The most recent New York Times Vows column has a plot — and a headline — right out of “Fleabag.”
Woman and priest meet.
Priest cannot pursue woman because he is a priest.
Priest begins to question his life choices.
But then, the Times article — She Married the Priest — diverges from the popular British tragicomedy: Catholic priest Jonathan Morris, who is also a Fox News analyst, abandons the cloth and marries ABC News investigative producer Kaitlyn Folmer. It’s pure wish fulfillment for “Fleabag” fans — and a tale of romance for those who haven’t seen the show.
And then you reach the third photo.
There are maskless people standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, craning over each other to snap a picture of the bride as she walks down the aisle. The article later notes — in the 41st of its 44 paragraphs — that there were approximately 200 guests in the cathedral that day. (It is also mentioned in a caption higher up.) And while the writer says that all guests were “socially distanced,” the photos tell a different story.
The wedding was held on Oct. 17, as coronavirus cases were beginning to spike again in New York City and almost everywhere else. When the article was published online on Friday, the United States was on the precipice of its worst coronavirus surge yet.
The Vows column “sets an example” for brides and grooms across the country, says Oniki Hardtman, owner of Oh Niki Occasions, a wedding-planning company based in Palm Beach, Fla. And while the New York Times wedding section has come under fire for disproportionately featuring the White and Ivy League-educated, couples still read the weekly story for wedding ideas and romantic inspiration. For couples on the fence about going through with their weddings during the pandemic, Hardtman says, this story might make them feel more comfortable moving forward.
“It’s an endorsement,” she says. “They might read it and think, ‘Well they did it. We should be able to do it, too.' ”
I know more about the Vows column than most. The New York Times covered my wedding to my husband, Robert, in 2019. (We are both, as it happens, White and Ivy League-educated.) I was stunned by the number of people who read the piece. Old neighbors, teachers and vague acquaintances called and emailed, thrilled that they had come across my name during their favorite Sunday morning routine.
The column has a wide readership, attracting non-newsy people who just want a little piece of love. Most of the Times’s coronavirus wedding coverage has met the moment: Since coronavirus stay-at-home orders began in March, most of the weddings selected for Vows have been held outdoors, with limited guest lists. Many have featured a virtual element, allowing more family and friends to join the festivities remotely.
Those restrictions seem to have been lifted for the Folmer-Morris wedding.
“The vast majority of weddings and relationships we cover have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, including by illness and tragedy,” says Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of communications for the New York Times. “Across America, people are making diverse and complicated choices, from postponing and canceling weddings to limiting their size to rushing ahead for medical or legal reasons.”
It can be hard to keep track of state rules around wedding size, says Hardtman: They vary enormously by state, and are constantly changing. New York had capped weddings at 50 people through the summer — until a judge ruled in late August that larger indoor weddings could move forward as long as they did not exceed 50 percent of the venue’s capacity.
The “Fleabag” wedding was legal, held in a cathedral that seats 2,400 people. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good idea, says Milchtein. She and her wife, JodyAnn Morgan, decided early on that they would have no guests at all.
“Why would we want this happy day for us just to go on and kill seven people,” she says, referring to a Maine wedding that prompted seven coronavirus-related deaths. None of the people who died actually attended the wedding, contracting it from guests after the event. “That sounds like a terrible way to start a life together.”
(Folmer did not respond to a request for comment.)
While it was “irresponsible” for Morris and Folmer to hold a 200-person indoor wedding, it was far more irresponsible for the New York Times to cover it, says Rose Mantag, a public relations specialist who reads the Vows column every week.
She’d seen high school friends post photos of their own 40- or 50-person weddings throughout the summer, she says. Whenever she saw those pictures on social media, she says, she’d think: “superspreader.” Montag couldn’t believe that the Times would glorify a much larger event in its pages, saying nothing about the danger it posed to other New Yorkers, like herself.
“Yes it’s a pretty wedding and a compelling story about marrying a priest,” she says. “But is this what we need to be hearing right now?” By featuring the wedding in Vows, she says, the Times is sending the message that this kind of gathering is “normal.”
Couples are looking to media outlets for guidance on what kind of gatherings are acceptable right now, says Hardtman.
Next to wedding stories in Vogue, Milchtein says, the Vows column is the “ultimate place” to go for wedding trends. When a particular wedding appears in Vows it’s “put on a pedestal,” she says. Many people reached out after the article was published, including a boutique hotel that offered her two free nights — “just because they saw my wedding in Vows.”
(I, sadly, was offered no such perk.)
There may have been a way to responsibly cover the Folmer-Morris wedding. The Times could have made the coronavirus a central part of the piece, says Hardtman, specifying exactly what precautions the couple had taken to make sure everyone was safe. Instead, social distancing was only noted briefly at the end of the story, Hardtman says — alongside photos where people are clearly not six feet apart.
Reading the story, Hardtman thought about all the couples who have canceled their weddings since March. Early on, many rescheduled their events for the fall, only to cancel them again. Some have been affected in more severe ways, losing loved ones to the coronavirus.
For those couples, she says, “this story would be very hard to read.”