Yesterday, seeing a Father’s Day column extolling the virtues of being a gay father, I offhandedly snarked about how The New York Times will go out of its way to find a gay angle to just about anything (a future headline: “Arbor Day: Queering the Sugar Maples”). Naturally half my combox readers say I’m the one obsessed with gay coverage in the Times, not the Times. This is how it goes:

NYT: “Gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay gay GAY! GAY! And not to put too fine a point on it: GAY!”

Conservative: “Do you ever notice how the country’s most influential newspaper writes disproportionately about gay issues, and from an unabashed pro-gay stance?”

Liberal: “Why are you right wingers so obsessed with homosexuality?”

First, let’s dispense with the idea that the Times is any kind of neutral journalistic source when it comes to this story. Look at this 2004 farewell column by the paper’s then-ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Excerpts:

But it’s one thing to make the paper’s pages a congenial home for editorial polemicists, conceptual artists, the fashion-forward or other like-minded souls (European papers, aligned with specific political parties, have been doing it for centuries), and quite another to tell only the side of the story your co-religionists wish to hear. I don’t think it’s intentional when The Times does this. But negligence doesn’t have to be intentional.

The gay marriage issue provides a perfect example. Set aside the editorial page, the columnists or the lengthy article in the magazine (”Toward a More Perfect Union,” by David J. Garrow, May 9) that compared the lawyers who won the Massachusetts same-sex marriage lawsuit to Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. That’s all fine, especially for those of us who believe that homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexuals.

More:

But for those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination, it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading. So far this year, front-page headlines have told me that ”For Children of Gays, Marriage Brings Joy” (March 19); that the family of ”Two Fathers, With One Happy to Stay at Home” (Jan. 12) is a new archetype; and that ”Gay Couples Seek Unions in God’s Eyes” (Jan. 30). I’ve learned where gay couples go to celebrate their marriages; I’ve met gay couples picking out bridal dresses; I’ve been introduced to couples who have been together for decades and have now sanctified their vows in Canada, couples who have successfully integrated the world of competitive ballroom dancing, couples whose lives are the platonic model of suburban stability.

Every one of these articles was perfectly legitimate. Cumulatively, though, they would make a very effective ad campaign for the gay marriage cause. You wouldn’t even need the articles: run the headlines over the invariably sunny pictures of invariably happy people that ran with most of these pieces, and you’d have the makings of a life insurance commercial.

This implicit advocacy is underscored by what hasn’t appeared. Apart from one excursion into the legal ramifications of custody battles (”Split Gay Couples Face Custody Hurdles,” by Adam Liptak and Pam Belluck, March 24), potentially nettlesome effects of gay marriage have been virtually absent from The Times since the issue exploded last winter.

The San Francisco Chronicle runs an uninflected article about Congressional testimony from a Stanford scholar making the case that gay marriage in the Netherlands has had a deleterious effect on heterosexual marriage. The Boston Globe explores the potential impact of same-sex marriage on tax revenues, and the paucity of reliable research on child-rearing in gay families. But in The Times, I have learned next to nothing about these issues, nor about partner abuse in the gay community, about any social difficulties that might be encountered by children of gay couples or about divorce rates (or causes, or consequences) among the 7,000 couples legally joined in Vermont since civil union was established there four years ago.

On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning. Six years ago, the ownership of this sophisticated New York institution decided to make it a truly national paper. Today, only 50 percent of The Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded here. You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast.

Why does this matter? After all, nobody forces me to subscribe to the Times, as I do. I have no doubt that on all things gay, the Times represents the viewpoint of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. But does the Times really aspire to do nothing more than confirm the prejudices of its readers? I am one of its non-NYC readers, and I don’t want to see anti-gay coverage. I want balance. This really is, as Okrent wrote, “one of the defining issues of our time,” and America’s most influential newspaper has turned itself into a propaganda sheet.

This is why the paper’s propaganda-ish journalism matters. The Times, more than any other newspaper or news organization, sets the tone for the mainstream media’s coverage. The TV networks take their cues for story ideas from the Times, as do the nation’s print newsrooms (which in turn set the tone of coverage for local TV). This is how the Times affects the opinions of tens of millions of people who will never see a Times story. I have personally benefited from this effect. When David Brooks wrote a generous column in the Times last December about my decision to move back to my hometown after my sister died, publishers started calling my agent, and within a week I had a book deal. The Times imprimatur made that happen. The book will be out next spring, and anybody who takes comfort, joy, or spiritual sustenance from my sister’s story will owe, in a real way, a debt to The New York Times. I know I do.

The point is, even though its fortunes have been diminished over the past decade, as have the fortunes of all newspapers, the Times has unparalleled power because it has the attention of elite opinionmakers. Media bias exists not in telling people what to believe, but in framing the context for which an event or phenomenon can be understood. A paper as powerful as the Times may never tell its readers that America should go to war with Freedonia, but if it devotes hugely disproportionate coverage to the wickedness of Freedonia, and the noble efforts of anti-Freedonia Americans, then we should not be surprised when public opinion moves steadily in favor of war with Freedonia. All decent people support war with Freedonia, right? What kind of unpatriotic Americans oppose war with the wicked, liberty-hating Freedonians? You see how this goes.

