© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003
The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things, of news reporters, turtle deaths and, if not cabbages and kings, then at least journalistic balance.
It all began with a letter I got from a Beverly Hills reader complaining that the Times lacked balance.
I advised him to contact a senior editor, pointing out (and I do so again here) that I am not in charge of maintaining balance. I also am not an official spokesman for the Times, a fact that comforts both me, and, I assume, higher management.
Two headlines caught my eye Friday, one saying fewer journalists were slain in the line of duty (and more about duty later) in 2002 than in previous calendar years. The other said that sea turtle deaths had set a record high in 2002.
There are probably people in the world who wish the statistics were reversed.
And a third item, a column in our metro section about one candidate's peek-a-boo consideration of running for mayor of Tampa, prompts me to check on the welfare of a friend of mine who is involved in the campaign of another candidate in that race and is convinced that there is some sort of major plot to make sure the competition gets more ink than his guy.
His candidate has actually been mentioned in connection with the race about four times more often than she has, mostly because he announced earlier. Her picture runs more often because she is an elected official considering leaving one office for another; this guy is a political newcomer.
My friend is also convinced that we, somehow, also kept Bill McBride from winning the governor's race, and I think he blames us for the recent performance of his beloved Miami Dolphins.
We are, he assures me, controlled by big business, the Bush family and, apparently, the New England Patriots.
And he isn't alone in how he feels.
We get letters from readers every day telling us we are bleeding-heart tools of the international communist conspiracy.
And we get letters telling us we are the pawns of Bushist, rightist, Tri-Lateral Commission lovers whose goal is world domination and replacing the national anthem with the Yale Skull and Bones Society fight song.
How, some callers and writers demand to know, can we be such nakedly obvious Israel-bashers? When, others want to know, will we stop kowtowing to our Israeli masters and start publishing the truth about the Middle East? "Controlled media," is a term recently coined largely by those who think that because we don't rush to publish every half-baked rumor they see on Internet sites named something like, "conspiraciesareus.com," that we are obviously under military-industrial-Enron-complex control.
Before that, we were, of course, "Friends of Bill" and frequently accused of covering up things that everyone, apparently by telepathy, seemed to know about.
Whenever someone uses "media," in that whining pejorative voice that indicates they are about to say something stupid, I like to ask them where they heard the information they are sure we are hiding.
"Rush Limbaugh, or The O'Reilly Factor," they say, meaning they saw it on television, which is a medium -- meaning they are getting their information, flawed or not, from the media.
The Times, for the record, is not owned by big business but by the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, an educational institution with a staff that sometimes is critical of things done or reported in the Times. So even the institution that owns the Times doesn't really control it.
If you think our advertisers control us, ask the people who sell ads. They frequently refer to news as the "sales prevention department."
And as for duty, while participating in a recent panel discussion I was asked who defines reporting the news as a duty for journalists.
That's simple. It's a contractual agreement with the reader, like that of a restaurant customer who sometimes eats, sometimes sets aside and sometimes chokes on what he is served -- and has the option of coming back, going hungry, or going to another restaurant.