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Pulitzer Winner David Moats on Marriage Equality and Reporting in Vermont

Author and longtime Vermont journalist Yvonne Daley interviews David Moats, her former colleague from the Rutland Herald, about Moats’ series of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials on the divisive issues arising from civil unions for same-sex couples, and about the importance of research and depth in journalism.

This talk is part of our Fall Conference: Democracy 20/20. View the list of free upcoming conference sessions.

Episode Transcript

David Moats: And it was just one of those moments in journalism where you know you have to decide. Where are we on this? Are we just going to be wishy washy on it or where are we on this? And so I got a copy of the decision and read it, and it was just clear that we would support the decision. So there we were…the die was cast.

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

David Moats was the editorial page editor at the Rutland Herald when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his editorials about civil unions for same-sex couples. He later wrote a book: Civil Wars, a Battle for Gay Marriage.

Yvonne Daley worked at the Herald with David for 17 years. She recently sat down with him to discuss the debates about marriage equality in Vermont, and to consider the role the press plays in a democracy.

Their conversation is part of our “Democracy 20/20” Fall Conference. You can view all of the recorded conference sessions for free at www.vermont humanities.org/democracy.

Here’s Yvonne.

Yvonne Daley: So David, I’m just delighted to have this honor to talk to you about this book because all this time that we’ve been together we didn’t really have a sit down conversation about it until fairly recently.

Yvonne: Your winning the Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of the issue, brings to mind the very subject of these talks which is democracy and journalism’s role in protecting democracy. And I hope these are all issues we’ll get to today.

David Moats: It’s great to talk with you, we worked so long together, you covering the news, me sometimes editing your stories and then later moving to the editorial page and maybe writing an editorial about your stories.

Yvonne: Yes. One of the things that I’d like to start with is why this issue was of such interest to you and to the state? Why it had so much power, that it was the issue of the year for quite a long period of time, as it evolved through its various stages the issue being that of a civil union?

David: The issue of gay marriage, freedom to marry, marriage equality, it hit the state in a big way in the year 2000 when the Baker decision came down. But those of us who were covering the news knew that this was an extremely volatile issue going back at least 10 years or more. You remember that what went on in 1992, which was eight years before civil unions, there was a huge battle in the legislature over a law to bar discrimination against people because of sexual orientation. And it was, that’s when I first started writing editorials in the Herald. And I remember that at the time it was quite an introduction because that issue riled people up to an extreme degree. There was one person in particular who used to write very angry letters to the editor. She would call me on the phone very angry against any kind of special law for gay people. And it was during that time that there was a vicious, vicious beating outside the bar in Burlington called Pearls. And which sort of tipped the balance in the legislature. And you remember, David Wolk later President of Castleton University, was running for Lieutenant Governor that year, and he was in the Senate.

Yvonne: That’s right.

David: And he voted for the Anti-discrimination law, and he faced bitter opposition on the campaign trail running for Lieutenant Governor and he lost. So there were a bitter feelings going all the way back then, and so we knew that gay rights the issue upset people for a lot of reasons. And so through the course of the 90s, as the freedom to marry movement, we knew this was sort of boiling in the beneath the surface. Do you remember the Heather has Two Moms controversy In Rutland?

Yvonne: I do because I was on duty that Saturday when one of our local readers came in with the book outraged that this book would be in the public library, and I went to talk to one of the priests that day and this became quite an issue that I had been to cover for a long time, to the point that the library held a public meeting on it, yeah.

David: Yeah, they had maybe in two public hearings, am not sure maybe just one, up in the big meeting room at the library, and people were angry that a book for kids on the library shelf dealt with the fact that there will be two lesbian partners raising a kid and it was called Heather Has Two Moms. And I wrote editorials about that, just trying to show people that there are different ways of thinking about things. I defended the library’s decision to have it on the shelf and so on, but it was all part of what was building. And of ’cause through those years as we learned the freedom to marry taskforce was slowly going out and meeting with people and starting to build a case for freedom to marry. Which was very hard thing to do, and the people involved with that told stories about setting up a booth at the Tunbridge World’s Fair and confronting all kinds of people who would come up and talk to them. And it was a scary thing to do in a lot of ways and also rewarding because they would have supporters who would come up and talk to them, and that’s the hard work of social change.

