What would normally be considered a relatively non-controversial story became extremely controversial because this year the final day of Ramadan fell on Sept. 11. Topping things off for the paper was the fact that it planned on running all of its Sept. 11th anniversary stories in the Sept. 12th Sunday paper.
The response was instantaneous and furious. Letter writers, e-mailers, and callers were uniformly upset that the paper did not have a story on the front page about the 9/11 anniversary. And many were upset that there was a story about Ramadan on the front page that day.
On Sunday, 9/12, the day the paper planned to give extensive coverage of the 9/11 anniversary, the paper ran the following apology:
We made a news decision on Friday that offended many readers and we sincerely apologize for it.
Many saw Saturday’s front-page story and photo regarding the local observance of the end of Ramadan as offensive, particularly on the day, September 11, when our nation and the world were paying tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.
We have acknowledged that we erred by at least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on the front page.
What you are reading today was the planned coverage of the 9/11 events. We believed that the day after the anniversary would be the appropriate occasion to provide extensive new coverage of the events and observances conducted locally and elsewhere.
In hindsight, it is clear that we should have handled this differently and with greater sensitivity toward the painful memories stirred by the anniversary of 9/11.
But the apology wasn’t the end of the story. Why? Because some people read that apology as saying there was some kind of connection between peaceful practitioners of Islam in the United States with the the terrorists who attacked this nation back in 2001.
That was the central theme of story that ran last weekend as a part of NPR’s On The Media. In the story, OTM’s Bob Garfield had a somewhat confrontational interview with Richard Connor, the Press Herald’s editor and publisher. In the interview, Garfield tried to get Connor to acknowledge that the apology made the “connection between Islam and radical Islamic terrorists.” Connor refused to do so. If you read the comments about the story on the OTM web page, you’ll find that some listeners found Connor to be overly defensive, while others viewed Garfield as belligerent.
In my view, neither of those observations are particularly helpful. Connor had obviously had a bad week and was tired of being criticized by all sides about his paper’s coverage of the issue. Garfield was just as clearly trying to hold Connor accountable for what he had to say. Neither was at his best.
What was helpful was a followup to the Sept. 12th apology that Connor published on Sept. 19th that hasn’t gotten as much attention. Connor writes:
I have failed my writing hero, E.B. White, whose guiding principle, outlined in the classic “Elements of Style,” was: “Omit needless words.”
If I’d followed that rule last week, I would have responded to criticism of our newspaper on 9/11 with this:
“Our coverage of the conclusion of the local Ramadan observance was excellent and we are proud of it. We did not adequately cover 9/11 on the 9/11 anniversary, which also should have been front-page news, in my opinion.”
Why would I have omitted the other words in last week’s column?
Their lack of precision led to mischaracterization and misunderstanding. They were used to prove the maxim that a lie travels faster than truth. Mostly they allowed those with a personal ax to grind or a political agenda to advance to twist and misinterpret.
I meant to apologize for what we did not print — front-page coverage of 9/11 on the anniversary of a day that stirs deep and unhealed wounds. I was in no way apologizing for what we did print in a deservedly prominent position — a striking photo of our local Muslim community in prayer.
What Connor says here is what he probably should have said the previous week – that the paper did a good job of covering Ramadan and a bad job of covering the Sept. 11th anniversary on Sept. 11. This apology is particularly good because it doesn’t talk about “who might have been offended,” but rather about the quality of judgments made at the paper. Our media would serve us much better if our editors and publishers were more willing to explain publicly why they do what they do. And to make clear statements of what they stand for.