In late August, the Washington Post's Style section featured a friendly profile of National Organization for Marriage executive director Brian Brown. The profile, by Post writer Monica Hesse, portrayed Brown and NOM as a "rational" "sane" "mainstream" organization, and their critics as shrill and vitriolic. In order to portray Brown in such a friendly light, Hesse omitted evidence of their history of gay-bashing, and excluded any criticism of the organization.
Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander agreed with complaints that the piece was one-sided, as did Style editor Lynn Medford:
[I]t 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 retrospect, Style editor Lynn Medford agrees. "The lesson is to always, in some way, represent the other side," she said.
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.
Apparently that lesson didn't take.
Today's Washington Post Style section features a profile of another anti-gay activist, Bishop Harry Jackson.
For 2,200 words, Post writer Wil Haygood tells readers about Jackson's faith, and about his childhood. Haygood tells us Jackson "found himself" in the Bible after his "Daddy died." We learn that during his working-class childhood, his parents scraped together money for tuition for private-school, where Jackson was, as he puts it, "the black kid at Country Day who stayed in the houses of wealthy white people." We learn that he got into Harvard Business school, and was "smitten" when he ran into a childhood acquaintance, who he later married.
And we learn that Jackson's critics are dangerous, angry people:
His admirers have multiplied, and so have his critics. More than once, police have stopped by his Southeast Washington apartment to check on his safety.
"I was in line someplace recently," Jackson says, "and a woman who obviously opposes what I'm doing looked at me and said, 'You better go back to Maryland.'"
His wife says: "We have been verbally abused by the best."
Some of his appearances unleashed vitriol, even threats.
But we never really hear from Jackson's critics. Not in any meaningful way. One is quoted saying Jackson is on TV a lot and is "fighting for political ideas in the religious arena." Another is quoted saying "It's an unfortunate reality ... that one can't preach discrimination without inciting homophobia."
And that's it.
Haygood reports that Jackson has won favorable reception for his writing about black families, but makes no mention of Jackson's claims that black people are more prone to "physical intimacy with a nonspouse or enjoyment of pornographic materials" than white people.
Haygood doesn't mention Jackson's claim that God told him to work for George W. Bush's re-election. Or that Jackson has been, as People for The American Way put it, "somewhat of an all-purpose activist and pundit for right-wing causes - everything from judicial nominations to immigration and oil drilling."
And the Post mentions nothing of Jackson's association with far-right gay-bashers:
While Jackson personally avoids venomous language, he has allied himself with some of the hardest line anti-gay activists on the white Christian Right. One of them is Ohio-based Rod Parsley, the evangelical mega-church preacher whose book, Silent No More, sells three for $10 in the front lobby of Hope Christian's 3,000-member church. A chapter entitled "The Unhappy Gay Agenda" argues that gay people are much given to depression and deviance, including their "substantially higher participation in sadomasochism, fisting, bestiality, ingestion of feces, orgies ... obscene phone calls ... shoplifting, and tax cheating."
"Homosexuality is not just sick," writes Parsley, "it is sin."
Jackson works with Parsley and a number of other Christian fundamentalists through his High Impact Leadership Coalition (HILC), a collection of black and white evangelical mega-church leaders who've banded together to fight same-sex union rights and campaign for conservative candidates. Standing next to Jackson at the HILC's coming-out press conference in February 2005 was the Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, an anti-gay organization so hard-line that it is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.
And the Post couldn't find space among those 2,200 words to mention Jackson's opposition to the Matthew Shepard hate crimes legislation -- or the disturbing language Jackson used in opposing the bill:
"God's getting ready to shake us up," roared the Harvard MBA-turned preacher, rousing the audience to divinely ordained political action. With the crowd cheering, applauding, and speaking in tongues, Jackson shouted, "God's looking for a SWAT team ... he's looking for a team of Holy Ghost terrorists!"
Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander may as well just take the rest of the week off, and re-run his September 6 column about Monica Hesse's profile of Brian Brown. Apparently there are some people at the paper's Style section who missed it the first time.
UPDATE: Just to bring things full-circle: Guess who Hesse quoted saying Brown and NOM are "not gay bashers"? Yep: Harry Jackson.
Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander dedicated his Sunday column to his paper's recent profile of National Organization for Marriage executive director Brian Brown, concluding that the profile by reporter Monica Hesse "fell short" and agreeing that the piece was inappropriately one-sided.
While criticizing Hesse's article, Alexander invoked Hesse's "personal life" to argue that she does not have a conservative 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).
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.
And that pretty well makes clear the fatal flaw in the contention that because most journalists (supposedly) lean to the left personally, their reporting reflects liberal bias. Monica Hesse personally opposes Brian Brown's agenda -- and yet her profile of Brown was obviously slanted in his favor, a conclusion shared by her editor and her ombudsman.
(As for Alexander's insistence -- without example -- that Hesse's "research was extensive," that is either overly generous, or indicates that Hesse willfully omitted detail from her profile that would have undermined her thesis. It's a shame Alexander didn't address those omissions.)
Remember that fawning Washington Post profile of National Organization for Marriage executive director Brian Brown? The one that omitted facts that make NOM and Brown look bad, and -- despite running more than 2,000 words -- didn't contain a single quote critical of Brown? Well, I just stumbled across something else Washington Post writer Monica Hesse left out.
Hesse's profile opens by drawing an explicit contrast between Brian Brown and people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson:
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 thing about the John Hagees and the Pat Robertsons is that some people consider them "fringe." And when they speechify, the people they're most persuasive with are the ones who already believe them.
But this country is not made up of people in the far wings, right or left. This country is made up of a movable middle, reasonable people looking for reasonable arguments to assure them that their feelings have a rational basis.
Brian Brown speaks to these people.
That set the tone for the profile: Brian Brown isn't like "fringe" activists like Robertson, Hagee, and James Dobson.
A bit later, Hesse makes passing mention of Brown's previous job:
After UCLA he accepted a position with the Family Institute of Connecticut, and worked to prevent the distribution of condoms in schools.
No explanation of what the Family Institute of Connecticut is. Well, guess what? Here's how the Hartford Courant described the group in 2005:
"It now is associated with Focus on the Family, the group headed by the nationally known conservative James Dobson, but the institute's budget of $450,000 comes entirely from individual contributions, Brown said."
Huh. So, Brown's last job was running a group associated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family. Seems like the kind of information that should be included in a profile that portrays Brown as nothing like that nasty James Dobson, doesn't it?
And, given that the profile echoes Brown's argument that he is just interested in preserving the "history" and "tradition" of "the institution of marriage" being "between a man and a woman," doesn't it seem like the Post should have mentioned that Brown opposes even civil unions?
And shouldn't a profile that adopts Brown's portrayal of himself as a friendly guy who doesn't have anything against gay people -- some of his "friends and family" are gay! -- but just wants to limit "marriage" as something between a man and a woman perhaps note that not only does Brown oppose gay marriage, he wants to keep gays out of his church?
Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut -- which led a petition drive for the Defense of Marriage Act -- was also among those marching with Wyatt. Brown said the acceptance of homosexuality in the church marked the destruction of the American family and marriage.
"That radical of a departure from Christian tradition ... warrants a march," Brown said as he wheeled his children, Elizabeth, 3, and Brian, 1, in a stroller. [Hartford Courant, 8/20/03]
And shouldn't a profile that emphasizes how reasonable and sane a person is maybe mention that he opposes cohabitation between men and women?
In the view of some, the increase in cohabitation between men and women is eroding the institution of marriage.
"I think the whole idea that you shack up, and this is how you figure out what you're going to do with your life, that isn't conducive to the type of commitment you need for a lifelong stable relationship," said Brian Brown, executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut. [Hartford Courant, 3/13/03]
And shouldn't an article that describes Brown as someone who "takes nothing personally. He means nothing personal. He is never accusatory or belittling. His arguments are based on his understandings of history, not on messages from God that gays caused Hurricane Katrina" maybe acknowledge that Brown has referred to gay marriage as "the largest battle in the culture wars since Roe v. Wade"? [New York Times, 7/6/03]
At this point, you have to wonder whether Monica Hesse did any actual research at all -- or if she just met Brown, found him pleasant, talked to a couple of his buddies, and dashed off her profile.