Job often requires taking it on the chin
I can recall so clearly the first irate reader call I took. I was a lowly newbie reporter then, not an editor, but that's why they were calling me: I had messed up by not calling the story subject for comment in a story about a controversial project they were involved in.
They were not calling me to task for every little thing published (or not published) in the paper as would happen once I was named editor and the all responsibility ended at my desk.
I grew many, many layers of skin in the years following that phone call, out of necessity. Any newspaper editor can tell you that venom-filled personal attacks are the norm in their workaday lives. You learn to cut through the hyperbole and listen to the complaint — taking it onboard if there is validity to it — and leave the irrational personal digs behind.
A perfect example of how these incidents happen occurred recently when I arrived at work to find a voicemail from an irate Wilsonville woman who had called me weeks earlier with a news tip about an issue she was having with city government.
In the poison-dripping voicemail she took me to task, lambasting my "low character" and accusing me of blatant bias against her and her issue.
This was the same woman who called weeks earlier to request that one of our reporters look into a problem in her senior housing facility with parking. It seems there was never enough parking for the residents, and with contractors then working on the facility, there was even less parking.
When we checked with City Hall we discovered that the City of Wilsonville had given this facility special dispensation to build the apartments with much less parking than was usually required.
The whys of this were not clear, and I gave my reporter the green light to look into the issue and contact city planners and the original caller (and other residents of the facility if possible).
But by the time the reporter started digging and connected with the original caller (who had no voicemail machine to leave a message) she had convinced herself we were ignoring the news tip and showing our "bias" against low-income senior citizens.
She had been preparing a letter to the editor on the topic but then left me an angry voicemail asking that we not publish it, as we could not be "trusted." She also refused to speak to the reporter.
As is common when people set their cap against a media outlet, things spiraled out of control from there. She found demons under every rock, behind every story we published.
One week she left me another nasty voicemail, taking me to task for publishing op-eds on the opinion page written by out-of-area sources. Surely that meant we were selectively withholding the submissions by well-intentioned Wilsonville folks like her, she theorized, again chastising us for "discrimination" against low-income residents.
In truth, if you see out-of-area opinion pieces on the Wilsonville Spokesman or West Linn TIdings pages it's because not enough local residents care to share their views through the newspaper.
It's so rare that we decline to publish a local submission that I can count the times on one hand (in my four years editing the Spokesman and Tidings). But in her view, after determining I am the spawn of Satan and the paper is the work of the devil, the lack of local opinion in the paper was a sign of evil deeds.
I have more or less resigned myself to being a lightning rod in my profession, of having my intentions second-guessed (almost always wrongly) and my morals questioned. It seems to come with the territory.
I have been shocked by the venom that comes with these detractors and the level of personal, not professional, attacks they'll stoop to, but I can't say I am surprised anymore.
I'd like to think that the adults who interact with the paper have the common sense to ask questions before assuming ill intent and realize that it's impossible to know what is in someone's heart until you actually converse with them.
Leslie Pugmire Hole is editor of the West Linn Tidings and the Wilsonville Spokesman.
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