The profile examined Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the groups that lobbied for Proposition 8, the hotly-contested California State ballot initiative that explicitly defined marriage as between and man and a woman, overturning a State Supreme Court decision to the contrary.
Pundits on the left called the features piece, written by Monica Hesse—who says she is a bisexual and has had romantic relationships with women in the past—“absurd,” “bizarre,” and “accusatory and belittling.”
Letters to the Washington Post called the piece “one of the biggest pieces of crap The Post has published in recent memory,” and wondered, “What's next, a piece on how a KKK leader is just 'someone next door' and 'really a nice person'?”
The Huffington Post called Hesse’s coverage “pathetically worshipful.” A blogger at CampusProgress.org accused Hesse’s profile of trying to “couch [NOM’s] bigotry in non-personal, intellectual language.”
Critics were up in arms over a story that portrayed an opponent of same-sex marriage as a rational, likable, pleasant human being. They objected to the headline, “Opposing Gay Unions With Sanity & a Smile,” which was written by the Post’s editors, on the grounds that it implied an opponent could actually be sane and agreeable.
It seems that this headline would spark more anger among Brown’s ilk than among proponents of gay marriage, as it suggests that he is a different type of prop-8 advocate. By stating that he is sane and smiling, Hesse suggested that other leaders in his camp are scowling crazies.
In February 2007, then-Senator and presidential candidate Joe Biden caught a great deal of flack when he called Barack Obama “articulate.” His words were taken as an implication that Obama was in this sense not the norm; that his rhetorical skills were notable because they represented a departure from the typical African American.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that Biden’s comments were a “shorthand way of describing a black person who isn't too black—or, rather, who comports with white America's notion of how a black person should come across."
But no such objections were raised to the implications of Hesse’s headline that Brown—in smiling and maintaining his sanity—is a refreshing departure from his allies in the campaign against gay marriage. Feeding this perception of the typical gay marriage opponent as a rabid extremist, Hesse opened her feature by describing a somewhat stilted view of the gay marriage debate:
“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.”
Surely many conservatives would object to this characterization of some of America’s foremost spiritual leaders. So thought Hesse, who, according to the Post’s Ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, expected livid responses to her piece from conservatives who would surely consider the feature “snide”. She did not expect the outpouring of rage that came from the left, who were furious that a journalist would ever portray a gay marriage opponent in such an appealing light.
Alexander issued an apology in Sunday’s edition, in which he defended Hesse, but acknowledged the lack of opposing views in the article. But features pieces are not meant to be political debates. The story focused on a person—who, in Hesse’s words, is “pleasantly, ruthlessly sane”—not, directly, on a political agenda or debate, though they were certainly corollaries to the profile.
No such reaction was garnered by the Post’s profile of ‘victims’ of the passing of Prop 8. Conservative opponents of same-sex marriage did not demand space for a rebuttal, for instance, in another Monica Hesse profile headlined “Fairly Satisfied Customers: Gay Couples Shop to Support One Cause as They Lament Another.”
This November 8, 2008 feature profiled gay couples at a fundraiser shopping event. Taking place as it did four days after Prop 8 passed, the elephant in the room was the monumental ballot initiative.
“[Jeff] Van Luyn,” reported Hesse, “thinks that the problem is the religious undertones that have become associated with marriage.” The report ended the descriptions of the happy couples by saying “It's almost the American Dream.” The lack of ‘alternative views’ by proponents of Prop 8 did not bolster claims of journalistic malfeasance by Hesse at the time.
Hesse reported in her profile of Brown that he “tries to help people see that opposing gay marriage does not make them bigots, that the argument should have nothing to do with hate or fear, and everything to do with history and tradition.” The Post’s apologetic response to the Left’s uproar over the profile plays right into the mentality that Brown is working to combat.