One Friday afternoon last summer, eighty thousand newly printed copies of The Sun were sitting on our printing company’s loading dock in rural Wisconsin, waiting to be picked up and mailed. Nearly a thousand miles away, at our editorial office in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, we were tying up loose ends before the weekend. Then the phone rang.
It was someone calling on behalf of an inmate at a maximum-security prison who’d submitted a piece about prison gangs for our Readers Write section. We’d accepted his work and, though he’d given us permission to edit his writing, had sent him the final version for review weeks earlier. But mail travels slowly through the prison system, and it hadn’t reached him until now. Unaware that the upcoming issue had already gone to press, the inmate had discovered a glaring mistake, one that he wanted us to correct: We’d neglected to sign his piece “Name Withheld.” In the cover letter sent with his submission, he’d asked us to preserve his anonymity because he feared reprisal from gang leaders. Somehow we’d overlooked his request and printed his name — eighty thousand times.
In nearly thirty-four years of publishing The Sun, we’d never made an error of this magnitude. A newspaper reporter by training, I understand the importance of accuracy. We spend hundreds of hours editing and proofreading each issue, always sensitive to the possibility of libel or invasion of privacy, intent on catching every misspelled name and dangling participle. We’d made mistakes, but never one that might cause someone bodily harm.
We told our printer to cancel the pickup. We needed time to think.
Unfortunately, we had no way to contact the inmate to gauge how much danger he could be in: phoning was impossible, the mail too slow. Redoing the page wasn’t an option because all the copies were already bound. Nor did we want to take the costly and unprecedented step of reprinting the entire issue. We considered not mailing any magazines to the prison where the inmate was housed. But The Sun donates subscriptions to hundreds of prison libraries and inmates, so this prisoner’s name and story could still make its way through the grapevine.
Over the next couple of days, we tested different ways to correct each copy by hand: striking out the name with a magic marker; effacing it with an old-fashioned eraser; covering it with an ink stamp; snipping it with scissors. Each solution had its drawbacks, and, because of human error, there was no guarantee his name would be unreadable in every copy. When someone at the printing company told us that applying rubbing alcohol with a Q-tip could do the trick, we made a run to the drugstore. But the page dissolved in our hands along with the ink. She later explained she’d meant an industrial kind of alcohol that contains a toxic additive. I pictured workers in gloves and goggles crouched over The Sun in an unventilated room, stacks of magazines piled to the ceiling around them. This was not a comforting image.
At the same time, I was wrestling with what I’d learned about the inmate by looking him up online. Physically and emotionally abused early in life by his alcoholic father, he’d gone on to brutalize others and was, in fact, on death row for murder. This gave me pause: Should we really spend time and money protecting someone who’d committed such crimes? But if we didn’t correct our mistake, wouldn’t we be implying that the inmate was beyond the pale of journalistic ethics? And doesn’t The Sun invite all readers to submit work? The section isn’t called “Readers Who Have Never Broken the Law Write” or “Readers Who Are without Sin Write.”
We were running out of options. We would have to mail the magazines without correcting our error — or reprint the entire issue. As we sat pondering our next step, I gazed out the window and recalled the chilling stories I’d heard about prison violence. Then I looked at the faces of the people around me in our clean, comfortable, air-conditioned office, where the threat to anyone’s well-being seemed remote. “Let’s imagine,” I said, “that one of us were in that prison and facing the same risk.” As soon as I’d uttered the words, I knew that there was no need to imagine: this inmate was one of us — another flawed and complicated human being, deserving of compassion. He was no saint — he was on death row, after all — but maybe saints don’t need our mercy as much as sinners do.
I suppose I could have simply apologized for our mistake and prayed that a prison gang leader would never read what the inmate had written. But what’s an apology or a prayer worth if we don’t also do everything in our power to make things right?
The only ethical choice was to reprint all eighty thousand issues. So we did.
Were it not for the financial support we’ve received from readers, we wouldn’t have been able to afford to make things right. For that, I feel enormous gratitude. We now have a system in place to prevent such an error from happening again. But I’d be naive to imagine that we’ll never face another unexpected dilemma. In The Sun’s early years, reader donations narrowly saved the magazine from bankruptcy time and again. More recently, donations have helped us deal with paper price increases, deadbeat distributors, and everything else that makes publishing an ad-free, nonprofit magazine like The Sun such a high-wire act. Postal rates continue to favor large, glossy magazines over smaller, nonprofit journals. Most chain bookstores are still unwilling to carry The Sun, and independent bookstores remain on the endangered-species list. Your tax-deductible donation, as a Friend Of The Sun, will help us keep the magazine independent and free of advertising in this age of media consolidation. If it weren’t for the loyalty of readers like you, The Sun wouldn’t be here today.
Admittedly, the moral calculus of our decision was complicated. As an organization committed to the mindful use of natural resources, we were unhappy about having to recycle all those issues. But everything we do has an environmental impact, and loving the planet is no more reducible to an easy formula than loving another human being.
On the day the reprinted issues were mailed, I thought about them making their way across the country — to cramped city apartments and to spacious suburban houses; to dormitory rooms on campuses and to solitary mailboxes on country roads; to old and stately public libraries and to old and dilapidated prison cells. I thought about how one inmate had sat in his six-by-eight windowless box, writing about prison gangs because, as he’d explained in his cover letter, he’d wanted some young person to read it and think twice about harming a stranger. There are people who will say I shouldn’t have lost any sleep over this man, that suffering was his just reward. But depriving someone of his freedom is one thing; denying his basic humanity is another. The inmate had written that he cherishes The Sun because it makes him feel “more alive.” I thought about the issue reaching his cell. I imagined him flipping through the magazine, looking for his piece in Readers Write. Unsure if his message had reached us in time. Wondering if strangers like us even cared. Holding his breath as he turned the page.
Editor and Publisher
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