A no-win call

Last night, when I finally got a moment to check phone messages (which I did instead of working out, which is what I should have done), I heard one of the sort that is a no-win situation for all concerned.

It was an extremely distraught woman, who was upset because something had been in the paper involving her husband, and someone had written a letter to the editor about the issue in question, and the letter had been critical of her husband. It ran sometime over the weekend.

The lady was upset about a number of things. The newspaper’s offenses were legion in her mind. The call had come in to the publisher’s office early Monday, and his assistant had forwarded it to the publisher, the executive editor (who is responsible for all of the newspaper except the editorial pages), and me. One got the impression that the letter was her last straw, and she was very, very, very upset with us for publishing it. She took it personally.

In the course of the call, she said something one often hears on such calls, along the lines of, if you want to know what sort of man my husband is, you should ask me, or one of the many people who know him and admire him. Of course, there’s no way to explain to someone who’s hurting like that that she’s talking about something that is outside our purview. No one in the editorial department had sought to do anything with regard to her husband. No one was writing about him, or seeking comment of any kind about him. We received a letter  expressing an opinion, and we ran it. Just a letter among many. That’s what letters to the editor are for — to express a broad swath of opinion other than our own, on a broader scope of issues than we will ever get around to writing about.

Here’s the really bad part: When you get a call like this, you want to do something to help the person. But what do you do? You can’t unpublish the letter; it’s out there — even assuming that we would do so (I have no idea; since its impossible, there’s no use speculating). She suggests a remedy, couching it in the form of yet another accusation toward us, another count in the long indictment of ill will that she imagines we hold toward her husband. This is a very common feature in this sort of phone call: She claims that we have received letters sticking up for her husband, but intentionally, because we are so hateful, not published them. Well, I knew that was dubious when I heard it; but when I heard it there was no one around to check the facts with, so it had to wait until today.

As I thought, we had received two or three letters critical of the lady’s husband, but none defending him. We had no interest in running any more letters criticizing him — indeed, no interest in more letters on the subject, except that we would have been happy to run one saying what a great guy he is, if only because it would ease this woman’s pain, and hurt no one. Sure, we could call her and tell her that there were no letters saying good things about her husband so she needed to rustle some up, but what do you suppose that would accomplish, other than making her feel worse? Yeah, it might stop her from badmouthing us to anyone who would listen (and might not, since she might not believe it), but hey — we’re in the business of being criticized. We can take a certain amount of that, unjust as it would be. To tell her that those friends who assured her they were writing us to set the record straight were lying, or merely hadn’t followed through on their intention, would be a lot more painful to her than any amount of bad talk out there could be to us.

So I decided we would wait a couple of days, and see if any positive letters come in. If they don’t, I might call the lady — but I will hesitate to do so, because I really don’t want her to get upset all over again.

A few minutes after I made that decision, Warren Bolton (I had forwarded the call to my associate editors) came in with a letter that took her side, but didn’t ever get around to saying anything positive about her husband. It was just a diatribe against the newspaper — essentially a rant, including a word or two we would not run in a family newspaper. While it made reference to the fact that the husband’s character is different from the way the writer perceived him as having been portrayed, it did not elaborate. It did not tell us in any way what a good guy he was; it was too occupied with what bad guys we were. And it wasn’t even particularly explanatory on that point. It would stir the pot further, but not accomplish the goal.

So we’re still looking for a letter defending the man. We’ll run that, assuming it is an acceptable letter by the usual standards (which are not terribly stringent). We have no other interest in the subject. But until such a letter arrives, there’s nothing we can do.

Disappointed in this post without a denouement? Well, my purpose in writing it was to provide another glimpse into the way the editorial page works, which is one of the main reasons I started the blog. If there’s a moral to the story, it is this: If you hear someone tell you that we are seeking and publishing letters on one side of a subject, and suppressing opposing views, doubt it. I can’t think of a case when we have ever done that, and I can’t imagine why we ever would. The motives that people imagine when they accuse us of such make sense to them — because of their own emotional involvement or point of view on the subject — but not to us. For us, having differing, publishable views is always a good thing. But we have to receive them to publish them.

One thought on “A no-win call

  1. Wally Altman

    Thanks for the post, Brad. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I always enjoy getting a little insight into what’s behind the editorial page.

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