Editor's Note, May 5: An earlier version of this post implied that the Times had, as an institution, panned Jo Becker's book, Forcing The Spring. While the Arts section of the newspaper did publish a review by Adam Goodheart that was critical of the book, a second review published in The New York Times Book Review a week earlier praised it as "a stunningly intimate story." That review, written by Linda Hirshman, was featured on the cover of the April 27 issue of the Book Review and the book was later singled out as an "Editor's Choice" in the May 4 issue. In addition, The New York Times Magazine ran an excerpt of the book (also featured on the cover) in its April 20 issue. The text and headline of this post has updated to clarify that the May 1 review was the opinion of Goodheart and not the Times itself.
Jo Becker's Forcing the Spring has taken a lot of heat, especially from LGBT activists and reporters who know their history, for its problematic presentation of the same-sex marriage movement. And now, Becker's own newspaper, the New York Times, has chimed in with a pretty harsh review of the work. "Forcing the Spring is riddled with the telltale signs of a reporter becoming too close to her sources," Adam Goodheart's review reads. He goes on to pan Becker's framing of the movement's history as "troubling" and "bizarre."
Frankly, it's hard to see how anyone with any knowledge of the decades-long push for marriage equality could see her work as anything other than a case of access journalism gone wrong. Andrew Sullivan (mentioned only once in Becker's book, as the Times notes) called the book a "troubling travesty of gay history." Dan Savage also didn't mince words, saying the book was "kind of a case of sort of theft, a theft of credit. The book is a lie, a lie to its readers, it’s a misrepresentation, and the treatment of [marriage equality activists] ... is appalling." The beginning of Becker's work is particularly egregious, as it basically makes the absurd claim that the same-sex marriage fight began with some D.C. guys deciding to "do something" in 2008. 2008! No, really. Here's the opening Sullivan flagged:
This is how a revolution begins. It begins when someone grows tired of standing idly by, waiting for history’s arc to bend toward justice, and instead decides to give it a swift shove. It begins when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in the segregated South. And in this story, it begins with a handsome, bespectacled thirty-five-year-old political consultant named Chad Griffin, in a spacious suite at the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco on election night 2008.
That's nice, but what about Freedom to Mary's Evan Wolfson, the influential activist who has been working on the legal push for marriage equality for decades? Or Mary Bonauto, who's done astonishing work for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) on a variety of equality issues since 1990? Or others, including Sullivan himself, who also worked for years to push the conversation on LGBT rights to the point where Prop 8's story begins?
Becker's book focuses on a single case, Hollingsworth v. Perry — the court challenge to California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage. It made it to the Supreme Court, which eventually decided to overturn the state ban, but not to rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in other states. In other words, it failed to overturn more than one state ban on same-sex marriage, and has arguably taken the passenger seat to theWindsor case's influence on the latest court battles on state bans, following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn parts of the Defense of Marriage Act. It's also a latecomer, a reaction to a fight for gay marriage that already occurred. But to Becker, it somehow became the beginning of everything. This is the case that Becker says represents the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.
Many critics, including Goodheart, have insinuated that Becker's insistence that the Prop 8 case was the beginning of a "revolution" is more or less because she had so much access to the case. She reported on nearly every step of the development and court proceedings as they happened. Here's the most damning section of the New York Times review:
More troubling, she suggests that earlier advocates of marriage equality had toiled in fruitless obscurity until this glamorous dream team swept in. It’s a bizarre premise, since by the time the Perry case went to court, same-sex marriage had been fought for successfully in six states and the District of Columbia.
History does show that, as Ms. Becker proposes, a small team of canny strategists can sometimes force revolutionary change — more so than politicians or philosophers. [Rosa] Parks herself was a member of such a team, not the simple seamstress that legend has made her.
The Perry case, though, was hardly such an instance.
For her part, Becker has already responded to the criticism of her book by saying that her work is narrowly focused on the Prop 8 case (it "was not meant to be a beginning-to-end-history of the movement,”) and that most of the criticism of her work "is about a book I didn't write." But it doesn't look like very many people, including Goodheart, are buying that explanation.
Buzzfeed's Chris Geidner has a good rebuttal to her defense, noting that for one thing her book does address other important moments of the same-sex marriage battle's history, but in his opinion, not very well: "The solid island that is her Prop 8 case reporting becomes quicksand," he writes, when Becker strays too far from the case to which she had a lot of access. Based on his own extensive knowledge of the court cases "discussed — or ignored" in her book, Geidner accuses Becker of participating in a "public relations campaign" to promote the Prop 8 case's significance in history; one that has already produced the HBO documentary The Case Against 8, a play called 8, and ANOTHER Prop 8 book coming out this summer called Redeeming the Dream: The Case for Marriage Equality. It all adds up to a "a dangerous draft of history," Geidner concludes. Proposition 8 is an important case, but it seems wise to raise an eyebrow at potentially forced mythmaking. Griffin, the man who is Rosa Parked in Becker's intro, now runs the Human Rights Campaign.
At least Becker can take comfort in one thing as the Times review goes live. She's hardly the first person at the paper to see her own work panned on its pages. The paper previously eviscerated Top of the Morning, a book by then-New York Times reporter Brian Stelter on the behind-the-scenes of morning television.