WP’s Ombudsman Takes on the NOM Story

Tomorrow’s Washington Post features a column by Ombudsman Andrew Alexander dissecting Monica Hesse’s article on Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage.  Alexander lays out the problems with the story and gives some revealing insight into Hesse’s response to the criticism.

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.

Alexander echoes some of the concerns we dealt with here, specifically the tone and the lack of critical LGBT voices.  He quotes same-sex marriage activist Fred Karger and says the problem was not with Hesse’s reporting or writing, but with a certain tone-deafness on the part of the editing.

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.

According to Alexander, Hesse was taken aback by the criticism and really expected conservatives would be more upset that those who support same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. The response I saw in the LGBT blogosphere was blistering, but always seemed off-the-mark to me. As I said in my initial post, I assumed that Hesse likely supported same-sex marriage (or wasn’t opposed to it) and I never viewed the work as homophobic, just poorly crafted.

Here is how Alexander ends his critique, focusing on Hesse’s reaction to the outpouring of criticism.

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.

I’m torn about the final revelation and it adds even more complexity to the wisdom of the story, but I do appreciate the fact that WP is willing to do the self-analysis to improve the newspaper and journalism.  We need more Ombdusmen like Alexander who are willing to be the voice of the reader and provide some perspective (and draw back the curtain, so to speak) on how journalism works.

(Full disclosure: I emailed Alexander last week with my initial blog post about the story and he told me he had received other negative feedback.  Alexander spoke to NLGJA-DC and the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists this past spring.  Karger is a professional friend and will be speaking this week at NLGJA’s convention in Montreal).

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