Profile on Anti-Gay-Marriage Activist Provokes Wrath

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By Andrew Alexander
Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Post recently featured a story by reporter Monica Hesse that ran on the front of the Style section while she was on vacation. The day before returning, she logged on to check e-mails -- and wept.

She was buried by an avalanche of messages angrily attacking her lengthy Aug. 28 profile of Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the group leading the fight against legalization of same-sex marriage.

Hesse was stunned. She had expected to hear from anti-gay-marriage conservatives who might view the story as "snide."

Instead, she heard from liberals who support gay marriage, accusing her of writing a puff piece about someone they believe fosters prejudice and intolerance. The story was shallow and one-sided, they complained.

Scores also contacted the ombudsman. It's "one of the biggest pieces of crap The Post has published in recent memory," wrote District resident William Grant II. "What's next, a piece on how a KKK leader is just 'someone next door' and 'really a nice person'?"

Hesse has been blistered in the blogosphere, even cast as a bigoted conservative who endorses a homophobic agenda.

I agree that the story fell short, but not because Hesse was naïve or lacked journalistic diligence. In retracing her reporting, it's clear the research was extensive. And some details about her personal life seem to belie claims she has a conservative agenda (more on that later).

Rather, this is a case where three things -- a storytelling concept, a writing technique and a bad headline -- combined to ignite reader reaction as vitriolic as any I've experienced in my seven months as ombudsman.

Hesse's profile began:

"The nightmares of gay marriage supporters are the Pat Robertsons of the world. The James Dobsons, the John Hagees -- the people who specialize in whipping crowds into frothy frenzies, who say things like Katrina was caused by the gays.

"The gay marriage supporters have not met Brian Brown. They should. He might be more worth knowing about."

The story suggested those fighting for same-sex marriage should fear Brown because he's civil, "instantly likable" and a "thoughtful talker." Brown is effective because "he is pleasantly, ruthlessly sane."


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