Over the past 24 hours, the mass media has devoted tons of paper, billions of bytes and miles of videotape to commemorating a very small step in the progress towards emancipation of a minority group representing from 2.5%-10% of the population. The media has trumpeted the opinions of elected officials, political and sports pundits, sports stars and the man-and-woman in the street, virtually all supportive of current professional basketball player Jason Collins coming out of the closet.
Meanwhile, the news media has practically ignored yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that confirmed the right of any state to restrict access to public files, a decision that takes a fairly significant step backwards when it comes to freedom of speech, open government and civil rights for everyone. In the decision, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the Commonwealth of Virginia to prohibit nonresidents from applying for state information under its freedom of information law. That means that Virginia and any other state can deny nonresidents access to public files.
The chasmic difference in the amount of coverage of these two legitimate news stories is truly stunning. My morning search of Google News revealed 85.9 million stories mentioning Jason Collins. A mere 10 mention the Supreme Court case, McBurney v. Young. That’s ten—five plus five or five times two—the number of fingers and thumbs on both hands. In fact, total mentions of the U.S. Supreme Court in Google News for literally hundreds of different issues and cases comprised a mere 33.6 million stories.
It is easy to understand why we have placed too much importance on the one act of a sports figure publicly revealing his sexuality. It’s a feel good story to most Americans and it confirms the current mainstream view of the country as open and tolerant. At the same time, the Collins leaves the closet story gives the intolerant right-wing another wrong around which to rally its dwindling troops.
It is also easy to figure out why the Supreme Court decision drew so little coverage. The many small but significant attacks on civil rights since 9/11 seem to get short shrift in the mass media all the time, unless the right to bear arms or publicly proclaim a Christian faith is at issue.
Moreover, while many news organizations filed briefs in favor of the two separate people who sued Virginia, the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t really affect the mainstream news media. Virginia’s law makes an exception for newspapers and magazines with readers in Virginia and for TV and radio stations that broadcast there. The big national media and the networks can still tap Virginia’s shrove of public information. It’s just the little media and individuals who can’t.
My conclusion: when it comes to unscrewing the lid off the public information vault in Virginia, size matters.