Virginian-Pilot reporter Corinne Reilly tells me that reaction to her story about two female sailors’ homecoming kiss and Brian Clark’s photo that ran with it (on the right, below the fold) “has run the gamut, but the vast majority of messages I’ve received have definitely come from readers who found the story and photo offensive.”
She wrote on Thursday:
Here are a couple of examples, which were in my email this morning:
“That photo is illustrious of why people instinctive know this country is rotting from the inside out. Whats next a close up shot of bestiality! Jim, Southern CA”
“Please spare me the deviant behavior. How much did the Human Rights Campaign pay you to do this ‘story’???”
The voicemails that were waiting for me this morning were decidedly nastier. I’ve also gotten a few notes from appreciative readers, though, such as this one:
“Thank you and your editors so much for the story of the 2 Navy women sharing the kiss. What a refreshing change to open to this story. At last, some progress on an agenda that should not be an agenda at all.”
The reporter adds:
We’re in a Navy town and we cover ship homecomings all the time. We usually try to find new angles or zero in on individual sailors. In my mind, this story was no different, and I tried to write it as such, although I certainly expected that it would elicit far more reaction than most homecoming stories.
Virginian-Pilot managing editor Maria Carrillo tells Charles Apple that “we’ve had some folks accuse us of losing our moral compass and there’s been stronger language than that …Honestly, I expected more vitriol.”
The Seattle Times ran the photo more prominently on page one than the Virginian-Pilot. Times managing editor Kathy Best tells me:
We got 12 calls and emails from print subscribers, a couple of whom threatened to cancel their subscriptions. The majority said they were not upset that we used the picture, but felt it was wrong to put it on the front page because it was offensive.
Online, the photo and story generated more than 200 comments, ranging from a congratulatory “Go, Navy!” to extreme disappointment. This comment was typical of the latter group: “I guess I’m getting too old. My respect for those in the military just went down a notch. My God we fell so far so fast. No honor left, just social engineering. How utterly depressing.”
Here’s the note that the Seattle Times sent to readers who threatened to cancel:
I’m sorry that you found the photo on today’s front page offensive. That was not our intention. We selected the photo because it depicted an historic moment for the U.S. military, vividly illustrating the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era in a striking twist on the Navy’s “first kiss” tradition.
As you know, treatment of gay and lesbian members of the U.S. military has been hotly debated for years, including at military installations around the Puget Sound region. As politicians and military leaders argued, the effect on individual soldiers and sailors sometimes got lost. This photo, which both our picture and news editors described as iconic, showed what the policy change meant at street level.
Part of our responsibility as a news organization is to reflect the reality around us, even if it might make some readers uncomfortable. We do not make those decisions lightly. We debated how and where to use this picture extensively. In the end, we felt the historic nature of the photo merited front page treatment.
While you may not agree with this decision, I hope this explanation helps you understand it. We were not trying to push a political agenda. We were trying to show the real-world effect of a political change of policy.
I hope you will reconsider your decision to cancel the paper. Just as we value lively debates in our newsroom about how to display news, we value lively debates with our readers about whether they think we’re doing a good job. We need readers like you who care enough to call us to account when you don’t think we’re doing our jobs well. It keeps us on our toes and helps inform the choices we make going forward.
Managing Editor, The Seattle Times