Pioneer Press readers blast ‘Metrodome sex” update, and a reporter reflects

What is wrong with the Pioneer Press? Saturday’s rehash of the Metrodome sex story was not “news.” It was trash. Did John Brewer think it was funny or entertaining to question Lois Feldman’s mother and her neighbors? Was he afraid that not every one of her children’s friends had seen last year’s article, and so the sad story must be repeated? Is he so dense that the cold glares and lack of comment from the townspeople didn’t give him a clue as to the cruelty of what he was doing? That poor woman was intoxicated senseless with a combination of cold medication and alcohol, literally falling-down-drunk. As a result she was humiliated, shamed, and in her words, her “life was ruined.” Now she has been raped by the Pioneer Press and a “reporter” who should be working for a smutty supermarket tabloid. He is no journalist, and the Pioneer Press has sunk beyond low in an attempt to sell papers. It is no longer a responsible newspaper.

Hey Brewer, why don’t you try writing an article on actual newsworthy topics instead of reporting about this b.s.? Let these people move on with their lives. I used to believe the Pioneer Press did a better job at reporting actual news and giving the public information that is relevant to their lives, not this garbage. Tell you editors they have failed miserably with this assignment and they should be slapped in the face. What a great use of company funds.

John: In my 40 years as a newspaper reporter, I can’t recall refusing an assignment though there were more than a few I did reluctantly. You, finally, wrote the one story I would have refused to do. And you should have, too.

So why didn’t John Brewer just say no?

The Pioneer Press general assignment reporter acknowledges it wasn’t his idea to go down to Iowa for a one-year update on two Hawkeye fans caught having Metrodome bathroom sex at last year’s Gopher football game. The initial story (which Brewer also wrote) was a sensational hit-getter — Feldman, a married mother of three having blackout sex with a 27-year-old stranger in a public place.

But a follow-up? With a travel budget? For the readers who commented to the PiPress — and to me — the question “Where are They Now?” was more accurately abbreviated “WTF?”

I couldn’t help wincing, reading Brewer recount Feldman’s door-slam as he tried to ask her about an alcoholic blackout that made her a national laughingstock. I could imagine him trudging around Carroll, Iowa, trying to get people to talk about something they didn’t want to, and not having the justification that the subject was important.

“It was definitely on the tabloid-y side,” Brewer allows. “I think I described the process a few times as ‘soul-crushing.'”

I should mention at this point that Brewer is my cousin-in-law — one of my favorite relatives. I consider him one of the underrated writers in this market, with superb human-interest skills. He’s an honest and self-reflective dude, and has a spine. A few weeks before the Sexcapade story ran, he interviewed the family of Pfc. Kham Xiong, killed in the Fort Hood massacre. “You have to remember, [Sexcapade] represents less than 1 percent of the stories I do in a year,” he says.

Even though the story idea came from someone else, Brewer says he set forth without objection, or even thinking that much about it. “As a general assignment reporter, that’s just what you do.”

Brewer won’t say who came up with the idea, deferring to Editor Thom Fladung. Fladung says he doesn’t recall whose idea it was, “although suggesting that we follow up on such a high-profile, highly read story would be a very normal suggestion to make. My bet is that it came out of the informal brainstorming we sit around doing all the time. Yes, I signed off on it.”

The editor has zero regrets. “I signed off on it because I was curious to learn whatever happened to the people involved in a story that was one of the bigger ‘talkers’ I’ve seen here. Then, I thought John developed it into an interesting story about how this played out in an entire town.”

As for the travel budget, Fladung says, “As I see it, if you decide to do the story, the only way to do the story is to go to the town and check it out.”

Newsroom reaction didn’t universally line up behind the editor. Says Brewer, “The first moment I realized it was dicey was when I talked to other people in the newsroom. I told them I was going to Carroll, Iowa, and they said, ‘You’re kidding.'”

Brewer did the reporter thing, checking court records for the case’s ultimate disposition. He called both participants’ attorneys and were told they wouldn’t talk; he still banged on Feldman’s door. As Fladung notes, Brewer was able to construct an interesting narrative out of her hometown’s past 12 months, replete with a hilarious “Sharpie bandit” case that superseded the Sexcapade.

But most didn’t seem to care much about how Carroll, Iowa was doing. That seemed the afterthought; the premise was the problem.

How fierce was the blowback? While the story remained one the most-read things on Twincities.com from Friday to Monday morning, two versions received 240 comments, almost all lacerating.

Says Brewer, “I always say not to check my voicemail or email on weekends, but that story clearly touched a nerve.” Before Monday, he cleared 20 emails (some excerpted above) and seven voicemails communicating the displeasure in no uncertain terms.

“One guy was happy,” Brewer says drily. “A guy from Carroll who was happy to see the town in a story, and see pictures. That’s the one I’m focusing on.”

He’s not being cheeky; while Fladung seems content with the paper’s decision, Brewer seems singed. “I like to be liked by people — I’m a nice guy from White Bear Lake in my mind,” he says. “It wasn’t that people just didn’t like the story, they didn’t like me doing the story.”

Does Brewer wish he hadn’t done the piece? “I’m still trying to figure it out,” he says.

Would it be fair to call him wounded by the reaction? “I’d call it a wounding challenge. It will benefit me in the future, whether I’m knocking on a door, or being a little bit more sensitive to the story development process.”

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/23/2009 - 04:19 pm.

    “I like to be liked by people — I’m a nice guy from White Bear Lake in my mind,”

    Well, speaking as a nice guy from da Big City who is used to covering topics that make people really dislike him, I think you gotta few things to get over before you know what a real story is. I hope you don’t take that too personally, but I’ll understand if you do.

