The Washington Post

Post Roast: The cheek squeeze that roiled the world

All the hysteria revolves around a steamy photograph that appeared with Joel Achenbach’s Valentine’s Day essay, “Sweet Mystery,” on the many facets of love and what they mean. The story appeared on the cover of Style, and the photo that made a few people hot and bothered appeared inside with the rest of the story on Page C9.

The photo, which also appears online in a love-themed photo gallery, depicts a couple embracing at the Love nightclub in Northeast Washington. The gallery also included photos of people in their 90s still in love, and shots depicting love for children, and the affection that people have for animals.

It’s not that most of us haven’t seen that particular embrace somewhere, or done it ourselves, it’s just that it is so, well, fleshy, and right out there. The man, leaning against a wall, has pulled the woman, dressed in a short skirt, oh-so-close, grabbed the woman’s derriere, a cheek in each hand, and then, squeezed.

The woman isn’t protesting and the photograph, by Post photographer Sarah L. Voisin, definitely gets across the kind of heated atmosphere that some dance clubs have. No problem about theme or clarity there.

But then, the really bad part, or funny, depending on your point of view, is that the photo appears on Page C9 on the reverse of the KidsPost page, that part of the paper for young readers on page C10.

And the young readers are given Valentine cutouts on that page so they can make their own Valentines. And with one slip of the scissors, whoa, one of those Valentines could have on its reverse, the well-squeezed derriere.

Probably fourth-graders would laugh.

But it was no laughing matter from readers who wrote to the ombudsman and the editors. In an e-mail titled “Kids Post Cut Out: What is on the back?” a reader had this to say:

“In cutting out valentines, the back side is a man groping a woman. Why is the photo featured anyway? But to be on the flip side of a kids project is either sloppy execution of responsibility, or sinister.  This has happened before so I'm sure someone on your staff is having a laugh.  Not funny.”

Ok, maybe not.

Another writer had a different take on the photo. Fortunately, he missed the KidsPost angle: “If the public debasement of the young woman pictured in today’s Style section was unobjectionable to her, she has my pity.  But in publishing the photo, the Washington Post reinforces in impressionable young men the idea that it’s socially acceptable to express their “feelings” in this way — toward young women who deserve at least a modicum of respect. It is as great a disservice to young men as to young women.”

Okay, point noted.

Tracy Grant, the KidsPost editor, one of the more responsive editors at the paper, sent this to one of the angry readers.

“It is a daily challenge to try to be certain that the content adjacent to KidsPost is ‘rated PG.’ I understand your concerns about the images on the back of KidsPost. But the Washington Post is the only paper in the country that does a daily section for kids, and I'm certain that an aversion to dealing with just these issues is a good part of the reason that other papers don't provide child-friendly content on a daily basis. It's easier to simply not do anything for children and avoid the possible dustup.

“Please understand, I'm not saying that you don't have a right to be upset. But making sure that all the content adjacent to KidsPost is completely appropriate all of the time is simply not possible because of space and advertising configurations. The Style editors and layout editors always make decisions with KidsPost as a factor, but it can't be the only factor.

“This morning's situation was particularly unfortunate because we were asking kids to cut out the paper to make Valentines,” Grant continued. “I fell down in doing my job by not checking to see what was on the back of KidsPost and raising a concern.”

Frances Sellers, Style editor, said the photo, as part of the package on love, fit. “We try hard not to put offensive language or images into the paper. In this case, we did offend some readers, but our goal was not to shock. The story covered many aspects of love — maternal love, love that endures decades, even lust. The photos were intended to reflect those very different emotions.”

Passion and physicality are indeed facets of love. But the photo was also a bit tasteless. I would not have run that photo. It’s a touch too edgy for a family newspaper. And the coincidence of having it on the reverse of KidsPost, with Valentines’ cutouts? Well, Cupid must have had a hand in that, or on that.



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