Civil Liberties

Was Memories Pizza a Victim of Irresponsible Journalism? Yes.

Memories Pizza, while not as gay-affirming as many of us would like, didn't announce pending discrimination.


Memories Pizza
ABC 57

As Reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch noted earlier today, Memories Pizza was forced to close because of death threats the business received in response to its owners' statements regarding RFRA and service to gay customers (they said they would serve anyone but could not in good conscience cater a gay wedding). And that's a terrible thing, regardless of what one thinks about religious freedom, or gay rights, or discrimination. No one should be threatened with violence, period.

Many in the media—particularly on the right—are now accusing those who reported and re-reported the story of irresponsible journalism. And they have a very good case.

The owners of Memories Pizza, the O'Connor family, did not willingly seek out controversy, deny service to a gay person or couple, or even go out on a limb to suggest that they would. No, they merely responded to a question from Alyssa Marino, a local reporter for ABC 57 News who had come to their shop in search of a story.

And they did give her a story—but not the one she reported. Her initial headline was "RFRA: First Michiana business to publicly deny same-sex service" (Michiana is the region in Indiana where Memories Pizza is located). That headline implies two things that are false. The O'Connors had no intention of becoming the first Michiana business to do anything discriminatory with respect to gay people; they had merely answered a hypothetical question about what would happen if a gay couple asked them to cater a wedding. And the O'Connors had every intention of providing regular service to gay people—just not their weddings.

That policy, while not as gay-affirming as many of us supporters of same-sex marriage would like, isn't as discriminatory as what the headline claims. And though ABC 57 changed it at some point, several bigger outlets ran with the distorted version. PJ Media has a good rundown of it: The Huffington Post reported, "Indiana's Memories Pizza Reportedly Becomes First Business To Reject Catering Gay Weddings," and BuzzFeed ran with, "Indiana Pizzeria Owners Say They'd Deny LGBT People Service."

Stripped down to the actual facts, there wasn't much of a story here in the first place, writes PJ Media's Scott Ott:

If I were forced to mark out a story line, it would be this: A nice lady in a small town tries to be helpful and polite to a lovely young reporter from "the big city."

In other words, Memories Pizza didn't blast out a news release. They didn't contact the media, nor make a stink on Twitter or Facebook. They didn't even post a sign in the window rejecting gay-wedding catering jobs. They merely answered questions from a novice reporter who strolled into their restaurant one day – who was sent on a mission by an irresponsible news organization.

As I said yesterday, I don't agree with the policy the O'Connors articulated, though I would defend their right to practice it—in both theory and actuality. I would also defend the right of people to criticize it, though I would question the wisdom, necessity, and productivity of doing so in such a harsh and stridently condemning manner. The death threats are another matter; no one has the right to threaten violence against someone else.

The people who made those threats are at fault, but so are the journalists who erroneously reported on this story—who made a merely unfriendly policy seem like a declaration of pending discrimination against the next gay person to walk through the front door of Memories Pizza.