Newsweek runs offensive puff piece on Brian Brown

Timothy Kincaid

November 15th, 2010

Lately it seems that the only time I take notice of Newsweek is when they have run yet another biased article which paints gay people in a bad light and our opponents favorably. While I would not go so far as to label the magazine as being homophobic – I doubt that they are aware of the extent to which they write pejorative about gay people – clearly editorial staff suffer under heterosexist presumptions.

Their latest is a puff piece on Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, by Eve Conant. Brown is a legitimate topic for discussion, but Conant’s portrayal of him – and even moreso of us – serves as little more than an appeal to sympathy for Brian Brown and validation of his anti-gay efforts. Brown’s talking points are repeated as though objective data and those of us who oppose his efforts are characterized as irrational or violent.

Conant opens her piece by casting Brown as a martyr and implying that those who oppose his anti-gay advocacy are a dangerous threat. Even before telling her audience what Brown does, the tone is set: “Brian Brown’s hate mail is divided into two categories: messages that go straight to the police and those he dumps into a growing computer file labeled OPPOSITION.”

Conant’s second error is to parrot Brown’s declarations of success.

A big reason for their frustration is that Brown is succeeding. His National Organization for Marriage played a key role in financing the Nov. 2 ouster of three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled to legalize same-sex marriage there in 2009.

As gays and lesbians battle in the courts and legislatures for marriage rights, Brown is on a mission to match their determination and dollars. Using direct-mail campaigns, donor outreach, and bus tours around the country, he spreads NOM’s message that preserving “traditional marriage” is necessary to protect families and ensure religious freedom. “We believe the marriage issue is the last frontier in the fight,” he says. “We have to hold the line there.” Although NOM operates with a skeleton staff, its budget has ballooned from $500,000 in 2007, when Brown cofounded the group, to more than $13 million today. With that war chest, it was able to pour some $5 million into 100 races in the recent elections.

In a display of shockingly naive journalism, Canant accepts Brown’s stated accomplishments – which may as well have been gleaned from one of his many “look what I’ve done, send me money’ emails. She provides no evaluation of the success of those high-profile races in which NOM intervened (all, other than the judge, failed), the bus tours (laughably incompetent), or whether NOM’s message is resonating.

While it is true that three judges were not confirmed – due in part to NOM’s efforts – to declare that “Brown is succeeding” requires that one ignore the total picture and focus only on one incident. And in pronounceing that “the jury is out” on whether marriage equality in an eventuality, Conant used but the scantest of thought:

Though both sides like to claim they’re winning this fight, the jury is out. This year New Hampshire and Washington, D.C., joined Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont in legalizing gay marriage. And polling shows support for it is on the rise, up from 27 percent of Americans in 1996 to 44 percent today, according to Gallup. But in the 31 states where gay marriage has been put to a vote, it’s lost every time.

There is a thoughtful argument for the uncertainty of future outcomes, but this isn’t it. Discussing state DOMA amendments without discussing timelines and geography is simplistic to the point of meaninglessness. So too are discussion of states which have marriage equality without an analysis of possible repeal.

But the most offensive part of Connant’s article is that it serves not only as a “feel good” piece on Brown, but it positions those who disagree with him in a negative light. They are not supporters of equality, rather they are enemies of this good man. This is, indeed, the underlying theme and is present in nearly every paragraph:

Paragraph 1: OPPONENTS of Brown send hate mail, tell him on the phone that they want to burn him while his children watch, and threaten to send a pipe bomb. Even the least threatening are “frustrated”.

Paragraph 2: Repeats that they are frustrated

Paragraph 4: “Critics like to paint Brown as…” The structure of this phrase assumes that anything which follows is a false portrayal. Evan Wolfson, who comments on the likelihood of NOM’s efforts as a “last hurrah” is set up to be dismissed as a falsely painting critic and then Connant presents a counter to the “like to paint” position which is competely irrelevant to the point.

Paragraph 5: Here we have a good guy v. bad guy comparison. Brown “mostly tries to avoid demonizing gays and lesbians” while a marriage supporter “tapes Brown’s events and posts them online as fuel for gay activists.” Look again at “fuel for gay activists.” That is not, under any circumstances, a neutral statement.

Paragraph 6: Here we see two “he said, they said” presentations of the views of those who oppose NOM. It’s subtle, but the comparison leads the reader to one conclusion:

First, “gay-rights advocates say the group is a carefully orchestrated front for…” But Connant’s response is “In fact, it’s almost impossible to characterize Brown’s supporters.” This isn’t even presented as Brown’s position, it’s presented as fact and thus the gay-rights activists are either deluded, paranoid, or liars.

