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Facebook Prompts About-Face From Omaha World-Herald

A gay couple's Facebook group affects real change
Kristy Wilke (left) and Jessica Kitzman (right)
Published on August 31, 2010 : 1 comment

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In one view, this is simply the story of two women, Kristin Wilke and Jessica Kitzman, a newly engaged couple who were denied the opportunity to announce their engagement in the “Celebrations” section of the Omaha World-Herald. In another view, this is the story of a generation, weened on social media, inheriting a fight for social equality that, while once bloody, can now be waged non-violently, electronically.

In speaking with Ms. Wilke by phone, it’s clear that she never intended to use her engagement as a launch pad for social change. “My initial reaction was shock,” she says, in being denied the opportunity to list the engagement. “The thought had never crossed my mind that that would be the call we’d get from them…it never crossed my mind that this could be a policy that would exist in 2010.”

Rather than internalize the set back, Wilke reacted in a way as modern as the World-Herald’s policy was antiquated: she started a Facebook group. As this article is being written, over 2,500 people have joined in support of the couple, voicing their opinions, sharing links to the ongoing media coverage of the story, or silently asserting their preference through the present-day equivalent of a petition, affecting change with conviction and a mouse click.

The momentum it has gained has been unreal.” Wilke says she is “insanely” surprised by how supportive the Omaha community has been regarding this issue. “It speaks to the power of social media.”

And it speaks to how thin the wall is separating creators of media from their consumers. By last night, less than four days after Wilke and her family created the Facebook group, the masses had broken through that wall, forcing a reaction from Terry Kroeger, President of the Omaha World-Herald Co.

His written statement indicated a shift in company policy following the overwhelming support for Ms. Wilke and Ms. Kitzman:

Celebrations announcements regarding legal weddings, engagements for legal weddings or anniversaries of a legal marriage will be welcomed, regardless of the genders of the couple. We will not run announcements regarding commitment ceremonies, partnerships and other non-marriage unions, again regardless of gender.

He went on to state that, “Iowa and four other states as well as the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriages. We will publish Celebrations announcements of marriages from those jurisdictions.”

Does this change go far enough? “At first I didn’t know what to think,” says Wilke. “After awhile, I realized I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this was a victory. We affected change.”

While she concedes that “eventually the policy probably won’t exist anymore,” such are the victories by fits and starts that characterize social movements. Wilke stressed, “You have to go about this peacefully.”

Empirically, that is true. In this age when social capital is as valuable as capital investments, and infinitely more fluid, the quality and vitality of an idea is strength enough.

However, consider this quote from Mr. Kroeger’s statement: “We are choosing to recognize licensed marriages approved by states. That is in line with the historical standard set by society in this country.”

Is that really all we demand from our newspapers these days? Following the historical standard?

To Mr. Kroeger, a man I have never met but whose title I respect, I say this as an admirer of the craft: newspapers are dying.

The ability to publish the news is no longer a unique skill, and if this is to be a paper’s only function, its death will be drawn out but inevitable. In my opinion, the role of a newspaper now is to be the organ of social change. Through the concerted force of a small body of highly informed citizens, public policy and the course of public thought can be affected. By responding in a manner that essentially states, ‘when the world changes, we will change,’ Mr. Kroeger is abnegating the only function by which we can guarantee the long term survival of journalism and the newspaper industry: affecting change, not merely reporting it.

Have we been too slow in reacting to this matter? Maybe. But hateful? Never,” Kroeger states. His error, and the misappropriation of his apology, is not in heading a bilious news organization, it’s in heading a milquetoast one, a decision that may prove just as damning in the hard days that lie ahead.

As for Ms. Wilke and Ms. Kitzman, the “Celebrations” saga is no longer a personal matter. “It was never a huge painful issue for me,” says Wilke. It snowballed from the point that the couple hoped that “maybe we can get a couple dozen people to write letters” to the point that they have considered removing themselves from the discussion. “I don’t want people to think that we’re special in deserving this announcement” says Wilke, who has recently changed the name of the Facebook group she started to "United for Equal Rights in Nebraska" to reflect its new, broader mission.

Instead, she focuses on the outpouring of support she’s received: “We want to thank everyone that got behind us. I probably don’t know 98% of them. This came about from a peaceful protest that came about through the love of 2,000 plus people.”

If anything, this minor technicality—whether or not to print a congratulatory sentence or two in a local newspaper—raises the hope that in the future, ideological change will be a bloodless coup. Through social media, loving kindness, and peaceful confrontation, there has been a shift from disliking something, and being willing to die for it, to “Liking” something, and realizing you don’t have to.

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jordyAn writer since 2008, Jordy freely admits he's waiting for his golden parachute "anxiously." He microblogs @jordyclements + macroblogs


Jeff Wilke (not verified) says:

September 1, 2010 : 13 years 38 weeks ago

Jeff Wilke's picture

Great story, well written. Thanks for supporting our daughter and Jessica, our daughter to be.