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IN THAT AWKWARD SPACE WHERE WORK AND LIFE COLLIDE

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Section: VIEWS
Page B3
By ALLISON WALZER awalzer@leader.net

AN EDITOR once gave me a glib response for any reader calling to complain about an article about himself or herself in the newspaper.

"If you don't want to read about something in the paper," I was counseled to say," don't do it."

I never took the advice. It sounded just a bit harsh -- even for me.

But the words come back to me from time to time and sometimes, when a caller is particularly nasty, I'm greatly tempted to use them.

Now the advice has become personal and I'm reminded of it each time I read an article about my husband and me as we thread our ways through the courts because of a lawsuit

We're not really lawsuit kind of people so this was a big step for us. And I'm not going to use this space to argue my side of the dispute. That would be the wrong use of my position.

Suffice it to say, I now know even better how it feels to see parts of your life in the pages of the newspaper. I know the power of the adjective and the clunk of the "no comment." I feel more personally the support and the loss of privacy in a community where too many people know too much about you. Or think they do.

The suit is against Steve Flood, our county controller. And even though the dispute is not over a grand sum of money, it does pit two public figures against each other. Weird to think that one of them is me.

But that makes it news.

And as the legal tangle goes on, it has meant that I totally distance myself from anything regarding Mr. Flood. Anything.

When a SAYSO that mentions Flood's name is sent to my computer directory -- I am usually the first edit on SAYSO calls -- I forward it, unread.

In our newsroom budget meetings, I completely abstain from conversations involving Flood to the point that I won't even read his name on the budget list of stories for the day. Traditionally, I read the story names and each editor describes his or her team's stories. If Flood's name is on the budget, I stay quiet -- someone always pops in to continue the budget conversation about a person I can't mention.

If a discussion ensues, I leave the conference room or the area of the newsroom where people are talking.

It was uncomfortable at first but now it's become normal.

This week, as Flood made his way back onto the front page, I'm out of the loop with the decision-making.

If the juvie center story reaches lawsuit territory, it could become even weirder: Flood and I could end up on the same side of a legal battle, reinforcing the divide between personal and professional.

It's the first time in my career that I have been forced to absent myself from conversations because of a conflict of interest.

It is not the first time conversations have stopped upon my arrival -- you know how that is when you're the "boss" -- but it's the first time because of a conflict.

It's odd.

We have other conflicts in the newsroom: the son of our managing editor was a key player on the Meyers football team so that editor didn't participate in discussions about Meyers coverage. Our publisher is active in community charity work and has to stay quiet or absent himself from some conversations on coverage.

It's a first time for me. I've intentionally stayed away from community organizations and political campaigns. I won't sign a petition on anything. There are some rights you give up when you become a journalist it's much easier to acknowledge that and move on.

We know we'll never rid all conflicts from the newsroom -- they come with living in the community.

Our guiding principle is disclosure: to our readers and to other editors who can then jump in.

Perfect it's not, but it's the best we can do.

They haven't invented conflict-free bubbles for journalists yet. And who would want to live in one anyway?