Err apparent

I’ve learned to expect angry feedback from election issues. That’s par for the course when endorsements are involved. Sure enough, after last week’s primary preview, a reader left a voicemail blasting “your hit piece on John Byrne.” He said the Butte County Republican Party endorsed both Steve Lambert (our endorsee for District 4 supervisor) and Byrne (who we implied had not received the endorsement). He also said we were wrong to say that Byrne chaired the party’s central committee.

Regardless of Byrne’s status, I think it’s odd that his compatriots would affirm a rival. Still, that doesn’t trump the fact our story imparted erroneous info, which I regret.

I received many more—and much angrier—responses to a letter in that issue: “Backstory of Israel,” writer’s name withheld. Only a few people wrote for publication; others didn’t want to dignify the opinion by addressing it. The missives included:

How could you publish that letter? It is full of ridiculous assertions. And then you allow the author of this drivel to escape having his name associated with it! Are you turning the Letters section into a Tell It to the E-R?

• The letter can only be called ranting hate-mail. Would such a letter be published in your paper about any other minority group? In Yiddish, we call this a “shande.”

When I responded personally to these e-mails, someone conveyed what I wrote to others in the community:

The decision to let the author conceal his identity was unequivocally the worst lapse in journalistic ethics that I’ve encountered in my eight years of living in Chico. I have heard via the grapevine your reasoning: that the letter-writer claimed he was worried about retaliation. If that is the truth—and I do not believe it is (although I believe you believe it)—then at the very least you could have offered this rationale just below the letter.

You owe the Jewish community (actually the human race) an apology and a retraction. Instead you have tried to somehow “explain” your decision by stating that you “spot checked” some facts and your “teammate” was absent. You expect your readers to be smart enough to know absurdity and see leaps in logic, but the same standard of quizzing does not apply to you?

First, regarding identity, the original letter writer previously wrote on a different topic and got threatened with violence. Security is my key criterion for anonymity, which I rarely grant to letter-writers (let alone news sources). If I liked veiled screeds, I wouldn’t have decried Craigslist’s “rants and raves” last month.

The heart of the matter, actually, is whether the letter merited publication at all, attributed or not.

The writer makes points that have hit the national discourse (i.e. Pastor John Hagee) yet jumps to conclusions many people, including myself, wouldn’t. I often run opinions I don’t agree with, in order to reflect an array of perspectives. There’s value in knowing how others think, and I consider Letters an ongoing dialogue—people can respond instantly online and promptly in print.

Just as I don’t claim a monopoly on wisdom, I don’t believe that truth only resides atop the hierarchy. Our newly promoted managing editor (the absent teammate noted above) says she wouldn’t have run the letter, and the “backstop” editor wishes he’d cast a more critical eye on it.

In retrospect, I agree with them both, and readers, too. The letter presented interpretation as information and ran without any editorial explanation. There’s a fine line between unpopular and offensive opinions; this crossed that line, and I am sorry I didn’t second-guess my decision until after the fact.

So, to those who feel let down, please accept my apology—and my pledge to keep learning from experience.