'Marriage Vow' pledge misrepresented slavery facts, media repeated mistakes

A peculiar candidate pledge made national headlines this last week and exposed some of the cracks in our collective media foundation. The "Marriage Vow," created by conservative religious group The Family Leader, was presented to Republican candidates as a way to secure the group's support. Presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum both signed on -- and unwittingly endorsed erroneous statements about black families under slavery. (Apparently, the candidates intended to support the  assertions made about homosexuality.)

Both the Fourth and Fifth estate leapt into action, with the Fourth explaining what happened and what might have sparked the controversy, and the Fifth parsing out what interested them most and either condemning or supporting the vow.

But one important part of the conversation is missing: Where is the context around the claims in the document? Were black children really in stable, two parent homes in the era immediately after slavery, as the "Marriage Vow" claimed? The immediate reaction from many writing on the Vow was to dismiss the claim outright, but consider how misinformed many Americans are on key tenets of American history.

Use Michele Bachmann as an example; she seems to believe the founding fathers were against slavery, when history reveals George Washington had over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson was a total hypocrite, publicly against slavery as an institution but maintaining slaves at Monticello and keeping a shadow family with Sally Hemings. Most of the founding fathers owned slaves, though their personal opinions on slavery varied. Yet, without a quick correction of untruths, this type of error spreads and people  believe what they have heard.

This lack of cultural knowledge has to be rectified on a variety of fronts -- it cannot solely fall at the feet of the news media. Journalists are always at war with the limits of time and word count, which means complicated issues often have to be distilled down to the most basic ideas. Unfortunately, this also means that sometimes, crucial information around key issues is lost. It also means that reporters may not be well versed in every topic that may arise on a campaign trail, so needed insight is missing from articles.

The Vow debacle calls to mind another media maelstrom that occurred back in 2006. Michael Richards (aka Kramer on “Seinfeld”), in a stand-up routine at the Laugh Factory, was caught using racial slurs onstage. My colleague (and the founder of Racialicious.com) Carmen Van Kerckhove wrote at the time of the incident:

The fact that Richards, when provoked by a black man, immediately reminded him that it wasn’t so long ago that he could have been lynched and made a public spectacle of, to me indicates that he is resentful of having to tolerate blacks being equal to him, and longs for the days when he could exercise his “god-given” superiority.

But later, Van Kerckhove would make the incident part of her discussions on media, noting that much of the conversation around Richards focused solely on his use of the n-word. Most outlets ignored the massive lynching reference, and instead just debated whether use of the n-word word was offensive.

This dynamic is repeating once again with the conversations around the the "Marriage Vow." For those familiar with slavery beyond the basics taught in high school, the idea that blacks were in stable, committed marriages before slavery is absolutely laughable. Slavery was a system in which blacks were treated like chattel. Marriage bonds were not acknowledged, since the property claim superseded the idea that a family would want to remain together.

Noted historian Nell Irvin Painter points out that in the domestic slave trade, parents and children were often separated. “This was completely devastating for families, there was just no question of it,” she explains. Further, slavery wasn’t the end of the devastation. The economic havoc continued into the Reconstruction era, and also plunged many families into poverty, since slaves could not legally earn wages, collect property, or pass their wealth on to heirs.

Scholar Hannah Rosen, author of  "Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South," notes:

[It] would not be possible to know exactly how many enslaved children lived with both of their parents before emancipation in the US (and this most likely varied across time and by region as well as by the whims and preferences of different slave holders), and thus to make an accurate comparison with the present. Historians such as Herbert Gutman pointed to unexpected numbers of families that did manage to stay together ("BLACK FAMILY IN SLAVERY AND FREEDOM"), but the impressiveness of his findings is based on the conditions under which enslaved people lived, which worked against families living together. There was no legal basis nor in general respect by slave owners for enslaved people's family relations. In the United States, enslaved people could not legally marry nor was there any guarantee that families would not be separated when it was in the financial or other interest of a slave owner for parents to be sold away from each other and or their children.

Tera Hunter is currently working on a book about marriage in the slavery era, and told NPR’s "Tell Me More" the other factors that complicated how African-Americans viewed marriage -- particularly because it was both an expression of love and a tool of subjugation.

