I got it wrong. Sorry, but …
Well, I’ve got an annoying, amusing little dilemma this week. Stick with me for a minutes and I’ll explain.Last week, I wrote a column in which I managed to attack, insult and offend a wealthy local homeowner, a hotshot local developer and three out of the five members of the Aspen City Council. Not bad for just one column.I got a long, thoughtful, reasonable letter from one of the council members in response. I appreciated that.And I got an angry, outraged letter from the developer. I sort of expected that.The developer argued that I failed to make even “a minimum effort” to get my facts right. He referred to one of my points as being “totally part of Andy’s imagination” and another as “totally and completely a fabrication.”So, we know how he feels.Now, as a columnist, I consider it part of my job description to be a bomb thrower and a troublemaker, which means I can expect a certain amount of outraged response. It’s par for the course. I can live with it.But that’s where the dilemma arises, because in addition to being a columnist, I also serve as this newspaper’s “ombudsman,” the reader’s representative. As ombudsman, it’s my job to help people when they feel they have been treated unfairly by the newspaper. It’s my job to stand up for someone who feels he has been attacked and insulted by a careless columnist who got his facts all screwed up and just plain invented stuff. So, as ombudsman, I need to look into the developer’s charges and, if necessary, give myself, as columnist, a stern lecture and a smack upside the head. (Listen carefully. That faint giggling you hear are all the reporters and editors I have lectured on fairness and accuracy over the past few months.)Now, fortunately, the editors of the Times have a solid commitment to fairness and I believe they have agreed to give that outraged developer space to state his case – probably on the page facing this one.But I still thought I’d dig into some of the points he made in his letter to me. In fact, he definitely caught me in a couple of clear mistakes. To start with, I wrote that the City Council had “approved a plan to drag that poor old Victorian home halfway across its lot and then ram an alley through the once-beautiful lawn.”In point of fact, all the council actually approved was the subdivision of the property, which is the first step in the developer’s plan.The specifics of the plan were not approved – at least partly because when the mayor suggested a delay in the approval (a “continuance”) so the council could see the final plans, the developer objected fiercely.”The idea of a continuance gives me the flu,” he said (according to a story in a local newspaper).I was also wrong when I argued that the poor old house was going to be “puffed up, fluffed up, and left looking like a bloated corpse.”In fact, his plans call for keeping the house at its current size and restoring it to its original specifications.On the other hand (and you knew there was another hand, didn’t you), the developer certainly did propose moving the house part way across the lot. He is planning on building a second house and a commercial building on the property. And his plans will require tearing up an expanse of lawn in order to put in an alley.So, did I get it wrong? The ombudsman says, “Yes. There were at least two inaccurate statements.” Even the columnist says, “Well, OK – maybe a little.”But the fact remains that the developer’s plans still call for three buildings on a piece of property where there is now just one. And where there is now a wide-open lawn, there will be a new house and a new alley.And when someone asked what it would take for the developer to give up that second house (while still building the new commercial building), his price tag was $1.5 million (according to someone who was part of the discussion). A nice round number.So, to sum it all up:1. As columnist, I acknowledge and apologize for my errors of fact.2. As columnist, I still say the whole deal stinks. Aspen will be the worse for it. 3. As ombudsman, I urge you to check out the facing page for the other side of the story.Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com
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