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'Sanity & a Smile' and an Outpouring of Rage

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."

Hesse said she decided to let Brown tell his story, as opposed to extensively quoting what others say about him. Her editors didn't object to the concept. Having Brown's story told in his "voice," Hesse reasoned, would allow readers to best assess his arguments.

Fine in theory. But it deprived readers of hearing from others who have battled Brown and find him uncivil and bigoted. To them, he represents injustice. They should have been heard, at length.

"In a profile piece, for a controversial figure like that . . . there should certainly be the other side of it," said Fred Karger, head of a group called Californians Against Hate.

In retrospect, Style editor Lynn Medford agrees. "The lesson is to always, in some way, represent the other side," she said.

Karger, who has fought with Brown over same-sex marriage in California, said, "He is just as shrill, just as anti-gay as any of the leading gay-bashers" have been over the years.

Compounding the story's problems were passages like: "He takes nothing personally. He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling."

These types of unattributed characterizations are not uncommon in feature writing. But many readers thought Hesse was offering her opinion of who Brown is, as opposed to portraying how he comes across.

Finally, the headline: "Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile." To many readers, The Post was saying Brown's views are sane. The headline, written by editors, not Hesse, should have been neutral.

Hesse is a gifted writer, as can be seen in a piece about her marriage in today's Post Magazine. At 28, she's one of Style's rising stars. But she was rocked by the angry reaction to the Brown story and spent most of last week responding to unhappy readers. Especially sensitive to accusations of a "homophobic agenda," her e-mails offered a glimpse into her personal life.

"My current partner is a man," she wrote them. "Before him, my partner of two years was a woman, with whom I discussed health insurance, kids, houses and marriage. You can bet that I found the fact that our marriage wouldn't have been legal to be wrong as hell.

"That doesn't mean that what NOM is trying to do and how they are trying to do it are not important to hear about," she wrote.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the Omblog.

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