The Laurel Leader-Call is a small newspaper in rural Jones County, Mississippi. The paper is published three times a week and has a print circulation of approximately 8000. It is not exactly a major player in American media, or even Mississippi. Recently, the paper has found itself attacked for its front page reporting of the county’s first gay marriage. Despite their small size the paper has displayed the sort of courage and integrity that is currently too often missing in American journalism.
On February 2, 2013 Crystal Craven and Jessica Powell exchanged wedding vows. On February 7, 2013, the Laurel Leader-Call reported the story on their front page under the headline: Historic Wedding. That’s when the backlash against the paper began. People were calling the paper, sending emails, commenting on the paper’s Face Book page and at least 15 people were so outraged that they canceled their subscriptions. Remember, same sex marriage is not legal in the State of Mississippi. The couple knows that their marriage is not officially recognized by Mississippi. Crystal Craven has been diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer and with the very real possibility that she might die soon she wanted to marry the person she loves. The paper reported on the wedding and called it historic since it was the first of its kind to take place in Jones County. The reaction of the public was swift, angry and predictable.
The owner of the paper has not backed down or offered any apologies to anyone who claims to have been ‘offended’ at the coverage of the wedding. Jim Cegielski, is the owner of the Laurel Leader-Call. He ignored the controversy for almost two weeks before he finally responded with a very reasoned editorial on February 16, 2013. His entire response is worth reading and can be found here. I am in complete agreement with him when he states “…any decent newspaper with a backbone cannot base decisions on whether to cover a story based on whether the story will make people angry.” Journalism is supposed to have an adversarial relationship with the people it is covering. There should be a different mindset between an entertainment reporter who wants to interview a movie star and a reporter who wants to interview a politician. Too often in today’s journalism, that line is blurred.
Finally, Mr. Cegielski has earned my respect as a leader who stands up for his employees when they are attacked. He ends his reply by saying:
“You have every right to cancel your subscription. Fifteen of you went that route and we’re sorry that you’ll be missing all of the great things we print. But you have no right to berate and belittle anyone on our staff. They are a fine group of people who will continue to work to serve the good people of this community to the best of their ability.”
Mr. Cegielski understands what it means to be a journalist and a leader. I believe in the power of the press. I believe that journalism has a very important role to play in a democracy. In my opinion, American journalism has completely abdicated its duty to keep the citizenry informed about our government, our country and the world. The integrity of this small newspaper in Mississippi is to be commended. American journalists………please look to the Laurel Leader-Call for your job description.