From the editor: The anti-hero

2014-06-15T00:00:00Z From the editor: The anti-heroBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette
June 15, 2014 12:00 am  • 

There are times when working at a newspaper makes you feel like a superhero.

Strangely, it comes at times when you least expect it.

You'd think covering a big breaking news story would be exhilarating (and it is) but in those moments of crisis news, we have a job to do and our readers just expect blow-by-blow coverage.

Then, there are those moments when we tell a typical feature story, or write an advance on an event only to have it become a wild success. Sometimes, I get a call telling me that The Gazette helped raise awareness, money or simply change a life for the better.

I can't help but grin and then tell folks in the newsroom about the call I just got when that happens.

Then, there are those calls that make you feel like an anti-hero.

A few months back, we did a story about a transportation service for veterans. It's amazing the stories that draw pointed reader response.

A very kind, gentlemanly reader called and wondered why we had never pursued a story about him getting "left behind."

He was a veteran. He had used a service. And, twice he'd been left, sometimes miles away, at a doctor's office, the victim of a scheduling conflict or forgotten assignment.

"If you want to do some real reporting," he started.

Editors just love that, as if everything else we do is just a hobby.

"Tell me why veterans get left at their appointments," he replied. "One time I was left for four hours. I was 10 miles away, stranded."

The reader went on to say he's called periodically for two years, wanting some reporter to question veterans transportation.

Have you called the service itself (not related to the recent VA struggles)?

Yep, he replied, only to be told by the director how good it was.

Have you called your congressman or senators, I asked?

Yep, he said, but just got the runaround because no one could quite figure out who was responsible.

"That's why I am calling you. Maybe you can do something," he said. "But no one ever seems to do anything down there either."

I knew why. And, I had to be the one to break the news others hadn't quite had the heart to tell him.

For all the power the press and media has, we're not a very good consumer complaints department. That doesn't mean we won't cover a business or organization that has acted illegally or even unethically. But, we are swamped with reader complaints ranging from terrible hamburgers at restaurants to stranded veterans.

We indeed can help organizations get important messages to the community — like during Thanksgiving time when food bank donations run low. We can share with the community must-know information, like public officials' e-mails or actions at meetings.

However, it's tough to turn the power of the media spotlight and use it as a cudgel for revenge. Let me explain: Even if we could get the specifics of this disabled veteran's case, even if the organization could talk about it, and even if the organization admitted it had made a mistake, what would the story say?

"Group made a mistake."

"Veterans group tries to help many; one person not satisfied."

If I were left for hours stranded, I'd be mad. I'd do exactly what he's been doing for years: Tell everyone who'd listen.

The Gazette was his means of last resort and he wasn't shy about what he wanted: to tell the entire community how bad this one organization was. He didn't want a solution. He didn't care if he was a trend or just an anomaly. He wanted the satisfaction of being heard.

And so I listened, and explained that it was probably an impossible story to complete because I couldn't establish a trend, and an organization like this had to maintain the privacy and identity of its clients.

"I just hoped that you could do something," he said. "I am not sure who else to go to."

That makes two of us.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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