Lou Ziegler column: The Forum did not ask the important question

We owe Robert Wetsch of West Fargo, an apology.

We owe Robert Wetsch of West Fargo, an apology.

Wetsch says he's not gay.

We take him at his word and believe Wetsch and readers are owed an explanation for how we reported something other than that.

In a front-page story May 8 we published a headline and sub-headline that said:

"Rights group hears man's complaint"


The sub-head, in smaller type, said:

"Says MeritCare co-workers discriminated against him for being gay"

The first paragraph of the story read:

"Fargo's Human Relations Commission will push for hate-crime laws after hearing pleas from a local man who says he was terrorized for being gay."

Another paragraph in the story said:

"According to the report filed with the state Department of Labor's Human Rights Division, co-workers last May began making derogatory remarks about Wetsch's sexual orientation."

In a written request to The Forum for correction or clarification, Wetsch stated:

"At no time did I state that I was discriminated against for being gay or that I was terrorized for being gay, and my complaint to the North Dakota Department of Labor does not mention sexual orientation.


"The complaint I made to the North Dakota Department of Labor and to the Fargo Human Relations Commission concerns conduct and activities directed against me by certain co-workers who apparently assumed I was gay."

One of our reporters covered the May Human Relations Commission meeting where Wetsch said about a year ago co-workers made sexually degrading comments about him. He said someone put Vaseline in his sunflower seeds. He received a cassette tape titled, "How Big of a Boy Are You?"

The last straw for Wetsch occurred in February when he received a sexually offensive e-mail at his home account. A picture of a man's genitals was attached to the e-mail.

Police traced the e-mail to one of Wetsch's co-workers, who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for his dealings against Wetsch.

Wetsch never told the Human Relations Commission he was gay, said Barry Nelson, commission chairman. Nelson told me it was the "perpetrator" and his e-mail that could have made the matter appear to be an issue of sexual orientation.

An investigative form used by the state Labor Department referred to the Wetsch case as one involving issues of "sex" and "retaliation."

In his charge of discrimination made to the state Labor Department, Wetsch stated:

"I was subjected to what I believed to be unwelcome sexual harassment ..."


Minutes of an April meeting of the human relations commission reported:

"Robert Wetsch presented the FHRC with a copy of a threatening e-mail that was sent to him by a fellow co-worker. The e-mail threatened Mr. Wetsch's ... life on the basis of his sexual orientation (file)."

The April minutes also reported others spoke against the hate e-mail sent to Wetsch, including a Fargo-Moorhead gay rights activist.

Another speaker was a Fargo police officer who, according to the minutes, made the point that "hate crime causes a group of people to be fearful because they are members of that group," the minutes state.

Our reporter inferred from this body of information that the case involved gay bashing and that it was a hate crime.

The reporter also interviewed Wetsch for about 30 minutes the day before the story appeared.

The reporter wrote the story fully believing Wetsch was harassed because of his sexual orientation.

How could we have avoided the mistake?


The reporter did an outstanding job obtaining various documents from the Labor Department and Human Relations Commission to research the story.

Despite feeling confident about the accuracy of the story based on the information in hand, the reporter now understands she should have gone the extra step of asking, "Are you gay?"

That's a tough question, but through experience we learn things aren't always as they appear.

I apologize to Robert Wetsch that we didn't ask the tough question in this case.

I hope this clarifies the situation, corrects the record and offers an explanation to readers on how this occurred.

Ziegler can be reached at

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