  2. Submitted by Paul Gustafson on 11/24/2009 - 08:30 am.

    Eric lectures John Brewer – “you gotta few things to get over before you know what a real story is.”

    I think you have consider Brewer’s body of work for the PP before making a comment like that, Eric. If you did, you’d be embarrassed.

    I think Brewer knows what a real story is. I think he’s a good reporter. And he’s actually reflective about what he does. More reporters could stand to be. We’d all be better off for it.

    Having knocked on more than a few doors in search of an interview from people involved in tragedies in 27 years at the Strib, I know the ambivalent feeling many reporters get – and should – about that part of the work.

    Then, there’s the reporters who puff up their chests and say, “I’m one tough dude because people really hated me for that story.” I never understood that mindset. Seems a bit juvenile to me.

  3. Submitted by David Hanners on 11/24/2009 - 09:22 am.

    Erik Hare’s comments are really uncalled for. While one may debate the merits of reporting and publishing the story, attacking John Brewer stinks. John is a trusted colleague, and I dare say he probably knows quite a bit more about writing for a daily newspaper than Mr. Hare does. If we were talking about chemical engineering or sales, Mr. Hare might have the upper hand, but we’re not. We’re talking about daily journalism, and in that discussion, I’ll side with John any day of the week.

  4. Submitted by Boa Lee on 11/24/2009 - 10:39 am.

    Perhaps we should also consider the possibility that something must’ve been wrong with all of us who read that story one year ago, forwarded it to our friends, laughed about it and made it so popular that the PiPress newsroom thought it appropriate to do a one-year update. Why did we care so much about two adults having sex in a Metrodome bathroom back then? Headlines are there for a reason. If you don’t think it’s right, don’t click on the story and don’t read it. That’s a better signal to the newsroom than to gasp and shake your finger.

  5. Submitted by Jane McClure on 11/24/2009 - 10:43 am.

    I think John has done many good stories but I’d have to question the time and resources spent sending any reporter to Carroll for this story. That’s a question for editors and not the reporter.
    I hear from a lot of folks who wonder why stories don’t get covered, why there’s no longer a neighborhoods section, etc. They’re readers – they don’t understand newspaper economics. But they miss what they used to get and when you tell them that there is ONE reporter at city Hall when there used to be as many as five or six in the press room, you just get a blank look.

  6. Submitted by Gary Thaden on 11/24/2009 - 11:07 am.

    Has the public and the media sunk that low. The original piece was not a story, thus the remake is not. How is somebody embarrassing themselves a news story? It may be titillating, but it is not news.

  7. Submitted by Jason Walker on 11/24/2009 - 11:20 am.

    Boa is exactly right.
    My main reaction was not that the story was inappropriate, though it certainly may be. My question was, how in the hell can the financially embattled PiPress afford to send staffers out of state to cover something so inconsequential when there are stories right here that they’re probably missing as a result? Not a good decision. But, hindsight …

  8. Submitted by Molly Priesmeyer on 11/24/2009 - 11:35 am.

    Perhaps a more accurate question to be asked is not about Brewer himself or his motivation/reflection, but why a story like this is important for the PiPress and why it was one of the most-read stories over the weekend.

    Are newspapers in the business solely to generate page views they can pass on to their advertisers? And are reporters then forced to come up with some sort of narrative that fits that agenda?

    McDonald’s has sold tens of billions of burgers. It doesn’t mean they’re good for us or the environment. Yet the media has become so blinded by generating page views that it doesn’t care what its producing, as long as people are reading it.

    I don’t think the blame lies with the reporter. It provokes much larger questions about the ultimate purpose/motivation of the PiPress newsroom. Which is…what exactly?

  9. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 11/24/2009 - 12:37 pm.

    Every blue moon or so, a journalist and/or news outlet makes or creates a gaffe that is far reaching and very inappropriately non-germane to the world at large.

    The first year anniversary follow up of the “Metrodome sex” imbroglio from a Pulitzer Prize paper like the Pioneer Press. After reading the updated story I came away stunned, disgusted, and dismayed that in view of the environs and issues around us that the Pioneer Press published such “newsie” paparazzi-style tabloid trash.

    The news damage is again done at what cost to the scandal’s participants? What were the moral values or ethical changes to the general populace’s human condition that resulted in the story’s rehash or the sordid details? If wiser thinking prevailed would this story prevailed in any other righteous newspaper? Is this really a cogent news story?

    Ok, other than escapism from the daily hard news, this story serves no purpose whatsoever. The folks who wrote, edited, and published this story certainly can do much better than this.

    If my old school journalism mentors; I’m a former journalist and news photographer; who taught me to tell and/or show a story with facts, objectivity, and humanity could comment their answers would not be for publication. What’s the world of news gathering coming to?

    I have not personally or directly chastised the reporter involved nor singled out any editor involved. They have to live with their consciences and decisions regarding this matter. Was it worth it or the trouble it germinated?

    However, I expect better from the Pioneer Press and/or any newspaper to tell me and report the whole news story with the facts, objectivity, and humanity. [If I want ‘tabloidism’ I can go to any “ersatz” news blog on the web.]

    If newspapers fail in their traditional efforts to report the news and the human condition then the principles of the “Fourth Estate” have eroded and have become meaningless. I as a reader or listener deserve no less.

    Enough said.

  10. Submitted by Paul Scott on 11/24/2009 - 01:25 pm.

    Who needs the Onion when you have this, right? I must say, as the story went on it seemed more and more Jackie Harvey-ish with every quote from some decent Iowan dutifully taken down by the seemingly non self-aware reporter — unintentionally reflective of the self-degrading daily news gathering process, the thin cover taken to write about dumb things in the name of popular interest and the larger fact of a warped value system.

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