Monday, September 07, 2009

WaPo Ombudsman Slams NOM Profile

Last week I had Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse on the show to talk about her piece on the National Organization for Marriage's Brian Brown (who I then then on the program later in the week.) Hesse was pretty shocked that her piece was seen as a puff piece which came under a lot of criticism by LGBT activists, liberal bloggers and journalism critics. She came on the show to defend herself and explain how it went wrong (editing took out the sly bits, she pretty much said, and with those barbs included she didn't think she needed opposing views, so she had none) and, I guess, to let us know she's not some sort of religious right monster.

Now the Washington Post ombudsman has apologized for the piece, chastised Hesse and the editors for not providing critics of Brown, provides some thoughts on how the piece happened and reveals that Hesse is bisexual herself and wept over the response to the piece:

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.

I would go further and say it's an example of how the Post, ever mindful of sagging circulation, is desperately trying to be hip and cool in competing with blogs and online media, as we've seem time and again, blundering in the process. In this case, perhaps fearful of the repercussions of past juvenile antics in trying to compete, they took the teeth out of writing that was attempting to emulate that competition by being sarcastic and having a clear point of view. What's left is a puff piece, which the reporter then of course went along with too. It's all part of the paper's and print journalism's identity crisis, and it's clearly still not serving the public.