Yvonne: It was interesting to me that Susan Murray, was actually an accident that you saw about a car accident that led her to form that organization.

David: Yes I remember that, and I described that in the book about a couple, two women and their child terrible car accident in Mendon on Route 4, and I remember that happened Vito Straints, a long time photographer took pictures of this terrible accident. And so we saw what was happening and we had stories about the legal battle that ensued because one of the women died, I think it was the birth mother died.

Yvonne: The birth mother died.

David: And her partner wanted to keep custody of the child, and the parents of the birth mother fought it in court. And it was very, very tough thing and it was Susan Murray, one of the lawyers, in the Freedom to Marry Task Force who noticed that story, and she had been aware of the family issues that gay couples dealt with because they didn’t have any legal rights. And so that really inspired her. And interestingly, when I was writing the book several years after the civil unions bill became law, I went up to visit the mother and her new partner, They lived in up in Franklin County and I believe the town of Bakersfield, and a beautiful house in a beautiful royal setting, and there was the boy, who had just been an infant during this car crash, and he was a really nice teenage boy, and I was up there to talk about the whole story and he’d heard it all before a thousand times, but he was just happy to be there with his mom ’cause the women her won case. or the grandparents gave up on the battle. But anyhow, that was yes, part of the story.

Yvonne: So this is in part why you knew that this story was such an important to issue, not just here in Vermont. And you’ve got to, as we’re having this conversation, talk about the role that Vermont played nationally in this debate as the first state to say that same sex couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples to marry, and to have children and and all of that. But I’m really interested in, first of all the elements of the story that made it so essential to you that you spent so much time on it as an editorial writer. And then bringing that to writing your Pulitzer Prize winning editorials, and then the book?

David: Given this background that we’ve just been talking about, we knew that when the Baker decision came down from the Vermont Supreme Court, it was going to be a big deal. And The Baker decision you remember was the case where the freedom to marry taskforce arranged, found three couples two pairs of women and one pair man, Stan Baker being one of the plaintiffs in the case has his name on it. And they all went to try to get a marriage license from their town clerks. In Shelburne and in Milton and in Burlington, I can’t remember what the other, but they’re all denied marriage licenses because the town clerk said, “We just not authorized to.” And so they sued, and the lawyers argued went all the way to Vermont Supreme Court. And it had been almost it’s been about a year after the case had been argued in the Supreme court that it finally came down on, I think it was December 20th 1999. I was in the newsroom a quite morning in the newsroom the decision came out, and it was just one of those moments in journalism where you have to decide, you have to… Where are we on this? Are we just going to be wishy washy on it, or where are we on this? And so I had to write an editorial about the decision that came out that day which found that gay and lesbian couples have equal right to the rights and benefits of marriage. But it would be up to the legislature to determine how those rights would be provided either through marriage license or through something else, some other domestic partnership thing the term civil union hadn’t been devised yet. And so I got a copy of the decision and read it and it was clear that we would support the decision and take the headline on the editorial was a brave ruling. And so then before the die was cast, that was our position. And so it was clear to me in the coming months from January through April, as still legislature wrestled with this. We had to stay on the issue we wouldn’t pound mercilessly, we would write an editorial when the editorial would be useful to clarify something, to promote something, to push something, to congratulate somebody, to fortify somebody, but not always hammering it.

Yvonne: It’s important to note the difference between the news pages and the editorial pages. on the news pages, we the reporters were covering the issue as it was unfolding with various events both in the legislature and demonstrations and people on both sides with balance and equal coverage. and taking on the role of covering this, of writing about it in the editorial page so you had a bit of a different position.

