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Birney Imes; Wedding story on Page One causes furor

 

Birney Imes

 

Earlier this month two women were married in Laurel. Since same-sex marriage is not legal in Mississippi, they are not married, at least not in a legal sense. Still, there was a ceremony, cake and wedding gown and a love story. One of the women, Crystal Craven, has been battling brain cancer and has undergone three surgeries, the most recent just weeks before the wedding. 

 

The wedding was attended by family, friends and some of the staff from her doctor's office. Crystal's uncle performed the service. 

 

"This is true love," said Jessica Powell, the woman Craven married. "Love is love. It knows no gender." Powell's 6-year-old son, Aden, gave her away. 

 

A reporter from the Laurel Leader Call learned of the wedding and wrangled an invitation. The newspaper ran her story on its front page. Titled "Historic Wedding: Women wed in Laurel through smiles, tears."  

 

The newspaper's owner Jim Cegielski, expected some kickback from readers, but nothing like what he's seen. 

 

"We had an idea we would get hate calls and cancellations, but I had no idea of the volume of cancellations," Cegielski told me when we spoke by phone Thursday afternoon. To date the paper had received about 40 cancellations and many angry phone calls. 

 

The week after the story Cegielski in an editorial offered an explanation and defense of his newspaper's actions. 

 

"We were well aware that the majority of people in Jones County are not in favor of gay marriage," he wrote. "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." 

 

He continued: "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 towns and let them make their own judgments." 

 

Cegielski, a New Jersey native who has lived in Jones County for the past 17 years, has been fielding the phone calls from upset readers, most of who complained about the story's placement on Page One and the headline, "Historic Wedding." 

 

"You don't have to like something for it to be historic," he wrote. "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)." 

 

The storm might have blown over in a week or two but for Deep South Progressive, a website operated by Ashton Pittman, a University of Southern Mississippi journalism student. On Feb. 18 Pittman published an account of the story along with a harsh indictment of Leader Call readers. 

 

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow tweeted Pittman's story. From there it's taken off like a brush fire on a hot day. 

 

As of Thursday afternoon Cegielski had given interviews to newspapers in New Zealand, Australia, Belgium and across the country. He said he was surprised that only one other paper in Mississippi, the Northeast Daily Journal, had contacted him.  

 

"Our phones have blown up ever since," Cegielski told one interviewer. "We've probably had 400 phone calls and 99% of them have been supportive." The paper's website crashed. 

 

On the home front, it's a different story. Cegielski says he knows there are people in Laurel sympathetic to the paper, but he's not heard from them. 

 

"It's been ominously quiet," he said. 

 

Commenters to online reports have been uniformly critical of Mississippi and Leader Call readers and have praised the newspaper and its owner. The paper has also received encouragement in the form of a 100 new subscribers, all from out of state. 

 

"Now, this is a newspaper publisher I would have been proud to have worked for!" proclaimed a blogger for the Daily Kos, a national political website. He continues: 

 

"... The business of a newspaper is to make readers uncomfortable once in a while. The business of a newspaper is to tell readers what is going on in their towns and to do so as fairly as possible. The business of a newspaper is to take a town and shake it by the roots when necessary." 

 

Clearly, the Laurel Leader Call has done that, to the bemusement of its owner: "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." 

 

As we ended our phone conversation, Cegielski offered one more truism about the newspaper business: "If you're trying to please everyone, you're a lousy newspaper." 

 

Fortunately for Laurel that is not the case. 

 

Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at birney@cdispatch.com.

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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