The second is trickier. It’s the presentation of two accusations. First Brown accuses those who are demanding that NOM follow election laws: “his donors could be targeted and harassed by gays and their supporters.” Note that these are specific allegations and cast “gays and their supporters” as harassers and dangerous. Note also that the opening words of this piece assign validity to Brown’s claim.

Then the opposite side’s position is misstated: “gay advocates say he’s simply flouting campaign-finance laws.” No, we don’t think his purpose has anything to do with the anarchistic notion of “simply flouting laws.” We have specific concerns but they are not presented. Rather, you see the vague and slightly paranoid (and probably truncated): “You have to look at why they are fighting tooth and nail to not disclose their donors.” There is no mention as to the reason why we think NOM wants hide the identities of major donors: to allow them to seek to change law in secret, without any fear of public criticism or reprisal.

Fear of secret political machinations of wealthy organizations, churches, or individuals may resonate with Newsweek’s readers. They may share our concerns that the Mormon Church or Catholic Church some other entity or individual almost single-handedly funded a state-wide campaign – and did so in secret and without the voter’s knowledge. One has to wonder why Connant did not articulate this concern.

Paragraph 7: Brown’s “detractors” are baffled. His efforts are a “mystery.” And Brown presents his case to quickly slap down the strawman of confusion that Connant presented. His explanation is – and we aren’t mystified, we’ve heard it over and over – accepted as fact. Gay folk aren’t too befuddled to point out the hollowness of Brown’s statements, Connant simply chose not to report it.

Paragraph 8: This is perhaps the most insidious of Connant’s insinuations. Characterization by anecdote is not new to yellow journalism; those who wish to present good guy v. bad guy imagery find it a most useful tool. While Susan, Brown’s wife, is a sympathetic character who “understands” the “frustration” of the people who so badly abuse her, gay folk are presented less charitably:

At an event in Providence, R.I., she says, “they walked up to my kids and asked them, ‘Is Mommy raising you to be a good little bigot?’?”

Paragraph 9: This last paragraph, indeed the final words, remind the reader about who is the hero and who is the villain of this article:

Until that day—and perhaps long after—Brown is prepared to keep getting hate mail.

I understand that human interest stories are not in the same vein as hard-hitting journalism. But this goes beyond being a puff piece and instead is a smear on those who support marriage equality. Yet again, “Gays are a threat to be feared” is the theme of a Newsweek article.


November 15th, 2010

I’ve been a long-term reader of Newsweek (decades) and in all this time I’ve seen only two anti-gay articles — this one and the one saying Lawrence King brought it on himself. Other than these two Newsweek has actually been pro-gay and was much earlier than most mainstream media. I even credit Newsweek with helping me realize I’m gay (at the age of 26, yeah, I’m slow on the obvious) through a thoughtful piece.

This article is disgusting, but it deviates quite a bit from their track record. Even so, it makes me wonder if they are slipping and how soon before I cancel my subscription.

Timothy, did you leave a response on the Newsweek website? They don’t print letters in the print edition anymore.


November 15th, 2010

Good statement, Paul. I’ve seen a few more examples of hostility towards gay people in Newsweek, but I still thought the majority of their work was unbiased.

This article on Brown was clearly quite sympathetic towards this person who actively seeks to make gay people second class citizens.

Would Newsweek have published the same article if the subject was racial instead?

I think not!


November 15th, 2010

I really don’t know what it is that motivates publications like Newsweek and The Washington Post (both owned by the same company, it’s worth noting) to write these kinds of articles. WaPo printed a big puff piece about Brown a while back, while Newsweek published both that imbecile Ramin Setoodeh’s article about Larry King and this latest article about Brown.

I’m tempted to conjecture that a lot of reporters have a certain contrarian streak that stems from either a desire to defy conventional wisdom or avoid the accusation of being part of “teh librull media.”

Another possibility is that journalism in general has become more and more shallow. Eve Conant may have remembered to check the batteries in her tape reporter, but clearly forgot to check the ones in her bullshit detector.

Also, like so many other articles that deal with GLBT rights, Conants simply resorted to “Side A says this, Side B says that, and the jury’s still out” without consulting any expert sources or objective source material. She could have looked, for example, at the mountains of scientific studies that pretty much prove NOM’s talking points wrong, or talked to one of the university researchers who conducted them.


November 15th, 2010

I really don’t know what it is that motivates publications like Newsweek and The Washington Post (both owned by the same company, it’s worth noting) to write these kinds of articles. WaPo printed a big puff piece about Brown a while back, while Newsweek published both that imbecile Ramin Setoodeh’s article about Larry King and this latest article about Brown.

They know their reader/subscriber demographics. Judging from the content they’re writing for readers who are Middle American, middle class, middle aged, and conservative.


