Do you oppose same-sex marriage? If so, the Washington Post thinks there's a good chance that you're insane. Last week, reporter Monica Hesse wrote about the executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that opposes same-sex marriage. Her piece, which even she concedes might have been viewed as "snide," took the position that there was one defender of traditional marriage laws in the universe who was not cuckoo pants and crazy bigoted and evil.
I joked about this, because it showed just how out of control the mainstream media treatment of same-sex marriage debates are.
To review, I had a few beefs with the piece apart from the idea that sanity was somehow difficult to find among the folks who are interested in retaining marriage as the heterosexual institution it has been throughout all time and places. I thought that, like every single other feature ever written in the Post's Style section, it was too puffy. And I thought that while it was nice that the paper included a profile of a traditional marriage supporter, that his arguments should be included in the actual news areas of the paper.
Well, supporters of same-sex marriage found the profile awful and asked people to write into the Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander. Which they did. And he wrote a column apologizing for the story. No, not because it was snide and treated all but one supporter of traditional marriage as bigots. No, that's not why he apologized. Let's look at his final criticism of Hesse's story:
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.
Yep, let's reiterate. The Post is saying that it's not "neutral" to say that it's sane to believe that the institution of marriage should be heterosexual. Nevermind that marriage has, until a few short years ago, been universally accepted across all religions, cultures and peoples as a heterosexual institution.
No, actually, you should mind that. And think, again, what the Post ombdusman is saying. Also keep in mind that "sane" means "proceeding from a sound mind."
I mean, don't get me wrong -- that headline is offensive. But it's offensive because it takes the view that sanity is somehow in short reserve on the traditional marriage side.
And for good measure, let's look at what previous ombudsman Michael Getler said about how the Post had mangled same-sex marriage debates back in 2004:
[C]ritics who say the paper has had few, if any, features portraying opponents of this social change in a positive or even neutral light have a point. The overall picture, it seems to me, could use more balance.
Um, understatement of the century. Too bad that the ombudsman trashes a headline that was already too snide against traditional marriage supporters for not being harsh enough.
Neutrality really is important and vitally needed in reporting on hot button topics. What that means is that both supporters and opponents of traditional marriage laws should have their views fairly and accurately described. It means that their arguments should be given equal weight. It does not mean questioning whether support for traditional marriage is sane. As the folks at First Things write, "The raging debate among the reporters over at the Post, it seems, is between those who believe same-sex marriage opponents are "wrong as hell" and yet sane or "wrong as hell" and insane."
The thing is that I really don't like the tone of the Style section in general. The pieces are always snark-infested and they always seem to trash one side of the political spectrum. The puff profiles are always infinitely puffier than the one in question was and it's really hard to read when you know that the subject is much more controversial than the puffy approach lets on. Take this one on Kate Michelman, for instance. The ombudsman basically says that the story approach and the writing technique -- the same ones, near as I can tell, used in many other Style profiles -- were partially to blame.
But we've never seen ombudsmen complaining about the approach until now. I wonder why?
Anyway, the ombudsman review has other interesting parts:
Hesse has been blistered in the blogosphere, even cast as a bigoted conservative who endorses a homophobic agenda.
She's bisexual. The ombudsman says the reader reaction was as vitriolic as any he's experienced during his tenure. It's the same thing I've experienced as I write about same-sex marriage. Unbelievable vitriol.
So on that point, whether you support or oppose the ombudsman's apology for the piece, keep your comments focused on journalism. All others will be happily deleted.