I have been a daily reader of and subscriber to The New York Times since 1992. It is a great newspaper, and if it weren’t, I wouldn’t pay a lot of money to get it. I argue with it constantly because I care about it. If I didn’t care about it, I would do what the great majority of my conservative friends do, and ignore it, except when the paper gives one the opportunity to hate it. Besides, you may despise the Times, but hating it doesn’t take away the fact that on the gay marriage issue, at least, its impact on the entire country matters — again, precisely because it confirms and leads elite opinion, which in turn affects mass opinion.

In a poll released last month, Gallup found that on average, Americans believe 25 percent or more of Americans are gay. This is, of course, crazy. In truth, social scientists estimate that only between two and five percent of Americans are gay. But if you were a reader of The New York Times, or a consumer of mainstream news and entertainment media, it’s easy to imagine why you would think that. In turn, if you really believe that one in four people in this country are gay, it’s bound to affect your views on the justice of same-sex marriage. If 25 percent of the people of this country cannot marry, well, that’s a huge deal, and it makes the concerns of those who worry about the long-term social effects of gay marriage, and questions of how religious liberty will fare under same-sex marriage, seem picayune.

According to the 2010 US Census, less than one percent (0.77 percent, to be precise) of all American households are constituted of a same-sex couple — and a statistical analysis paper on the Census website cautions that that number probably overestimates the number by 28 percent. The reader who pointed this out to me does the math, and says:

So how exactly do around 650,000 gay couples get to redefine marriage, stifle religious freedom, demand special rights, shut down adoption agencies, mandate the teaching of uncritical approval of homosexuality in schools, tear down the biological family, and tag anyone who disagrees with the label “hateful bigot?”  Is there really some overwhelming new social consensus on gay “marriage,” or are we being marketed, manipulated, and maligned by our Ruling Classes into either agreeing with this brave new world or keeping our mouths shut?

There has been no discussion in The New York Times, or in the mainstream media, of the impact same-sex marriage will likely have on religious liberty under the US constitutional framework. I routinely talk with people on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue who haven’t even thought about it. The issue is well-known in legal circles, but is widely ignored by our media. I believe it’s ignored because it greatly complicates the case for same-sex marriage as a matter of politics. If more people understood how constitutionalizing same-sex marriage is likely to affect their churches, parochial schools, and religious institutions, as well as the public schools, they would be far more reticent, I believe, to support same-sex marriage. Or if they affirmed their support of same-sex marriage, they would be doing so from a better informed position, like that of Chai Feldblum, the Georgetown law professor, EEOC commissioner and gay rights activist who says that yes, advances in gay civil rights come at a substantial cost to religious liberties, but that on balance, it’s worth it. As she told Maggie Gallagher in 2006:

“Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”

If only The New York Times and the mainstream media approached the same-sex marriage story with the honesty of Chai Feldblum! But they do not. It’s advocacy, all the way down, both in what the media choose to cover, how they choose to cover it, and — crucially — what they choose not to cover.

The sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change The World, illuminates the key point. Here, in a Christianity Today interview about the book, he lays it out. Hunter is talking specifically about Christianity, but this is how it is with cultural conservatism too:

You argue that cultural change is not wrought by individuals in isolation from institutions. But why should we not regard William Wilberforce as an individual who changed the world?

What history tells us is that the key actor in history is not the individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that arise out of that network. This is not to undermine or undersell the importance of charismatic figures like Luther, Calvin, or Wilberforce. That kind of genius, courage, and charisma, however, cannot be understood apart from a network of similarly oriented people.

You say that the “parallel institutions” of American Christianity are ineffectual as change agents in culture. Why?

Culture is organized according to a framework of center and periphery. The New York Times sells fewer copies than does USA Today, butThe New York Times is at the center whereas USA Today is at the periphery. Some community colleges and state universities provide as good an education as the Ivy League colleges, but the Ivies are at the center, whereas community colleges and state universities are at the periphery.

By and large, American Christianity has produced a huge cultural economy, but it operates on the periphery of status rather than in the center. The importance of cultural capital is determined not by quantity but by quality. Quality is measured according to the kind of status it attracts, and status is almost always measured by exclusivity. As I note in my book, evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument.

Are American Christians not elite enough?

Populism underwrites American Christianity, especially within evangelicalism. That populism speaks to cherished values, but it also works against the dynamics of cultural change. The main reason Christian believers today lack influence in the culture, despite their aspirations, is not because they don’t believe enough or try hard enough or think Christianly enough. It’s because they’ve been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.

The New York Times drives cultural change, and on the same-sex marriage issue, is doing so in a way that dramatically harms the interests of social conservatives and religious institutions. It is also the case that absent the Times editors having a fit of conscience and a pang of professionalism (that is, a desire to present all aspects of the issue in a more balanced and thorough way), there’s not a damn thing conservatives and religious people can do about it. But to be told that we, not the Times and the mainstream media, are the ones obsessed with the gay issue is the same as having your leg pissed on by an elephant, and told to quit bellyaching about the humidity.