Some of those who complained about the Ubiles story remained upset
about the seven-part series we published recently focusing on Poppy, a
homeless alcoholic on the streets of Albany’s South End.One writer
accused us of glorifying the life of someone who was “just a loafer.”
a certain level, I can understand those who are upset. There are enough
big problems in the world that deserve a newspaper’s attention — wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan, economic distress at home, the drive to make
health care more accessible and affordable — that you may wonder if
one or two individual lives warrant coverage at all.
But the concerns raised by readers go beyond the question of priorities.
story of Poppy, as most of our readers recognized, gave us a window
into the world of addiction on the streets. Through the deep reporting
of Paul Grondahl, we learned about the brain chemistry of addiction and
the challenges presented by each of the many and varied efforts to
combat homelessness that have been tried over the years. The cost to
society presented by the Poppys on our streets is huge, but averting
our eyes won’t make it go away.
Nor would it be appropriate for
the newspaper to shirk coverage of newsworthy individuals just because
some consider their behavior objectionable. Our role isn’t to make
judgments about society’s standards; it is to reflect reality.
Emphasis mine. Because. I just. Look, as the editor so admirably points out, the job of the newspaper isn’t to make you happy, it’s to tell you what you need to know. So sorry if the news of homeless drug addicts upsets you. GO VOLUNTEER AT A HOMELESS SHELTER. That’s how you get over your feelings of guilt and inadequacy, not by writing an angry letter asking the paper not to remind you that Dirty Hippie Jesus was right and the poor are in fact always with your oblivious ass.
I once wrote a story, around this time of year (because it’s always this time of year that editors want food bank stories), that wasn’t all that great, I mean, it was a throwaway piece about what the local food bank did and here’s how you could give money or food to it. And I’ll never forget this e-mail I got from a reader about it. Like I said, it was the same story we always do. But she had, I don’t know, for whatever reason, been struck by it and said something I’ll never forget. “I’m just one person. What can I do?”
I think we feel that way a lot, especially during the supposed season of charity bearing down on us. I’ve only got ten bucks, what can I do? I’ve only got an hour a week, what can I do? I’m only good at one or two things really, what can I do? I’m housebound, I’m moving, I’m old, I’m young, I’m busy, I’m overwhelmed, I’m tired, I feel weak and helpless and useless and the only thing that ever really makes the news is the grand gesture anyway. What can I do?
Like it’s worthless if you can only write one letter. Like it’s worthless if you can’t give a million. Like it’s worthless if you can’t be there every hour of every day. The point isn’t to do all the work, is what I told her (hoping to God it’s true, since this is at least as much about my own justifications as about hers). The point is to do what you can. That may not exorcise your guilt completely. I think we all feel like we’re not doing enough no matter how much we’re doing. I know I watch too much goddamn TV. But if you take the time you could spend beating yourself up about how you suck and put that to work against the thing making you feel inadequate, well, that’s better, isn’t it?
Or you could just sit back and ask the paper to please stop making you feel like a selfish jackass.