I was reminded recently of an incident that happened when I was still working over in Indiana on the banks of Lake Michigan. The guy didn't even open with the usual niceties. He jumps onto my voice mail and starts right in.
''This is John Stiles, please leave a message after the beep.'' To tell the truth I hate those things and from the sound of this guy he did, too: ''This is (name withheld) and I just read your (pause) little article in the paper. ''I'd like to know just when you're gonna quit this (another long pause) malicious behavior toward people is the only way I can describe what you're doing. It's more like the National Inquirer than any real newspaper.''
Now, obviously, the guy's really ticked. You can always tell that when somebody starts pausing to find just the right phrase and then finally comes up with a word they wouldn't use in a normal conversation to save their lives. ''I don't understand,'' he trudges on, ''how people can read this drivel you go on with. And I really feel sorry for the people you write about. ''You're the reason I don't have a subscription to this newspaper,'' he adds. ''I just don't know how people can believe the things you write.''
According to my voice mail, the call was made at a couple of minutes before six in the morning. Guess he was expecting me in a trifle early, or not at all. However, I did return his call. I ended up leaving a message on his machine. Of course, that was where the entire dispute died for lack of a second.
Then, shortly after that incident, there were all the individuals who were so offended by the photograph of a drowning victim we ran on our front page. Now on this count I am more than willing to admit that there are news photos that cross the bounds of taste. But, much like the now famous representations of the Viet Cong sapper being executed in the streets of Saigon, the young girl with her clothing burnt off by napalm, the gory depiction of certain frames of the Zapruder film in Dallas, the dead baby in ther arms of a firefighter in Oklahoma City and countless others, sometimes the best journalism is not in good taste. You know, if there's an award for meaningless gestures in this world, I say we seriously consider those individuals who cancel their newspaper subscriptions in protest of stories, pictures and/or columns they don't like. Yeah, and standing right behind them on the platform should be all those indignant souls who don't subscribe because of the things people like me write, but can still recite chapter and verse every time I've blasphemed them, their family, precious friends and/or beliefs. You know, I should get a cut of all those single copy sales I've fostered in much this same manner throughout my career.
I've been at several publications in my nearly 30 years in this business where people really think they're making a serious political statement with such actions. One night in Pontiac, where I was executive editor, a group of 60 subscribers at a political wake signed a petition agreeing to dump their newspaper subscriptions because their chosen candidate for county sheriff was soundly thrashed at the polls. They believed, I think mistakenly, that something I had written during the campaign was responsible for their candidate's defeat. Funny how none of this is ever their fault, always mine. Two weeks after the ceremonial petition signing our single copy sales had skyrocketed, almost doubling over the period. You see it'd mean a little more if those who make these grand gestures could also maintain the boycott that is implied within. If you're going to make a point to come into or call the office and stop the delivery of the newspaper in a snit over something contained therein, why would you go out and plunk down 50 cents per copy to keep up on your reading? It's amazing how addictive it can be to read offensive items about yourself or close friends and allies, ain't it?
Smoking cigarettes, eating chocolate and reading newspaper columns that make fun of you or your friends. They all seem to have some remarkable attraction in common. These aggrieved individuals are always so indignant but can quote you every offensive line, just like they read it not once but two or three times, which they probably did.
I'm also amazed by public officials who believe that they can avoid bad press simply by refusing to provide comments. Then there are always those who make an art out of playing phone tag. These of course are the ones who never quite have the nerve to offer a ''No comment.'' Meanwhile, those who just flat refuse comment are a little braver, but not much smarter. I can promise that rather than avoid bad press, this particular approach will usually attract it like honey draws flies.
Actually, newspapers should take all these ''I'm stopping my subscription'' protesters at their word. ''All right buddy, put the newspaper down and raise your hands over your head,'' orders the officer, speaking to the man seated on the park bench on a balmy summer afternoon. ''Do you have a subscription to that newspaper? Or are you reading someone else's copy?'' continues Sgt. I. C. Ewe of the State Paper Police. ''Why officer, I just found this publication lying here when I sat down. I assure you, I'd never subscribe to this salacious rag.'' ''Look pal, I haven't got time to listen to your lame excuses. Either show me some proof of subscription or stand up, hand me that newspaper, turn around and leave.''
Look at it like this, if you cancel your subscription and then try and read the paper on the sly by purchasing it out of a machine, it'll cost you more than if you have somebody deposit it on your front porch each and every issue. So, pay us now, or pay us more, later.
Hey Chief, I'd say I'm in line for a little raise here, if you get my drift, and I'm sure that you do.