Jessica Powell and her partner Crystal Craven were married recently in what is believed to be Jones County, Mississippi's first same-sex wedding.
A local newspaper, The Laurel Leader-Call, which serves the county where the wedding took place, covered the ceremony and splashed its report on the front page under the headline "Historic Wedding."
Penned by reporter Cassidi Bush, a "self-proclaimed conservative," the article talks about Craven's Stage IV brain cancer diagnosis, and Powell's dress, and quotes the couple as saying "love is love, it knows no gender." Typical heartwarming wedding stuff.
Laurel Leader-Call readers were outraged.
Nasty calls and emails flooded the newspaper's offices, and subscription cancellations followed suit. The paper's Facebook page received more angry comments over this story than on any story in its history.
Last Saturday, Leader-Call owner Jim Cegielski published a powerful op-ed responding to the brouhaha.
He and the rest of the paper are "well aware" that most of the residents of Jones County "are not in favor of gay marriage," Cegielski says, but "any decent newspaper with a backbone" has an obligation to "inform readers what is going on" and can't base its editorial decisions "on whether the story will make people angry."
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 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).
Cegielski goes on to note that many of those who took issue with the article expressed concern for their children or the children of others.
To those people he had this to say:
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.
On a personal note, Cegielski confessed that he was "saddened by the hate-filled viciousness of many of the comments directed toward our staff."
Cancel your subscription all you want, he wrote, "but you have no right to berate and belittle anyone on our staff."
UPDATE: The Leader-Call reports gaining over twice as many new subscribers as subscribers lost to the controversy — with "almost all of them" coming from outside Mississippi. "We've probably had 400 phone calls [this week] and 99% of them have been supportive," Cegielski told Jim Romenesko.