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.”