David: Yes, and it’s interesting to note that I learned what I learned about what was happening by reading the paper, just like a reader. So I often viewed myself as kind of a stand in for the reader. So the reader reads the news and then the reader says, “What do I think about it?” And I would read the news, I would read the stories about the committee hearings or whatever. And I would say,” What do I think about it?” And then I would go through my thought process, and I had a point of view and I had to share that point of view and share how I come to that point of view and tensions were so high that in my mind I wanted to do what I could not to inflame the tensions and to just provide a reasonable voice to show why civil unions made sense. And in that vein, one of the editorials that I wrote during that time had a headline called “A Charitable View.” And it was said okay, people are at each other’s throats on this but if you look at the other side and took a charitable view of it and here’s how you would take a charitable view of those opposed to civil unions. I’ve said that I don’t think I said in the editorial of this I didn’t say editorial, but you know I was raised Catholic, my mother was Catholic. I knew the Catholic point of view about sexuality and homosexuality and all that stuff. I can understand it it’s a legitimate point of view. It’s real, it’s worthy of respect, put that into an editorial. I still supported civil unions but so try to to just maintain this kind of respectful tone. Opponents didn’t like it, they viewed me as on the other side and I was in a way, but that that’s the role of an editorial writer. Supporters were heartened, I learned later they said, “Boy, your editor tutorials really helped “because sometimes we thought we were all alone up there.” And so I learned that later. Basically I was the guy who read the newspaper and then wrote what I thought about it the next day and I wasn’t in on it. I didn’t have the inside story. I was a reader like others.

Yvonne: What I really loved about the book now moving from the editorials to the book was how you brought it to the human level. How we really got to know these people who. I mean their lives were in turmoil through out this period of time on both sides and how you made them so come alive on the page. And what not just they went through, but the people around them to a certain extent as well, the communities themselves in which this was happening.

David: Well, yes and like I said, when I was writing the editorials, I was just responding to the news. When it came to writing the book, I knew I had to get to the people who were making the news and I didn’t know them, it was all new to me, but they were kind enough to let me into their homes and sit down and talk to me at great length. And I learned a lot about what went into the whole story and the struggles and… When I started the book, I didn’t know who the central character would be, I thought maybe it’d be Stan Baker the plaintiff, maybe there’ll be Beth Robinson the lawyer. It turned out to be the Bill Lippert, the house member, the one openly gay house member at the time who must’ve sat for about 10 hours of interview at his home in Iceberg, and very gracious, very open, very honest person. And he told stories going back to the ’70s, when he was coming out as a gay man and the beginnings of the gay rights movement and so on, and then finally culminating in his very much lauded speech on the floor of the house, the day that the house voted for civil unions, it was an extremely emotional moment and kind of high point of the whole story. Then there were other people like a House Member from Rutland, Diane Karmali. Democrat, Catholic she said that after she voted for civil unions, she couldn’t even go to her same church anymore because he was kind of black balled. And she went to a different church, couldn’t even go to mass and so on, but she was real integral part of our community, but she suffered when she lost her House seat, as did a bunch of others. So in writing the book, I got the human story and the story of the six plaintiffs and how they made their trip down to their County clerk office and who they were, and their history. so it was great to learn those stories. But then there was also the constitutional and legal and political story. And one of the phrases I used in the book that I like which is key to understanding the whole thing was that this whole story was democracy on a human scale.

Yvonne: Right.

David: And I think the activists for gay rights, thought Vermont would be a good place to pursue gay marriage or marriage equality because democracy could unfold on a human scale like this and people would encounter their neighbors, and they was learned about their neighbors and realized that, well our neighbor is gay and wants to live with their partner. And why shouldn’t they married? And they have to… People come to terms all this stuff. And so, and I learned a lot of the ins and outs of the political struggle on that origin terms civil unions happened in a House committee when somebody said, “Well, how about civil unions?” Oh, okay.

Yvonne: It’s so interesting, because in the next year after the law passed, people were thinking the world’s going to come to an end and really not that much changed, only for the people whose lives were affected. It didn’t hurt the opponents, it didn’t change their lives. And that’s how democracy and change happens is that we evolve, we learn, we grow and we see what the impacts are, and then you respond to the impacts of the negative, but that didn’t have to happen.

