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No Middle Ground on Hesse's Brian Brown Profile

By Andy Alexander

Sunday’s ombudsman’s column did little to quell the commotion over Style writer Monica Hesse’s recent profile of Brian Brown, whose organization is leading the fight against same-sex marriage. Judging from about 200 e-mails, calls and online comments over the past several days, it’s clear that this is one of those issues where there is little middle ground.

Readers who favor same-sex marriage continued to express outrage over the story. Those opposed to same-sex marriage continued to applaud it. And more than a few took issue with Hesse’s decision to include a bit about her sexual history in her e-mailed responses to readers who were upset by the story.

For those new to the controversy: It centers on Hesse’s August 28 Style section profile of Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage. The thrust of the story is that Brown is unlike some leading opponents of gay marriage who use incendiary language to whip up support. Rather, it said, Brown uses a civil tone and is effective because he is “pleasantly, ruthlessly sane.”

My column found no fault with Hesse’s research. But chief among my criticisms was that the story did not include comments from Brown’s opponents who believe he is intolerant and a bigot.

Hesse’s story “seemed quite fair and also well-reported...and, frankly, refreshing that a fellow (Brown) with such a point of view was getting a fair shake,” wrote a female reader from Washington.

“I want to thank the Washington Post for having the courage to publish anything positive about opponents to same-sex marriage,” wrote another reader. “I am sick and tired of anybody who says anything negative about homosexual behavior being automatically labeled a ‘bigot’.”

But a reader from Milwaukee echoed a common complaint from many others. He said Hesse was “the person who gave voice to the person (Brown) who is attempting to make gays and lesbians second class citizens.”

“It was a shallow piece,” wrote online commenter Gatsby10. “Brian Brown may have good manners and be well-educated, but that does not excuse his dreadful bigotry.”

And this from online commenter ClarkBarr2007: “Hesse wrote a puff piece on a very hateful man. That’s the bottom line.”

My Sunday column ended by quoting from an e-mail Hesse had been sending to critics of her profile. To those who accused her of pursuing a homophobic agenda, she wrote: "My current partner is a man. 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.”

Too much information, e-mailed a reader from Arlington. “First it was a woman. Her ‘current partner’ is a man,” he wrote. “Do keep us posted on whatever is the next arrangement.”

By Andy Alexander  | September 8, 2009; 4:20 PM ET
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Dear Mr. Alexander,

Monica Hesse, along with Ezra Klein and Hank Stuever, are three main reasons I read the Washington Post. I was surprised to see Ms. Hesse’s name in your recent column.

I read the profile on Brian Brown when it was published in August. At no point did I view it as an endorsement of Brian Brown or the National Organization of Marriage.

The article was certainly subtle. For example, as Mike Szymanski at recently wrote:

“I love it, when, for example, she [Hesse] writes about Brown's wife Sue, and their six children together, and writes, ‘Sue Brown had never really thought about same-sex marriage until she met Brian.’

(I nearly laughed out loud, not something I've done in a long time reading a daily newspaper.)”

I did, too. It is precisely such subtle, literary writing that draws me to Ms. Hesse and the Style section. I understand that such subtlety was lost on many commenters on this piece, and perhaps given the controversial nature of the subject a straighter story would have been a better approach. But I hope that the loudest voices on this piece do not drown out the voices of many readers like me -- and that the Style section continues doing what it does best.

You’ve noted the comments received on the piece. I also read the comments appended to the original piece and to your column, as well as several blogs. In my view, the reaction is well out of proportion to the article, particularly given the explanation provided in your column. Some comments raise interesting and valid points on the merits of the article, but many disregard the findings of your column entirely and speculate on ulterior motives. And with no support whatsoever, many comments simply malign Ms. Hesse personally -- her alleged motives, her sexual orientation, and so on -- and label her with names not worth repeating. In summary, they fall into the “cesspool” category that you described in an earlier column.

I hope that you or she will be provided a public platform to respond to these comments.

