With the Supreme Court hearing the cases on Proposition 8 from California and the Defense of Marriage Act in the coming weeks, the media has turned its spotlight to those protesting for and against gay marriage. On the streets throughout the District of Columbia, vocal activists have garnered nonstop television coverage and seem to be the prime target for any reporter looking to snag a headline. Amongst these activists is the Westboro Baptist Church, the extreme fringe religious group started by Fred Phelps that claims dead soldiers are going to Hell and that God hates gay people. The WBC has drawn national attention in the past for picketing military funerals (even pushing legislation changing the rules regarding such events) and is arguably one of the most despised activist groups in America.
So why is it that such a fringe group, one that comprises really only the extend Phelps family (a whopping forty members), draw so much attention from the national media?
According to Sarah Sobieraj, journalistic conventions lead to reporters seeking only the most vocal “performers” of activist groups for interviews and coverage. Journalists have different standards and are looking for different responses from activists so when professional organizations or interest groups get involved (with dedicated PR people), they are largely ignored. Instead, reporters tend to find people that are willing to perform for the camera or make outrageous statements for the cameras. A ten-second soundbyte that comes across as radical from an activist will garner more attention than a reasoned argument would. Journalists, according to Sobrieraj, aren’t looking for activists’ proper responses–they’re looking for the most dramatic of the group to give them something surprising to show to the general public.
These journalistic conventions help explain why groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, a recognized hate group, garner so much media attention. Out of the thousands of “pro-traditional marriage” protesters that are picketing outside the Supreme Court over the past week, it is the Westboro Baptist Church that has a spotlight focused on it. This is largely due to the cognizance of the media by leader Shirley Phelps and her flair for the dramatic: bright signs depict sexual acts next to phrases of condemnation, dead soldiers are depicted in signs literally feet from said soldiers’ family members, etc. The Phelps clan makes statements on a daily basis citing the damnation of America and the forthcoming apocalypse and their Twitter account argues with their thousands of followers weekly.
It’s not just the outrageous statements and incredibly hateful beliefs of the WBC that make it such a media darling: it’s also their willingness (if not eagerness) to speak to the media. As Sobieraj states, it is the performers that make it into the news. Westboro members are essentially programmed to be performers, waving colorful signs, speaking to media members about their vitriolic beliefs, and their steadfast belief that everyone outside of their forty person congregation is on the fast lane to Hell. Because their members seem so foreign and evil to the general belief system of the American populace, the audience of news organizations is completely bewildered by their statements. It also helps (if such actions can be beneficial) that the Westboro Baptist Church hates everyone universally–from the most conservative (the KKK has even distanced themselves) to the far left . While it sounds like a generalization, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, are turned off by the actions and statements of the WBC.
Ironically, the actions and radicalism of the Westboro Baptist Church hurt the legitimacy of their beliefs.
In a study done by faculty at Georgia Tech, two researchers studied the effects of group polarization following statements or events of extremism (of which WBC has several per month). The results demonstrated that following events (in this case, the murder of a late-term abortion physician) or interactions between two groups of differing beliefs (pro-life versus pro-choice), that the heterogeneity of the arguments would often lead to stability and decreasing the likelihood of extremism in the future. Such actions by the Westboro Baptist Church drive gay marriage activists and opponents into interactions with one another–only the extreme component of the anti-gay rights movement could possibly accept the statements of the WBC without incredulity–leading to the diffusion of different viewpoints and mutual understanding. Extremism typically breeds discussion between opponents–this doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement, but it does lead to stability (according to Georgia Tech).
The Westboro Baptist Church is stealing the spotlight during the Supreme Court rulings because they represent the most radical fringe of the anti-gay marriage argument and they’re willingness to perform. However, whether this will lend credence or even benefit their cause in the long-run due to their ability to offend most Americans is yet to be seen.