David: Right, the statement that was often made after civil unions happened, “Well the sky didn’t fall.” There are a lot of bitter people who opposed it and they’re still angry and so on. The whole take back Vermont movement, which happened during the election that followed there was the state was quite divided, and there were a lot of anger kind of foreshadowed what’s going on today in many ways. But the sky didn’t fall, there was a state had to take a breather even the supporters of marriage equality had to take a breather. They didn’t get full marriage equality, they got civil unions, which I thought was a compromised. And so that they have to take a breather, the House switched, Republicans took control of the House after that election. And so there was a bit of a law in the whole thing, and then but then after a few years the Freedom to Marry Task Force got back to work and said, “We want full marriage equality not civil unions,” which is something short of marriage. And gradually they began to work again and then if you remember the politics of that Jim Douglas was Governor, Republican. Peter Shumlin was President pro tempore of the Senate, and he thought it’s time to push for marriage equality. And so he did, and it passed and Douglas vetoed it.

Yvonne: And then the vote.

David: And then Senate overrode the veto when the House override it was very uncertain and they were going to have an override vote. And I wasn’t covering it as a news reporter but I had been writing editorials and so on, and so I wanted to go up for the override vote, as to overwritten by two thirds majority. And I got there a little late and the doors to the house chamber were already closed and they began to roll call. And the lobby right outside the House chamber was packed full of people. And you could hear Shap Smith, the House Speaker, call the names, people say, “Aye, nay, aye, nay.” And people are kind of keeping track, and it was… No one knew what had happened. And finally it came down and he announced the total, it was 100 for and 50 against. So, and as soon as he announced it, the whole place erupted in pandemonium because it wasn’t a bill that had to go be signed, just with that vote in the bang of the gravel it became law. And people all of a sudden realized, “It’s law! “We’ve been fighting this for 20 years, It’s law! “Right now, all of a sudden this minute.” And Shap Smith banged his gavel and tried to create order, and House to come to order, but it was impossible on them. They threw the doors open everybody’s hugging and crying and everything else. And so I was there for that, and after having been through the whole thing for years up until that it was it was quite a dramatic moment. Quite gratifying.

Yvonne: So our overarching subject is democracy and democracy and action, and journalism’s role in all of that. So maybe we’ll talk a little bit about that. I always when I, especially when I worked at the newspaper, I thought of journalism as the journal of the community that we would keep in the daily diary of the community in all those ways. So now we have all of these news sources and people don’t read the morning newspaper and listen to the evening news in the same way that they did when I was growing up. And maybe when you were growing up and until fairly recent times with the proliferation of so many talking heads, and talk shows and talk radio and all of that. So tell me a little bit about what you think about the role of journalism today, and whether we’re doing the kind of journalism that we need.

David: I think there’s a lot of good journalism going on. I think it’s probably more confusing for readers for regular citizens of the country didn’t know where to go for the news. We were talking about this before how news reporters in professional mainstream media have as their mission to discover a reality, to find out what’s going on in an objective way. And of course, people say, “Oh, no one’s objective “everybody has their own biases.” But if their mission is to just to discover reality then readers can know that that’s their mission, and they develop trust in certain sources, whether it’s The New York Times, or the Rutland Herald or The Washington Post or whatever. And readers need to be able to trust somebody, and it requires a certain amount of news literacy, there are good websites, there’s good radio and television sources. And there’s a lot of just of stuff out there it’s just people’s opinions, and there’s a difference between searching for reality and trying to discover reality, and trying to skew reality, which is people with biases tend to create a propaganda are trying to do. And so people it’s a new era from the days when the daily newspapers is what you opened up to find out what was going on in the world. It’s true and it’s confusing and it’s scary.

