Every day, I get a call from someone who starts the conversation with, “I don’t know if you’re the person I need to talk to, but …,” and I usually try to help the person.
This is in addition to calls from people who know I am the “idiot,” “leftist” or “disgrace to journalism” who is responsible for this “slanted,” “hateful,” “sickening” newspaper — actual words on my voicemail last week by a woman who ID’d herself only as a “fifth-generation San Antonian.”
Actually, madam, I’m not responsible, but to get to today’s point: Last week I met Jean and Michael Aratingi, who moved here from New Jersey in 2008 and wanted to know what I do.
So does John Igo, who’s lived here all his life, who engages me almost daily, who taught generations of students how to put words together properly and who has a library named for him. And, probably, so do some E-N staffers. So here goes:
Ian Mayes, the readers’ editor at The Guardian, a British newspaper, when I became the Express-News’ public editor, saw himself as the readers’ ally, who “receives and investigates complaints … about accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste in news coverage — and recommends remedies …”
Byron Calame, then public editor at the New York Times, described us this way: “We’ve been in the business long enough to have made every mistake it’s possible for a reporter to make, and we hope we’ve learned from all of them.” (I plead guilty.)
It sounds straightforward, but the reality is the issues we face are not black and white or boring. My first column explained how the Jan. 4, 2006, Express-News Page 1 story said, “Miracles happen: 12 miners survive,” when the reality was only one miner survived the accident in the Sago, W.Va., mine.
I’ve dealt with suicides, plagiarism, a ghost-writing scandal, photos that readers found too saucy or inaccurate, including one of a local Marine who was killed in Iraq and whose grieving parents awoke to find the Express-News used someone else’s photo to illustrate the report of their son’s death.
I’ve explained to readers why daily stock reports and TV grids were reduced, why the actual size of the paper was reduced, why Billy Graham‘s column and the “Mallard Fillmore” cartoon were taken out (and quickly put back in) and why our Page 1 story on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, “Never forgotten,” forgot to name three San Antonio women who were killed in the terrorist attacks.
If this makes us look like buffoons, we are not. Publishing what amounts to a complex short novel every day requires speed, intellectual dexterity and can and does foment errors. Owning up to mistakes gives us credibility; learning from them makes the Express-News a better paper. The goal every day is to put out a perfect paper, but this is an imperfect business.
The late James J. Kilpatrick, as close to perfect as a journalist can be, once said, “Errors are like cockroaches in the newspaper world. … They creep in no matter what we do. Believe me, for every one that crawls across a page, a hundred more are squished.”
Based on the ugly McCain-Obama race in 2008, with the tea party and Occupy Wall Street crowds now added to the palette, the clever cottage industry of producing Internet misinformation increasing the noise and the wicked way Republican presidential candidates are attacking each other, the 2012 political campaigns may be the nastiest ever. And you’ll need a daily newspaper to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So let me hear from you. That is what I do. The desk is open; the public editor is in.