John Krull: Now they don’t even need a stamp

Long ago, my mentor, the departed and much-missed Harvey Jacobs, gave me some sage advice.

In those days, Harvey and I both worked for The Indianapolis News, which is also much missed. Harvey was the editor of the opinion pages. I was one of his editorial writers and a fledgling columnist.

Harvey was in his 70s then and had been in print by that point for more than half a century. I was in my 20s and just getting started.

I had written a column that provoked controversy. We received letters to the editor saying things about me that wouldn’t have made my mother blush with pride.

Harvey could tell I was upset by the furor. He summoned me for a sit-down in his office.

He told me that criticism was part of the job. If I wanted to have a career as a columnist, I would have to learn how to deal with it. He reminded me that the journalists who really made an impact were marathoners, not sprinters — writers who learned how to take the hits that came along the way so they could keep moving forward.

He also said the fact that my column had created a miniature uproar was a good sign. It meant that I was being read and that my points were being taken seriously enough to inspire discussion. Even though it might not always feel like this was a good thing, Harvey assured me it was.

Then he dove into the heart of his lesson.

He said the critical responses to a writer’s work generally fell into two categories.

The first category was the one to which a responsible columnist must pay attention. These responses would come from people who took issue with what I had written and mounted serious arguments in response. They would point out the places they thought I was wrong or mistaken and provide facts that countered my arguments.

The frustrating thing, Harvey said with a smile, is that sometimes they’ll be right.

“When that happens,” he said, still smiling, “you have to put pride aside and rethink your position. That sometimes isn’t easy to do, but you’ve got to do it, because our job always is to try to get at the truth.”

Harvey was right about that.

The second sort of criticism, Harvey said, was the kind a columnist needn’t take so seriously.

Most people, he explained, didn’t like having their unexamined notions exposed. When a writer points out that beliefs to which they fervently adhere don’t make a whole lot of sense, they often react with fury.

“That’s when you need to remember that anyone who disagrees with you and can afford the price of a stamp buys the right to call you an idiot and you have to let it roll off your back,” Harvey said.

Harvey died at Thanksgiving time a quarter-century ago. I was one of his pallbearers.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately because I’ve been calling on that bit of advice with greater frequency.

I receive a lot of notes these days.

A few of them fall into the category Harvey would say I have to take seriously. They advance arguments, marshal facts in support of their points and seek to persuade.

I give those thoughtful attention because Harvey was right. Sometimes those folks have a better take on or a deeper understanding of an issue than I do and ignoring them serves no good end. It certainly doesn’t help one get at the truth.

Most of the emails and letters I receive, though, are in that second category. They tell me I’m an idiot or wrong about everything but decline to point out where I made a factual error.

My favorite such recent missive asserted that Donald Trump was the greatest U.S. president in the past century and said the evidence to support this was overwhelming. The writer then — you guessed it — refused to cite any of that evidence.

I’m not sure Harvey Jacobs would see the fact that the people who want to call me an idiot no longer need to be able to afford the price of a stamp as a sign of progress.

But I know what his counsel would be.

It was good advice 25 years ago. Still good advice now.

John Krull is director of Franklin College‚Äôs Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students, where this commentary originally appeared. The opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the views of Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected]