Readers pay the salaries of business journalists
Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig writes about the time he wanted to respond sarcastically to a reader who criticized one of his stories.
It’s never good news when the managing editor walks into a lowly reporter’s cubicle. One day in early 1990, I looked up from my desk at Forbes magazine to see Shelley Zalaznick standing over me. My heart started to pound in fear. “Hi, Shelley,” I chirped as I stood up, trying to master my fear. He didn’t say hello. A slow second or two crawled by as Shelley extended his arm to full length, parallel to the floor, as rigid as a gangplank. From the end of it, pinned between his thumb and forefinger, dangled a sheet of paper. From the look of revulsion on his face, it might as well have been a hank of used toilet paper.
“What is this?” he said, then flicked it toward me.
It fell onto my desk, and I grabbed it. It was the letter I had drafted, for editorial approval, to a reader who had criticized my most recent article. “Oh, that asshole,” I exclaimed before I had time to censor myself. “Everything he said was wrong. All I did was tell him.”
Shelley looked at me, and his eyes could have flash-frozen a pot of boiling water in the Sahara. “That asshole pays your salary,” he said. “You work for him. He doesn’t have to respect you. But you have to respect him.”
I looked back at him, stunned.
“Try again,” said Shelley. “Start over. And get it right this time.” He walked away.
I sank into my chair, angry and disgusted. The reader had written me a two-page, single-spaced letter itemizing something like a dozen of what he believed to be serious errors of fact or fairness in my story. He hadn’t stuck to facts or fairness himself, however. He had called me ignorant and stupid, biased and reckless and dishonest. I lost his letter years ago, but to this day, three decades later, it remains one of the most obnoxious instances of feedback I’ve ever gotten from a reader (and I’ve gotten thousands). So, naturally, in my response, I’d seen his rudeness and raised it: My rebuttal had been dripping with sarcasm and self-justification.
This asshole pays my salary. I thought about it for a minute. At first it made me even angrier. Not only had the reader humiliated me; Shelley had humiliated me all over again for having the nerve to defend myself.
Read more here.