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Greed, Sex and Ad Nausea

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Readers were offended last week week by a full-page ad and a prominent Style story. The story was on an ex-convict turned author; the ad, paid for by Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, offered $1 million to anyone who could document "a sexual encounter" with a member of Congress or a high-ranking government official.

The story led the June 2 Style front page with a four-column display. It was headlined: "Other People's Money; Ex-Con Michele Fletcher Hopes to Cash In With Her Tale of Greed." Fletcher and her husband, Francis, committed credit card theft in one of the largest local fraud schemes in recent history. Both went to prison, where she wrote a novel, "Charge It to the Game."

Joseph Luchok of Arlington called the story "very disturbing" and said it seemed to have been done "to drum up sales for a book. . . . Who thought this was a cover story? . . . So she did her crime and served her time. Certainly she should have a chance to make an honest living, but why the special treatment of a story that dominates the Style section?"

The display surprised me; it wasn't clear why the story was being done. Ex-cons who self-publish books don't usually get cover stories in Style and never get reviews in Book World. Readers must go too far down in the story -- the 18th paragraph -- to find that Fletcher is part of a trend in literature, "of ex-prisoners writing fictionalized tales of life on the streets. The genre has grown beyond a few thousand novels sold by self-published authors to hundreds of thousands of books sold through mainstream retailers."

Business reporter Krissah Williams met Fletcher through a publicist, not uncommon in the news business. Williams wrote a largely positive story that ran with two flattering pictures. (Williams said Fletcher thought the story was harsh.) Williams said, "The story was written to put a local face on a fast-growing industry. She was widely known in her Prince George's County community, and people want to know what happened to her. She has turned the same energy she used to manage the scheme to become a player in street literature -- a world where her conviction gives her a measure of authority."

The story didn't dwell on her time in prison or its impact on her children. That bothered readers. Elaine Tutman of Upper Marlboro wrote: "The story . . . on the ex-convict rewards her criminal behavior with valuable free publicity. She seems to have no remorse for her crimes and seeks to live the high life again without requisite sweat equity or genuine talent." Nicholas Kominus of Springfield put it simply: "Is it The Post's goal to glorify thieves?"

To Williams, "The story . . . doesn't dwell on remorse because Fletcher hasn't." Marcia Davis, the Style editor on the story, said she could "understand how some readers might be offended by Michele Fletcher and the choices she has made. That's up to individual readers and their moral compasses. Wading into those waters, however, is not our job. Our job is to report interesting stories about people and their lives."

Yet the story could have been a good morality tale if its purpose had been clear quickly and the story had dwelled more on how prison affected her and her children and explored why she turned to writing. Davis felt my concerns about the story are matters "of great subjectivity. We aren't always going for traditional storytelling in Style."

As for the offending ad, Flynt's representative said Flynt paid $106,000 for it; the ad did not run on the Web. It riled Jim Ball of Vienna. "Are there no standards about what type of ad, especially a full-page ad in the Sunday A-section, can be run in The Post? I found the Flynt-Hustler ad about the private lives of members of Congress profoundly offensive." Carole Brewer of Bethany Beach, Del., wrote: "Why did they stoop so low as to run an ad by that smut merchant? Does The Post need the income that badly?"

Flynt published virtually the same ad in The Post during President Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings in 1998. Publisher Bo Jones said: "Our long-standing policy is to accept advertisements without regard for whether we like them or agree with the views they express. Our goal is to allow advertisers to deliver their message in the way they want, although we don't accept ads that contain false or misleading statements of fact, or advertise an illegal product or service."

Flynt issued this statement after I contacted his company: "This is an election year, and we have to be careful to elect someone who is going to tell the truth. It is time to weed out the liars. My intention in running this ad is not to expose just anyone's sexual life, but if someone takes a public position that is contrary to the way they live their private lives, they are fair game and the public should know about it. The hypocrisy in politics is overwhelming, with candidates preaching one thing and practicing another. The press is also reluctant to tell the truth and many relevant news stories are suppressed. My intention in running this ad is to keep people aware that there are ways to get at the truth and for the American people to know if our elected leaders are really our best representatives."

My reaction to the ad: Yuck! It made me cringe. But The Post has a First Amendment right to publish the ad, and what Flynt is doing is not illegal.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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