Everyone agreed with the premise of last Thursday's column -- that a Northern Virginia woman was treated terribly by a Tysons Corner auto dealer. She was lied to, insulted and bullied by the sales staff and very nearly forced to buy an $8,500 car she didn't want.
But a number of readers have been surprised that I didn't name the dealership where all this took place.
"Protecting advertisers," thundered one correspondent.
"Letting the frightened libel lawyers run your life for you," charged another.
"Too lazy to pick up the phone and ask the dealership for a comment," theorized a third.
It's none of the above, folks. It's a matter of simple fairness, not of some dark corporate conspiracy. I want to share my thinking with you on this so that a) You might come around to agreeing with my decision to withhold the name and b) You'll understand how much thought goes into this sort of decision at newspapers.
Taking them one at a time . . . .
Protecting Advertisers: The dealership in question is indeed an advertiser in this paper, but that was no factor whatsoever. Nor is it ever. I've worked for this paper for nearly 19 years and I have never had an editor so much as mention the advertising habits of a business I was writing about. Nor have I ever asked about those habits during my reporting. Nor would I pay the slightest attention if I knew the answer, or happened to find it out.
Libel lawyers: No one wants to get sued, and this newspaper is no exception. But I have published several columns about which our lawyers were nervous. No lawyer saw last Thursday's column before publication, but I can promise you that it would have appeared, threat of a big lawsuit or not, if the editors and I felt strongly about it. And we did.
Too Lazy: Innocent, your honor. I tried to reach the general manager of the dealership in question on more than 10 occasions. I left a phone message each time. He never called me back. Perhaps I should have held off on publishing the column until I got an answer -- some answer, any answer, even from the guy who fills the coffee machine. But I felt that by publishing promptly, I might save another unsuspecting customer from the same treatment. So I balanced these considerations, and decided that printing the story, even in less-than-complete form, was the way to go.
But was I in a position to damn the entire dealership, by name?
After all, what I really had was an anecdote about one customer and two salespeople. I couldn't prove that this was the stated policy of the entire dealership. I couldn't prove that the owner or manager condoned what happened. I couldn't prove that this sort of thing takes place all the time at this dealership.
So I decided that, because the dealership deserved fair play just as much as the woman who was mistreated, the dealership deserved to remain anonymous.
But in trying to prevent one kind of damage, I did another.
I reported that the incident took place at "a well-known dealership near Tysons Corner." There are approximately 20 dealerships that fit that description. Officials of several have written or called to say that I've tarred them unfairly, that customers have been walking in all week and asking if theirs was the dealership that Bob Levey wrote about that did all those awful things.
These dealerships are absolutely right. They have been damaged, and I regret that very much.
But I think it would have caused far more serious and lasting damage if I had named the dealership where the episode took place without being able to prove that it systematically mistreats customers. In the long run, the Tysons Corner dealerships that don't mistreat customers have nothing to worry about as far as their reputations are concerned.
This situation was not clear-cut. But such situations almost never are in journalism. All you can do is to be as fair as possible to as many people as possible. That's what I tried to do. That's what I think I did.
Thank you, thank you, several hundred times thank you to those readers who supplied the name of the novel that doesn't once contain the letter E.
It's "Gadsby," by Ernest V. Wright. It was published in 1939.
The book never enjoyed much commercial or critical success, according to several callers. But the title has achieved some notoriety lately because it's the answer to a question in the ragingly popular board game, Trivial Pursuit.
In any event, I'm very grateful to those who got in touch -- especially all the librarians who took the trouble to chase the answer in reference books. As one librarian said, "Hey, this is our business."
Indeed so -- and if so many librarians could find the answer so quickly, we must be in better shape than we thought.