I also hope you’ll consider exploring how the Post provides opportunities for reporters and editors to address questions raised about an article. I know that some reporters are provided a Q&A platform to address questions and that some writers, like you, maintain their own blog. Perhaps every Post writer needs a blog or regular Q&A. Another idea would be to allow reporters or editors to participate in the comments section itself. Such ideas might be especially helpful for those readers of the Style section who have difficulty comprehending articles written with voice.

As the Post evolves in the internet age, we no doubt need to hear more from writers when their articles are called into question. I believe it will not only make the Post more accountable, but also its readers.

Posted by: leocoventry | September 9, 2009 6:10 AM | Report abuse

Your column on Sunday did very little to address the journalistic shortcomings of Hesse's article and muddied the waters further by revealing her sexual orientation and alleging that she intended a subtle exposition that her readers were somehow supposed to decipher. If, as you allege, she did so much research on Brown, why wasn't it included in the profile? After all, it would not take much research to discover that Brown has been accused of lying and the NOM is under investigation for violating election laws in several states. And is writing so subtle that apparently no one "got it" a kind of writing to be encouraged. NOM liked Hesse's writing so well that they use it in their fundraising campaign. I guess they missed the subtlety. Those of us who support equal rights for all citizens missed it as well. Have you ever thought that there might be something wrong with Hesse's writing?

Posted by: JayJonson | September 9, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

One other thing, in your column on Sunday, you write: "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." This is a classic evasion of responsibility and of blaming the victims. These things just happened, and it was their combination, that caused all the outrage among those "vitriolic" homosexuals. So it is not Hesse's fault, and not the WaPo editor's fault, because it only the combination of these three things that led to the uproar. Oh no, it is *really* the fault of those vitriol-spouting gay people, isn't it? They missed the subtlety of the piece, and for some reason took it seriously that you were running a puff piece on someone whose profession is to deny them equality under the law. How silly of them, and how mean of them to doubt Monica's motives. After all, she is a bisexual. No further explanation is needed.

Posted by: JayJonson | September 9, 2009 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I must congratulate Ms. Hesse for pulling off what has never happened before, both conservative media outlets and liberal ones finally agree on something. Her “Sanity and a Smile” article was received as a MSM nod to legitimizing the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) efforts. Or as both sides see it, an endorsement.

And as editors, Ombudsman and Leo talk about clever writing styles and esoteric innuendos, the LGBT community see a setback, as this movable middle-America is bombarded with this glowing fundraising email from NOM, letting them know that it’s OK to treat these people as second class. Leo likes to point out that we are just missing the point. Maybe we need to define what the point is?

I lack the qualifications to speak about journalism, marketing is my game. But this I do know, “intention” means nothing, “perception” is everything. David Letterman can tell you about this, it even prompted an apology.

I guess as I see it, there is a lot of middle-ground for something, human rights. Mr. Brown has been touting the ever so popular, “let the people speak, let the people’s voice be heard.” Which boils down to putting civil rights on the ballot. If this is the voice of sanity, then “sanity” was redefined long before “marriage” had a chance.

Posted by: Dale8 | September 9, 2009 6:04 PM | Report abuse

After seeing all the anger and violence in California upon the passage of Prop 8, I'm not surprised by the vitriolic responses from SSM supporters to Hesse's article. However, I'm saddened that Mr. Alexander cannot accept the proposition that describing people who disagree with you as "sane" IS a neutral description. Your apology was craven, and an insult to true journalists.

Posted by: mzehner | September 9, 2009 8:17 PM | Report abuse

There's always high ground for the higher love.

Posted by: Dermitt | September 10, 2009 3:20 AM | Report abuse

"But chief among my criticisms was that the story did not include comments from Brown’s opponents who believe he is intolerant and a bigot."

What crap. Like they ever get the opinion of anti-gay marriage folks when they do a puff piece on gay-marriage supporters.

Posted by: bobmoses | September 10, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

"as vitriolic as any I've experienced in my seven months as ombudsman"

More than firing Froomkin? I just can't believe that.

One more thing, I have proof this article was no good:
I read it.
I wept.

Posted by: katelint | September 11, 2009 3:10 PM | Report abuse

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