In light of well-documented circulation troubles, editors at the Washington Post are working hard to come up with compelling copy for each day’s edition. They’re trying to cut the fat from bloated news stories, finding creative ways to package the news, and even instituting a new electronic forum on which staffers can critique the newspaper.
Yet sometimes the route to a more lively paper requires no enterprise at all.
In recent weeks, the Post’s Metro section has covered the extraordinary story of the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, in Anacostia. Wilson is in the news because he made some inflammatory remarks about lesbians in a recorded July 3 sermon. The Washington Blade first detailed Wilson’s preachings, but the Post has carefully chronicled the controversies that they have generated.
And in each iteration, the Post has taken choice excerpts from Wilson’s remarks. For example: “We live in a time now brothers have been so put down, can’t get a job. Lot of the sisters making more money than brothers, and it’s created problems in families. That’s one of the reasons our families [are] breaking up and that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians” (“Activists Condemn ‘Lesbians’ Sermon,” 7/16).
And this classic: “Lesbianism is about to take over our community. I’m talking about young girls. My son in high school last year tried to go to the prom. He said: ‘Dad, I ain’t got nobody to take to the prom because all the girls in my class are gay. Ain’t but two of ’em straight, and both of them ugly’” (“Million Man Follow-up Struggles for Unity,” 7/24).
Wilson’s sermon, believe it or not, reached even greater extremes of outrage. Yet the Post took a pass on those parts. Readers got only the cryptic shorthand, as executed in a July 18 item: “He then discussed a gay sexual encounter in graphic and derogatory terms.”
That clicking sound you heard was thousands of Post readers summoning Google to tell them what the Post wouldn’t.
Top Metro editor Robert McCartney reports no debate among his peers about printing Wilson’s racier comments. “When we saw this, we all agreed instantly that this was not something that we would be printing,” he says. That decision was grounded in a provision of the Post’s style manual that advocates “great care” with material “regarded as obscene, profane or blasphemous.” The manual says to omit the obscenities “except when they are relevant to the story.”
“We aim to publish a family newspaper,” says McCartney.
The Post’s prudishness stems from one of the principles of legendary Post Publisher Eugene Meyer, who declared: “As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.”
It’s a fine policy, except when the G-rated imperative clashes with another of the Post’s Meyer-inspired principles: “The newspaper shall tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it, concerning the important affairs of America and the world.”
Herewith, the case for publishing the complete version of the Wilson sermon:
It’s in the public interest. Wilson runs one of the city’s most powerful churches and regularly plays kingmaker for city politicians (see this week’s Loose Lips, p. 8). Union Temple claims a congregation in excess of 8,000 people. Surely, then, folks need to know that this man said the following: “Any time somebody got to slap some grease on your behind and stick something in you, it’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that.”
If you can print “Fuck yourself,” you surely can print “blood vessels.” In June 2004, the Post reported on an unpleasant exchange between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy on the Senate floor. Cheney ended the encounter when he said, “Fuck yourself.” The Post printed the profanity, though not on the front page. So what’s wrong with printing the following passage? “You got blood vessels and membranes in your behind. And if you put something unnatural in there, it breaks them all up. No wonder your behind is bleeding. It’s destroying us.”
It’s funny. Gay-rights groups aren’t laughing over Wilson’s remarks, but they were nothing if not amusing. At a paper that’s running a decadeslong deficit on whimsy and humor, this Wilson riff has to make the cut: “But when you get down to this thing, women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain’t real. That thing ain’t got no feeling in it. It ain’t natural.” Throw in this one, too: “You can’t make a connection with two screws. It takes a screw and a nut!”
The Common Denominator gives a great deal to the community—high-school sports coverage, a comprehensive calendar of community events, and in-depth coverage of D.C. neighborhoods. The abundance of local news in each biweekly issue, it seems, ends up crowding out the ads.
So now it’s time for the community to give a little back to the Common Denominator.
Over the past week, Dupont Circle schools activist Debby Hanrahan has filled her living room with antiques, jewelry, a rocking chair, and some “beautiful French bicycles.” It’s all going to appear at a heavily pedestrianed spot at 17th and Q Streets NW, where Hanrahan this Sunday will hold a rummage sale for the benefit of the newspaper.
Hanrahan says she’d be “thrilled” to collect as much as $3,000 to help Common Denominator Editor and Publisher Kathy Sinzinger pay some bills. “She is, as far as I know, the only paper in town without big money behind her,” says Hanrahan.
Sinzinger will confirm that much. Since launching the publication in June 1998, says Sinzinger, she has gone into debt to keep it chugging along. “I would be happy if this newspaper would even break even,” she says.
Unlike other neighborhood papers in town, the Common Denominator charges readers 25 cents per copy, a transaction that takes place through the paper’s street boxes and retail locations in the city. Sinzinger would like to boost her circulation of 10,000 biweekly editions but says that D.C. chain stores—including CVS and Giant—won’t stock her brand. “This is the only paid-circulation local newspaper in Washington, D.C., that you cannot buy in a chain store here. Why is that? Why won’t the chain stores carry the hometown newspaper?” she asks.
Sunday’s rummage sale continues a very public drama on the paper’s fate. Last October, Sinzinger penned an editorial in her paper titled “Losing Hope,” in which she claimed to have “grown bitter and disillusioned by the lack of support for local small businesses that I have found within the District’s government and business community…
“I can no longer promise that there will be a next issue of The Common Denominator,” continued the editorial.
In response, a group of community activists and politicians last December chipped in with contributions to keep the paper alive. “It paid enough for a month’s rent or an issue’s printing, which was certainly appreciated, but it wasn’t a godsend,” says Sinzinger, who is quick to point out that she has played no role in organizing either fundraiser. “I wouldn’t want my staff to know who these amounts of money are coming from.” —Erik Wemple
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Gus D’Angelo.