Yvonne: Well, two things on that one I was thinking that, just what you said that its hard for people to know exactly where to go to get the news and to understand the difference between the process that goes through in newsrooms, where a reporter does her research comes back, fact checks, interviews a lot of people and puts an article together, which is then read by at least one, often two editors to make to go over the facts, to look for bias, all of that stuff. You do not have that in these programs or publications that are dedicated to a particular cause, and it’s more, everything is editorial.

David: Everything is propaganda, not even that editorial. I didn’t view, my editorial is when I wrote them as propaganda. They were a point of view, I was discussed sort of discussing with the reader my point of view to, can we talk about this? Rather than skewing falsehoods and trying to create propaganda. At the Rutland Herald, we had our editorial process. And if you wrote a story and I was editing it, I would ask you, “Where’d you get this fact?.” And we would hash over it, and you and I both wrote written for the big papers, The Boston Globe, I wrote for a time for The New York Times. And I can tell you when I would file a story for The New York Times, it was scary because the editors would call me on every little fact, and I had to be sure I had the basis for what I was writing and because they were fact based.

Yvonne: And the other point I wanted to make was the entrance of the eye into the stories or mind. I remember reading a New York Times Magazine story in which it said, “My notebooks are full of the stories “of people who tell me.” And my immediate reaction was, I don’t care about the my in this, just tell me what these people said but sometime that snuck in, the my and the I. And so that’s when we began to lose this barrier between, this is the story and this my story which I collected.

David: Right, well sometimes I would when I was being a news editor and I would be reading reporters’ stories, say it would be on healthcare or something like that, and I would ask the reporter, “What do you think about this?” And he’d go, “I don’t know, I don’t know what my opinion is “about this healthcare issue. “I’ve had time to think about what I think about it, “I’m just reporting what’s happening. “What this person says, and what this person says, and the conflict and the issue. So often the reporter is naturally in the backseat because his opinion about it is irrelevant. And what you’re talking about I think is, back in the ’60s and ’70s was the so-called new journalism, where the journalist would be magazine stories or writing books, Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe this sort of thing that came different than your mainstream news coverage. And it’s all came to the kind of skewed point of view, and it was sometimes funny and sometimes enlightening, but different. If you want the news, you’ve got to go for the news.

Yvonne: So what is the future of objective journalism, David? Is it alive and well and how do we know?

David: We’re in a really uncertain time because the news media are under attack and being called the enemy of the state, and yet… I’m going to get political here for a minute. A lot of people will tell me, people will talk to me about how they’d get very frustrated about how Trump gets so much coverage and I say, “Well, yeah, that’s how come so many people know that he’s a jerk.” ‘Cause he gets so much coverage, there he is. And so in fact, the mainstream media is thriving in the sense that The New York Times and Washington Post and some of the big papers are people are really turning to them in large numbers ’cause they need an outlet which will push you the facts. but there are economic factors that have caused journalism to become a concentrated with big papers like that and other organizations. Small papers like Rutland Herald and Times, August and the Bulletin Pre-press they’ve all struggled with the economic changes. As I like to say, there’ve been more news reporters laid off than coal miners in the last 10 years. And just the economic changes, a huge shift of resources from small papers everywhere to Google and Facebook.

Yvonne: Do people have the tools they need to differentiate the difference in these media, for example so much radio talk shows that really, if you listen to them which I try not to, are just ravings and made up information it’s not even information made up stories, but there’s a proliferation of them.

David: Yeah, I guess that’s true, and that’s what we’re dealing with in this time, and I guess you just have to drive out falsehood with truth in whatever medium you can find.

Yvonne: There you go.

David: There you go.

Yvonne: Say it again, you just have to drive out.

David: Falsehood with truth.

Yvonne: Thank you. Beautiful.

That’s Yvonne Daley and David Moats, former reporters and editors from the Rutland Herald, discussing journalism and the marriage equality debates in Vermont in the early 2000s. Visit vermonthumanities.org/democracy to watch all of the sessions recorded for our Fall Conference about democracy.

Thanks for listening to The Portable Humanist. Visit our website at portablehumanist dot org for a transcript of this episode, and for more information about Vermont Humanities.