future would evaporate.”

“The protagonist who started the revolution.” Now, Hirshman is very well aware that this is a massive distortion, and she correctly notes that the Perry case was a failure and trivial compared with the Windsor case and that the book doesn’t just ignore the work of the real pioneers, like Evan Wolfson or Mary Bonauto, but actually sleights them in order to puff up Griffin’s role. But when even Hirshman finds herself echoing the tropes that Becker has used, you see how the truth in the end will not matter.

Griffin knows that for most people who have no grip on the history of  the movement, this five-year movie narrative will be it.

Critics can complain or devastate the claims of the book, but that will not matter. For the millions who see the HBO movie, and for those who absorb the Becker book, the entire movement will have begun in 2008 and Griffin will be Rosa Parks. It’s win-win. Becker gets a big advance for exclusive access; the exclusive access keeps other journalists away from the subject; the New York Times gets big spreads for its star reporter; Griffin manufactures a Hollywood reality in which marriage equality is only achieved because of his courage; HRC coopts the entire narrative by hiring Griffin; and Olson and Boies get to portray themselves as the central lawyers in the movement. It does not matter that the Perry case failed; it does not matter that the bulk of the progress came outside the contours of this narrow, failed case, and in the decades before. What matters is an easy cinematic narrative that obliterates reality in favor of propaganda.

And it will, I think, work. Check out Entertainment Weekly’s conclusion:

Forcing the Spring stands as … the definitive account of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.

Not one account; “the definitive account.” Not an account of one ultimately unsuccessful case, decided on a technicality, but “of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.” Then check out the promotional materials for Olson and Boies’ forthcoming book – and the p.r. campaign becomes clearer still:

As allies and not foes, they tell the fascinating story of the five-year struggle to win the right for gays to marry, from Proposition 8’s adoption by voters in 2008, to its defeat before the highest court in the land in Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013. Boies and Olson guide readers through the legal framing of the case, making crystal clear the constitutional principles of due process and equal protection in support of marriage equality while explaining, with intricacy, the basic human truths they set out to prove when the duo put state-sanctioned discrimination on trial.

Redeeming the Dream offers readers an authoritative, dramatic, and up-close account of the most important civil rights issue — fought and won — since Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.

So Perry is now Brown v. Board of Education? Even though it failed? Even though another case succeeded? Even if there has been no definitive federal ruling from the Supreme Court yet? And notice the framing here as well: “the five-year struggle for the right for gays to marry.” That’s the “reality” that Griffin has successfully manufactured through the fawning screenplay of Jo Becker. The decades before – and the countless people, public and private, famous and unknown – are wiped from history. They don’t work so well as a movie, after all.

(Photo: Griffin and yours truly, with our spouses, in a happier time, at the White House state dinner for David Cameron, May 14, 2012.)