Profile in courage: A newspaper owner sets his readers straight on gay marriage
At the turn of the new century, it would've been politically bold for a president of the United States to file a Supreme Court brief in favor of gay marriage. No longer. Barack Obama's lawyers filed such a brief late yesterday, citing "equal protection principles," and their historic government declaration barely rippled the news cycle. What once would've been deemed courageous now seems commonsensical. Heck, even Clint Eastwood, he of the infamous empty chair, has joined 100 other Republicans in signing a pro-gay marriage brief.
So if you want to celebrate a real profile in courage, you have to talk about someone like Jim Cegielski.
And you're saying, "Who the heck is Jim Cegielski?" And I'm saying, he's a guy you should know about. He's a rural Mississippi newspaper owner who rebuked his homophobic readers.
First of all, it's exceedingly rare these days for any newspaper owner, or publisher, or editor, to rebuke any reader. Print circulation and advertising continue to spiral downward in our digital era. Newspapers kowtow to their remaining readers, out of terror of alienating them. All too often, the prevailing ethos is to "give the readers what they want," even if what they want, in terms of reading material, is often mindless.
Enter Cegielski, owner of the Laurel Leader-Call. Back on Feb. 7, his paper featured a story about two local women who had tied the knot in a gay marriage ceremony. (A symbolic ceremony, this being Mississippi.) The headline was, "Historic Wedding: Women wed in Laurel through smiles, tears." Tears, because one of the women is suffering from brain cancer. The other mate said, "Love is love, it knows no gender."
Readers went ballistic - hate calls ("gay marriage is an abomination against God"), letters, e-mails, Facebook posts, and cancelled subscriptions. Suffice it to say that they were less than pleased to find amoral blasphemes on the front of their local paper.
Many newspaper proprietors, facing such wrath, would've sagged like a bad souffle. In rural Mississippi, that would be the commonsensical response. Cegielski did something else. In an editorial, he basically told readers that if they didn't like the gay marriage story, well, that's just too darn bad.
"We were well aware that the majority of people in Jones County are not in favor of gay marriage. However, any decent newspaper with a backbone cannot base decisions on whether to cover a story based on whether the story will make people angry. The job of a community newspaper is not pretending something didn't take place, or ignoring it because it will upset people. No, our job is to inform readers what is going on in our town and let them make their own judgments. That is exactly what we did with the wedding story...We never said it was a good thing or a bad thing, we simply did our job by telling people what took place.
"I took the bulk of the irate phone calls from people who called the paper to complain. Most of the complaints seem to revolve around the headline, 'Historic Wedding,' and the fact that we chose to put the story on the front page. My answer to the 'Historic Wedding' headline is pretty simple. You don't have to like something for it to be historic. The Holocaust, bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Black Sox scandal are all historic. I'm in no way comparing the downtown wedding of two females to any of those events (even though some of you made it quite clear that you think gay marriage is much worse)."
And here's my favorite passage:
"We have stories about child molesters, murders and all kinds of vicious, barbaric acts of evil committed by heinous criminals on our front page, and yet we never receive a call from anyone saying 'I don't need my children reading this.' Never. Ever. However, a story about two women exchanging marriage vows, and we get swamped with people worried about their children."
You tell 'em, Jim. Reporting and writing and exercising one's news instincts, without caring whether some readers might get mad...that's how journalism is supposed to work. So kudos for Cegielski for his courage in expressing what should be commonsensical.
As for the homophobic readers who canceled their subscriptions, I am reminded of how conservative icon William F. Buckley typically responded, whenever an angry reader phoned him at The National Review and threatened to stop payment. Buckley liked his response so much, he made it the title of one of his books:
Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.
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