Hunter talks Michel Martin through the realities of life after slavery had officially ended -- how former slaves often walked long distances, appealed to various government agencies, and relied on church networks to repair what had been torn asunder. Hunter notes that marriage still wasn’t a straightforward affair. Many African-Americans were afraid to legalize their relationships, after being subject to the legally sanctioned whims of their slave masters. And, some white Southerners were opposed to blacks being legally married, which would later mirror controversy around interracial marriages, then called miscegenation. Hunter and Martin’s conversation also exposed how marriage was used as a political tool, which also mirrors today’s social climate:

MARTIN: But you also say there were some owners who promoted marriage, even though they had no interest in recognizing it over the long-term, because they thought it served their interests, as well. Tell me about that.

Prof. HUNTER: Right. So, owners had some interest in promoting marriages, in part in response to the  abolitionist movement, because one of the strongest points that the abolitionists made, one of the most compelling attacks on slavery was the ways in which it undermined family relationships and marriages.

And so, in response to that, post-slavery defenders argue that, you know, slave-holding households themselves were like families and that they actually did encourage African-Americans to marry, to adopt Western Christian notions of marriage rather than so-called heathen practices from their past. So, essentially, slave masters learned that it was to their advantage to promote marriage and families, in part because it made economic sense. It mollified the slaves. It kept them reasonably content. It gave them incentives to remain on their plantations, as opposed to running away.

History is often complicated, and is an ever-evolving canvas. Since what we count as historical fact is often a widely agreed upon interpretation, it would make sense that there would be differing perspectives on what marriage was really like for those who were enslaved. However, there is a difference between interpretation and misinformation, and it’s clear that the "Marriage Vow" gets a lot of facts wrong.

Ultimately, the controversy over the "Marriage Vow" has illuminated an interesting structural issue in how Americans interrogate facts and understand news. Some of the problems are unrelated to journalism. For example, educational institutions in the United States do not all teach the same curricula. Our understanding of complex historical matters depends on what we are exposed to in the classroom, and that can be determined by everything from political wrangling to historical divisions.

But, even with these systemic issues, there has to be some point at which media outlets return to providing sorely needed context. It’s clear that Americans are working with different understandings around ideas of national importance. In some ways, the responsibility of the media is to bring everyone around with facts, so we can begin productive discussions. But most news organizations are not doing the necessary debunking. A Washington Post article about the controversy summarizes the "Marriage Vow" claims, but only notes that there is a “complete absence of empirical proof.” Do readers know why these claims are erroneous?

The fifth estate has risen to fill this gap. While news articles are skimming the surface, blogs like Jack and Jill Politics, Booker Rising and Mediaite are busy interpreting the facts and reactions, providing much needed backstory to their respective audiences. But that produces a different problem. With blogs mixing context and opinion, audiences are more vulnerable to slanted information.

The New York Times’ Opinionator blog did an excellent round up of reactions throughout the blogosphere and found that quite a few outlets led with provocative headlines that were also misleading. While many bloggers provided a needed perspective on the legal, religious, and racial context that was missing. That context, though, was clearly viewed through the perspective of the blog.

This wouldn’t be such a problem if we could trust that our audiences were media literate, and had a framework from which to understand and grasp these issues. Unfortunately, as Matt Thompson explained in a preamble to his panel at SXSW, our focus in the news cycle has shifted toward episodic knowledge -- bits and bytes of info tossed out in response to news-worthy events. The core question of the panel married the realities of the fourth and fifth estate: We have the tools to provide both context and breaking, immediate news -- the question is how do we work those needs into our existing practices?

The "Marriage Vow" pledge is proving to be far more valuable than just a simple news story; it has actually exposed a major flaw in our coverage of issues. If traditional media focuses mainly on fact-based stories without context, and newer media focuses on in-depth explanations of certain aspects of a story through a particular lens, where is the space for thoughtful examinations of the issues without spin?

If we could find a way to wed fact-based stories with balanced context, that's a union that would benefit the entire nation.

Correction: Michel Martin's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.


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