November 15th, 2010

Just FYI: Newsweek was bought for $1 by Sidney Harman, 91, (of Harman Kardan) and merged with The Daily Beast (Barry Diller). The magazine’s website will close, and Tina Brown will edit the physical product.

enough already

November 15th, 2010

I have used Newsweek for years in my classes. The quality of writing in the magazine varies so enormously between authors, even within a given piece, that it offers a very clear example of why consistent editorial policy is necessary to maintain competent journalistic standards.

Sometimes, there are Side A and Side B arguments – whether it is better to butter your waffles first then put on maple syrup or to put on syrup first and then butter them can be argued (preferably with considerable real world testing).

The positions which NOM takes are, however, not equal to the position which all rational doctors, psychiatric boards and, not incidentally, the US Constitution takes. This lack of balance is worse than sloppy journalism, it is a sign of biased reporting.


November 15th, 2010

I wonder if Timothy thought of this:

Using the Howard Univ. School of Law Civil Right Clinic amicus as a kind of checklist, send Eve Conant and her boss, Tina Brown, instances in which Brian’s organization used the same descriptions and language as racists did to defeat the rights of African Americans.

For example:

#1: Like same-sex parenting today, interracial parenting was once considered damaging to the physical and psychological health of children:

Because of the fear that inter-racial unions were a danger to the children involved, courts sometimes used the threat of psychological damage to rationalize removing mixed-race children from their biological home. See Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption 12 (2003).

NOM Position:

“Bans on interracial marriage were about keeping two races apart so that one race could oppress the other. Marriage is about bringing two sexes together, so that children get the love of their own mom and a dad, and women don’t get stuck with the enormous disadvantages of parenting alone.” “Having a parent of two different races is just not the same as being deprived of your mother—or your father.” NOM Talking Points

See what I mean? NOM complete fabricated an explanation about interracial marriage to *justify* using the same language to demonize same-sex marriage.


November 15th, 2010

“I’m tempted to conjecture that a lot of reporters have a certain contrarian streak that stems from either a desire to defy conventional wisdom or avoid the accusation of being part of “teh librull media.””

It’s really simpler than that. It’s all about access to a controversial figure; no puff piece, no access.


November 15th, 2010

Eve Conant had contacted Brian Brown at least twice before she wrote this most recent piece. She asked for his opinions here:

In both pieces she quotes Brown at length. She quotes Brown when he says “he received a call six months ago threatening that he would be ‘strung up in a tree and lit on fire’ but that he’s not intimidated, he’s concerned for donors and supporters who get similar calls, of which he says the group has ample evidence.”

A short paragraph later she states:

“The Project, Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese says, ‘is a message to lawmakers saying that if you want NOM support, you are going to have to wear NOM support.'”

She’s either unwittingly or intentionally supporting NOM’s goal to out-martyr the gays.


November 16th, 2010

i wondered who the hell is this guy when i read headlines about him supposedly succeeding against our efforts to gain our rights in this country, it was like saying that some plumber guy suddenly fixed the plumbing and no one knew he was even in the building!? either way this man is covered in crap and it stinks!


November 16th, 2010

I’m waiting for Newsweek or another mainstream-media outlet to publish a sympathetic article on a holocaust denier or a white supremacist.


November 16th, 2010

This article stops Just Short Of telling the whole story about NOM defying State Campaign Law, and the Courts that have ruled against them.

Winning by cheating is not a true win.

NOM acts unlawfully using unidentified funds.

Newsweek left this very significant part out.

Let’s drop them a note:


November 16th, 2010

I wonder how Newsweek fact-checked Brown’s claim of a rapidly expanding budget. Perhaps they had a fact checker look at NOM’s form 990, which was due in at the beginning of June 2010.

Oh, wait, they could not have done that because NOM has either failed to file its 990 or has failed to make its 990 available to the public. Either failure would be a violation of tax law, which you would think would bear some mention in the article, especially since NOM’s 990 filing practices have been the focus of so much controversy.

Not to belabor the obvious on the “who is winning” question, but when the first of the 31 anti-marriage states voted on this issue, we would lose by 70-30, even in blue states like HI. In most of the 31, the anti-gay side didn’t need to put on much of a campaign. The anti-gay message sold itself.

By 2006, you started to see the anti-gay side having to work for its victories, and those victories began to come in below 60%. The last two battles required a vast effort in terms of money and human resources, and the anti-gay side won by 4 and 5 percent margins. They had to rush their effort in ME to have their vote in a low turnout off-year election, fearing defeat if the vote took place in 2010.

That is not a winning trend.

Doug N

November 18th, 2010

Not a surprising contribution from the hack also known for defending Arizona’s racist SB 1070: Yuck! I don’t read Newsweek, but I think I’ll share my thoughts with them anyway.

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