November 28, 2023

No News from Doodlebug Island . . . by William F. Jordan


Those of us who edit newspapers in the Sedona area meet several times each year, not so much to form editorial bonds as to reassure ourselves that what we’re doing is important to a free and democratic society, and that journalistic triage is available should the wounds of battle prove amenable. Naturally, there is an abundance of kidding.

At the last meeting, for example, someone brought up the question of complaints, saying his reason for doing so was to laud the manner in which Charlie Huffington, editor of the Sedona Whisper, deals with them. Now, complaints are the bane of every editor’s life simply because they are as inevitable as rain, take valuable time to resolve, and because they can threaten the very existence of a paper. Those complaints dealing with subscription rates or delivery failures are fairly easily dealt with while perceptions of editorial bias, unintentional or otherwise, are always a crap shoot. People have a nasty habit of wanting to see their views reflected in the paper to which they subscribe, and they’re often not shy about contesting an issue.

The only defense is for a paper to announce in advance those positions it supports so subscribers can self-select, and not feel ambushed. It is for that reason I announce that the Doodlebug Island Run-on will be an advocate of women’s rights and sexual equality, while advocating against loosened gun laws and discriminatory legislation of any type. This doesn’t forestall all complaints, but it is its own form of mitigation.

But getting back to Charlie Huffington, he advertises himself as an advocate of those policies “that make sense!” so, for him and his newspaper, the question of exactly what makes sense and what doesn’t creates a free-for-all atmosphere past any means of redemption.

“Charlie naturally gets quite a few complaints,” said Vern Wilcross, the man who brought up the matter in the first place, and who now spoke admiringly, “and he has a brilliant way of dealing with them! He writes a three-page, single-space letter to the complainant in which he acknowledges receipt of the complaint, thanks him or her for voicing the issue so completely and with such cogency, then he launches into such matters as differing points of view, the paper’s position as arbiter of those views, historical policy held by local, statewide, and national figures over the span of the last hundred years, present trends among voters, positions that have evolved over time, positions that pundits predict will come into fashion within a given election cycle, and the fickle nature of issues once thought to be central to the human condition.

“Along the way, he might include references to Washington’s Farewell Address, the protective nature of the Fourth Amendment, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his wife’s recipe for mincemeat pie, and/or a parody of ‘Home On The Range’! The letter might contain references to Milton’s Aerogagitica—the defense of a free press—or include a soliloquy by Hamlet, all woven into a response that presumes to recognize and assuage the reader’s concern.

“The effect is that the complainant gets this detailed response, and the very mass of it tells him his concern has been heard, considered, and addressed even if he can’t find those exact passages that would assure him that it was. He searches and searches, convinced that in the midst of so much verbiage his concern must be imbedded. He might be tempted to ask for clarification regarding how one or more of the references could be thought to pertain to his concern, but he hesitates in the thought that if the brief nature of his original letter elicited such an outpouring, what might further inquiry bring? He or she subsides into quiescence.

“And this isn’t a resort to ‘boiler- plate’ fabrication. Each letter is its own composition dependent on circumstances occasioned by the original complaint. Charlie might allude to Humpty Dumpty in one letter as betokening the impossibility of restoring lost trust or mangled social relationships; while the next letter might begin with an analogy like: ‘an editor’s life is in some ways akin to that of a clay pigeon on a skeet range.’ The only constant is an invitation to write again should the occasion arise, and a further invitation to stop by for a chat. However, sincerely intended, his secretary records no corresponding visits.”

I heard no more; I was busy mentally composing a three-page letter to a nagging critic of my own.

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