There have been numerous stories and obituaries of Deborah Howell, the former editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, head of the Newhouse chain’s Washington bureau, and ombudsman of the Washington Post. Long an advocate for greater diversity in the newsroom–especially for women–and supporter of NLGJA while at Newhouse, Howell also had two major career highlights of interest to the LGBT community.
In 1988, Howell oversaw the Press‘ Pulitzer-prize winning series AIDS in the Heartland by Jacqui Banaszynski. The story, about the relationship between two gay men in rural Minnesota. This is how David Carr in the NYT described the piece.
As the editor of The Pioneer Press in the ’80s, a time when AIDS was seen as some exotic affliction visited on club kids in San Francisco and New York, she assigned and edited a series by Jacqui Banaszynski called “AIDS in the Heartland.” The stories made it clear that the virus was on the march and might well be found in the milk farmer down the road. The series won a Pulitzer in 1988, but more important, it put her readers on notice that the distance between “us” and “them” was a lot shorter than people liked to think.
More recently, as WaPo’s ombudsman, she questioned a decision of the newspaper’s top brass over their policy of dealing with the sexual orientation of people featured in stories. At issue was a story about Army Maj. Alan G. Rogers, a decorated war hero killed in an explosion in Baghdad. The story was criticized for failing to identify Rogers as gay.
Kevin Naff, editor of the Blade, said in an e-mail, “It’s a double standard to report basic facts about straight subjects like marital status, while actively suppressing similar information about gay subjects. It was clear that Maj. Rogers led as openly gay a life as was possible, given his military service. He worked for a gay rights organization, had gay friends and patronized D.C.-area gay clubs. It’s unfortunate The Post . . . chose not to present a full picture of this brave man’s life.”
The Post was right to be cautious, but there was enough evidence — particularly of Rogers’s feelings about “don’t ask, don’t tell” — to warrant quoting his friends and adding that dimension to the story of his life. The story would have been richer for it.