A Few Words About the Memories Pizza Story

A few days ago, when I first decided to try to write something about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, I looked for a quote I could start with, and I found one about a small family-owned pizza joint called Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana, where the owners were saying they won’t cater any gay weddings:

“If a gay couple came in and wanted us to provide pizzas for their wedding, we would have to say no,” Crystal O’Connor tells WBND-TV, adding, “We are a Christian establishment.”

Family members say they agree with Gov. Mike Pence that the bill does not encourage discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“We’re not discriminating against anyone, that’s just our belief and anyone has the right to believe in anything,” O’Connor told WBND.

Well, actually, refusing to cater their wedding pretty much is discrimination and…oh, never mind.

I got distracted before I could write any more, and meanwhile the outrage machine got rolling and soon everybody was talking about that little pizza joint. And eventually Memories Pizza closed because they were getting threats. Because there are assholes on all sides of this issue.

So now I find myself feeling uncomfortably sympathetic toward the Memories Pizza folks and the way they’ve been dragged through the media. Jack Marshall had this to say:

Announcing that the law would allow them to refuse to cater a gay wedding, they injected their biases into a debate they were neither legally, ethically, morally or intellectually equipped to participate in.

That’s not quite right. These folks didn’t go looking to make a statement to the world. They’re the local pizza joint in a small town surrounded by farmland and some damned TV reporter went into their place looking for a quote that she could turn into a story. And they were unfortunately nice enough to give her one. And all hell broke loose. By the time the story got to Huffington Post, it had turned into, “Indiana’s Memories Pizza Reportedly Becomes First Business To Reject Catering Gay Weddings.”

Because a digital media empire going after a small family-owned restaurant is really speaking truth to power.

I used to cover community police meetings for a little while as a volunteer reporter, and I remember that after one of them I got to chatting with one of the cops and he started grumbling about some commanders and the way they promoted their friends over more qualified candidates. Since I had already identified myself as a reporter, and we hadn’t gone off the record, there was nothing to stop me from turning this into a story:

CHICAGO — 16th District Police Commander Bob Jones on numerous occasions promoted friends over other more qualified candidates, according to Patrol Officer John Smith…

I didn’t write that story, because (1) it’s not fair to treat people who aren’t used to dealing with the media as if they were the White House Press Secretary, and (2) there really isn’t a lot of news value in reporting that some police officers don’t like their commanders’ decisions. “Man Strongly Disagrees With How His Boss Runs Things” sounds like an Onion headline.

The Memories Pizza story wasn’t quite that unfair — the owners pretty clearly knew they were being interviewed — but remember that this story wasn’t about anything that had actually happened to anyone. Reporter Alyssa Marino’s story was originally headlined, “RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service,” which is misleading because no one at Memories Pizza had actually refused a request to cater a gay wedding. No gay couple had ever asked.

The headline has since been changed to the slightly better, “RFRA: Michiana business wouldn’t cater a gay wedding,” but that doesn’t save it from the basic problem that is apparent from a more honest headline such as “Owner of Small Town Pizza Joint Says He Would Refuse To Cater Gay Weddings If Anyone Ever Asked Him To.” It just isn’t much of a story. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Gay marriage is still not acceptable to a lot of people. Heck, there must be thousands of small business owners in Indiana alone who oppose same-sex marriage. That doesn’t make it right, but there’s no reason to pick on these particular small business owners. This kind of journalism is one step more sophisticated than flying a news team down to Texas to do man-on-the-street interviews in the hope that someone with an amusing accent will say something bigoted on camera.

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