The Palm Center, which does research on gays in the military, has issued a statement criticizing the press coverage of the aftermath of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell votes in Congress. Specifically, the Palm Center says that the New York Times is creating controversy over the implementation that doesn’t exist but instead is spin from pro-DADT forces.

Press stories have been saying that questions linger about whether there will be separate housing for gay troops, whether some units will continue to ban open gays, and whether chaplains and others with religious opposition to homosexuality will be forced out of the military. “These questions are completely off the table,” said Belkin. “Despite the backing of separate housing from the Marine Commandant, there is simply no serious proposal to build different quarters for gay people. Remember, lifting the ban allows gay people to identify themselves, but does not compel them to do so, and that’s what would be required if gays were to be forced into separate quarters. This is not a thorny question–it’s a red herring.” Some questions about whether same-sex partners would be offered housing and visitation rights, Belkin said, are yet to be determined. “But these are not implementation challenges; they are policy questions, and they don’t affect implementation.”

Belkin also disputed the notion that “don’t ask, don’t tell” gave “protections” to gay people, a point made by a lesbian soldier in the Times story. “Some gay service members have said the current policy makes it easier to conceal their identity because they’re not asked if they’re gay,” he said. “But the history and the data tell a different story, which is that both discharges and harassment went up under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and that a majority of troops already believe there are gays in their units. Any feeling of being protected by the gay ban is a false sense of security.”

It’s not clear what specifically bothered the Palm Center, but here’s a passage dealing with the issues discussed in the critique.

Some homosexuals in the military say they are worried about how that process will work and whether they will be treated differently if they publicly acknowledge their sexual orientation. Some raised concerns about being harassed, assigned to separate barracks or shunned by colleagues who had been friendly before.

“In an idyllic world, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and saying ‘Everyone here is welcome’ is great,” said a 29-year-old lesbian in the Army National Guard, who asked that her name be withheld because she could still be discharged under the rule.

“But the policy actually allowed for a lot of protections,” the soldier said. “Getting rid of it completely without modifying it is kind of worrisome. The number of incidents against gays in the military is going to increase.”

Indeed, both opponents and supporters of the ban say a host of thorny practical questions will face the Pentagon if Congress gives final approval to legislation allowing the repeal of the ban, which could happen this summer.

Will openly gay service members be placed in separate housing, as the commandant of the Marine Corps has advocated? What benefits, if any, will partners or spouses of homosexual service members be accorded? Will all military units be required to treat homosexuals the same? And what training will heterosexual officers and enlisted troops receive to prepare them to serve with openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines?

“The reality is, getting rid of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ doesn’t ensure that all lesbian and gay service members will be equal on that day,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “There will continue to be challenges to make full equality for gays and lesbians in the armed forces a reality.”

Does the Sarvis quote contradict the message the Palm Center is trying to argue? Is the Palm Center disagreeing with the quotes from service-members, who have expressed concerns?

It wouldn’t be the first time that the coalition advocating against DADT has disagreed on tactics and message, but the journalism question is whether it is wrong for the NYT and other media to raise concerns about implementation even though the Palm Center says its own research disagrees there is a problem? If advocates supporting DADT raise concerns, how is the media supposed to handle those arguments?

Here’s how the Palm Center describes the lack of dispute:

But Aaron Belkin, Director of the Palm Center, says this is a “false debate” taken up too readily by even mainstream journalists. “There is zero evidence that the transition will be difficult,” he said. “In fact, research across the board shows that implementation of openly gay service is a non-event and that the only thing that could make it bumpy is the suggestion by leaders that there’s cause for alarm.” Belkin pointed to research by the Government Accountability Office, the RAND Corporation, and the Palm Center showing that just two variables are relevant in ensuring a smooth transition: signals of confidence by leadership and a clear, single standard of behavior that applies to everyone. He also said that, unlike ending racial segregation, lifting “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not require massive change, such as the movement of personnel or newly integrating units, since gays are already integrated into units throughout the force, and polls show that many of them already serve openly.

Journalists shouldn’t create controversies that don’t exist, but I’m not sure that’s what the NYT was doing here. After a lot of anti-DADT news and editorial coverage, this seemed like a story that was worthwhile telling. It was supported by quotes from people on all sides and responded to the conversation that is taking place, even if it’s a conversation the Palm Center thinks isn’t necessary.

Your thoughts?

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