As editor in chief of a lifestyle magazine, my job has been to balance two competing concerns of the journalism business: publishing stories that make a difference and selling ads that make money. This month, I discovered a third, hitherto unknown concern: ads that make a difference.
The full-page ad on the first page of Houstonia magazine’s June issue seemed innocuous. It showed a family of five in cozy domesticity, enjoying the warmly capacious living room they ostensibly found through the upscale real estate agency that created the ad. Mom stood barefoot in the living room, an arm around her 5-year-old daughter. Dad sat on an overstuffed sofa, struggling to keep the couple’s squirmy 2-year-old from leaving his lap. And at their feet was an unbearably cute baby boy perched atop an embroidered pillow on the family’s rug. Carefully composed and brightly lit, the scene, it seemed, could be described with just one word: adorable. But as it turned out, there was another word for it: disgusting.
That’s how a suburban Houston doctor described the image in an email to Ashton Martini Group, the real estate company responsible for the ad. “I will not put this magazine in my reception area!” he wrote. The source of his disgust? The mother in the ad was white; the father, black; and the couple’s three children, biracial. A second complaint reached me a week later, from a subscriber who confessed that, although he liked our magazine, “I just can’t go for racial mixing.” And so, lest his children “get it into their heads that this is okay,” he had taken our June issue straight from the mailbox to the trashcan.
I followed the two men’s impulsive actions with one of my own — I decided to cancel their subscriptions. Then, not satisfied I’d done enough, I penned an editor’s note exposing the bigotry and letting readers know that racists need not subscribe. My note landed like a thunderbolt, attracting thousands of readers an hour. By the end of the first day, it had reached tens of thousands through Facebook and Twitter, an unprecedented level of national attention for our local magazine.
The reaction was largely positive, although a few accused me of grandstanding, or criticized me for inserting my values into my business. Companies shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose their customers, they insisted. As one commenter said, I was demonstrating the same “intolerance for dissenting points of view” as the bigots. In declining to sell our magazine to racists, he wrote, we were, in effect, no different from companies that refuse to bake wedding cakes for LGBT clients.
Beyond its unfortunate equating of gay people and racists, however, that argument hinges on the notion that all opinions are created equal. They’re not. There are viewpoints we agree with, viewpoints we disagree with but can respect, and viewpoints we disagree with because they incite cruelty and violence. Obviously, racism is one of the latter, a dissenting viewpoint that we are right to squelch — indeed, that we must be intolerant of.
Others assumed my goal was to reform the racists. In that case, they said, my good intentions had backfired. “The magazine should absolutely continue sending their magazine to the doctor’s office,” one commenter wrote. “It exposes him to other ideas and opinions he clearly isn’t allowing into his life through other means.” Apart from the fact that magazines whose covers scream “35 NEW WAYS TO HAVE FUN AND STAY FIT” would seem to have limited value in the war on racism, I was surprised that these commenters had so little feel for my moral quandry. What would it say about me if I knowingly allowed my magazine to be funded by racists?
Instead, I did what I had the power to do. In publishing my story, I wanted to deliver news to readers who, like me, had mistakenly thought that interracial marriage was something we’d all come to accept. It isn’t, I told them. There are still awful people out there, and you need to know this.
In a neat irony, my editor’s note quickly netted Houstonia dozens of new subscribers, and the magazine was flooded with hundreds of heartfelt messages from all over the country, from parents, uncles and grandmothers of biracial children who appreciated my “courage” and “heroism” and “zero tolerance.” Wonderful strangers left me tearful phone messages and offered to cook me food. I got many more thank-you-from-the-bottom-of-my-hearts than one man has a right to.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful for such a response. Massive positive attention is something no young publication dares refuse. But that wasn’t why I did it. Thinking back, I must have paged past the offending ad dozens of times, never stopping once, in the days before I learned it had disgusted someone. But once I did, I found myself looking at it endlessly, and feeling waves of unbidden anger wash over me. I felt my eyes begin to water and my throat choke up as I stared, trying again and again to find the awfulness that the doctor had seen with such ease. But all I could see, indeed all I’ve ever seen, is a mother and a father, two laughing children and one baby — one beautifully healthy baby.
You’re a doctor, I thought. No one should know more than you the gift and miracle that a healthy baby is. How could you?
There was nothing there but beauty, joy, love and life. A family to be celebrated, championed, and fought for with every breath.
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