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When someone asks if they're a thief, an instinctual response is: "Well, if you have to ask. . ." But gut instinct doesn't always yield the best answers. A reader poses the question because, well, her friend called her one.
The cause for the charge centers on a topic regularly raised by readers who write me: Is it wrong to make use of things at a bookstore cafe without paying for them?
Several years ago, I responded to a reader from a leafy suburb of Boston who thought the woman who sat and read a newspaper while drinking her coffee and then refolded the paper and returned it to the rack to be sold was wrong. That coffee shop had a sign that asked readers not to read newspapers before paying for them. I weighed in that the customer was indeed wrong to read without paying.
A reader in Southern California worried she was overstepping by holding small meetings at her local bookstore cafe without all meeting attendees always buying something to imbibe while there. Since some of the folks did always make purchases, I saw no fault in the group's actions.
Now, comes the alleged thief from Ohio.
"On a regular basis, I frequent a large nationally known bookstore to sit and relax," writes the perpetrator. "When I am there, I will read the current magazines that I find interesting. On very rare occasions, I will purchase one that I may find extra interesting. And most of the time I will purchase coffee to sip on when I am relaxing and reading the magazines."
Her friend believes she's a thief. "I have never thought of it that way," she writes. "Am I stealing?
Upon discussing the matter further with the suspect, I discover that there is no sign prohibiting customers from reading publications unless they purchase them, that she returns them to the shelf in pristine condition, and that she purchases coffee 99 percent of the time she sits to read a magazine. While she reads a wide variety of publications including those on home decor, outdoor recreation, health, knitting, crafts and photography, she only buys two or three magazines a year. Her friend tells her that what she's doing is no different from going to the grocery store and eating the food there without paying for it.
The friend's comparison doesn't hold since once you eat the food, it can't very well be returned to the shelf to be sold to a paying customer.
But a larger point is that the bookstore cafe has a right to set whatever policy it wants for its customers. If the management believes that allowing customers to browse magazines while drinking coffee drives up coffee sales, then that's its call. Unlike the suburban customer who broke store policy, the reader from Ohio is doing nothing wrong.
Granted, it would be nice if she and others purchased magazines more frequently to support the business, but the right thing is to honor the rules of the establishment. My reader does this and her friend should back off and perhaps turn her attention to the grocery-sampling thieves who may indeed be stealing.
Several months ago, a reader emailed me a link to a story in his local newspaper about a high school football team that had been headed to the regional playoffs, but ended up forfeiting two games because an ineligible player had been in the game. His transgression was that he hadn't turned in a required documentation for a physical examination.
Somehow, the coaches missed the fact that his paperwork was not in order until just before they were to head off to the regional playoffs. The school's athletic director, who caught the mistake, knew the rules and decided to report the incident. In spite of appeals to forgive the transgression, the team was forced to forfeit two games - which gave it a record that dropped it from contention.
"The issue, as I see it," my reader writes, "is this: Is it always ethical to be so ethical?"
He wonders where our first ethical loyalties lie.
"Certainly it was the athletic director's responsibility to make sure that all the paperwork was in order, but his mea culpa over the error had results that were described in the newspaper as 'getting jail time for jaywalking.'"
My reader believes it's a "splendid thing to be so honest." But, he wonders if "maybe it's better, sometimes, to keep your mouth shut when exposure of your error affects so many people who had no hand in it."
The story reminds me of a disagreement I once was asked to referee between a segment producer on a local news program and her news anchor. She had told him about the time she was playing field hockey in an important college game and a goal was scored by her team illegally (something to do with accidentally kicking the ball in the goal rather than striking it with the field hockey stick). The referees didn't notice that the goal was scored illegally so they initially ruled it a goal. The segment producer had hesitated a moment, but then pointed out that the goal, which would have put her team up by a point, was illegal. The referees reversed their ruling and the goal did not count.
The news anchor, a former sports anchor at a different station in town, thought she was wrong to point out the referee's mistake. She thought she was right, even though her team suffered as a result.
I sided with her. She showed real integrity by recognizing an error, taking action to correct that error, and articulating why she did what she did. She wanted her team to win fair and square, not on what she believed to be a violation of the rules of the game.
Her team went on to win the game.
The high school football team's athletic director also was right to point out the error once he caught it. His team didn't fare so well. Still, he acted with integrity by ultimately not turning a blind eye to what he knew was a violation of the rules.
Of course, the right thing would have been for the athletic director and his staff to have been more scrupulous about making sure all of their players' paperwork was in order in the first place. Given the outcome of the experience, it's a mistake he and his staff are likely never to make again.
In a casual conversation with a friend, a reader learns that a local honcho at a not-for-profit organization might not have the credentials he claims.
The friend has known the honcho for 40 years or so. She is a former faculty member at the college from which the honcho says he graduated. She claims that he dropped out before earning any of the degrees he says he earned.
"I very seriously doubt that she would make up this information," my reader writes. He believes the honcho has duped the not-for-profit and the community it serves.
The registrar for the college verified that the honcho did graduate. In fact, my reader is told he graduated with distinction.
"I have a strong suspicion that somebody has fiddled with the records," writes my reader, convinced that his friend would never give him misinformation. "Nobody seems interested in verifying the information. What should I do?"
In addition to the registrar, the honcho's former wife, as well as a friend of his, insist to my reader that the guy did graduate. But my reader is having none of it. "I still don't believe it," he writes. He plans to continue his hunt for the truth.
My reader's instinct to want to make sure that a community is not being defrauded is not a bad one - but by the time he asks the honcho's friend and former wife, he has already spread unconfirmed information.
"I would not like to have him sue me for blowing the whistle on him," my reader writes. "He is a fraud."
You can't blame the guy for not liking a fraud and wanting him exposed. But again, he still doesn't know if his friend's facts are correct and he's now got the word of two people and the college registrar that the honcho didn't lie about his record.
There's an old saw that reporters have shared with newcomers for years: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."
Before he started talking to others about the honcho's credentials, my reader had failed to check with his original source: the friend who raised the issue in the first place.
He emailed her to verify what she told him and to tell her that his checking contradicted her claim. Her email arrived the next morning: "I did not say that," she wrote.
"Now I'm in the position of having to decide if I want to have a friend who lies to me," my reader writes.
For whatever reason she chose to drop the bomb that this honcho was fabricating his background, the friend was wrong. But before spreading that concern to others, the right thing for my reader to do was to confirm with her that she indeed intended to say what she said - to check the facts with the original source.
Short of that, getting confirmation from the registrar should have been enough for him to return to the original friend who made the comment and ask her to confirm her observation rather than begin asking others and thus raising concern about the honcho further.
In thinking he was trying to right a wrong, my reader went too far. It was his friend's comments he should have been checking out rather than the recipient of her barbs.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
A typewritten letter from a reader arrived through the mail. I receive far more correspondence via email than I do through the post office, but I do try to respond to readers regardless of how they contact me. When a reader takes the time to type a letter, the least I could do is offer a response.
But this letter is special. The writer opens with some gracious notes about the column, followed by: "I ask that you write about the two questions I enclose even if you have to do so on separate occasions."
The first question is whether it is OK for someone who has the monetary means to deliberately try to annoy a neighbor by parking a car near his home that has a beeper timed to go off every six seconds. The second questions the ethics of advice columnists who advise spouses to "apply for a divorce at once" after discovering their partner has done something egregious. "What about the rest of us?" my letter writer asks. He wonders what happens after the miscreant ex-spouse is set free. Who will protect the rest of us, he asks. "How, and who, should put the bell on the cat?" If the advice guru advises cutting the spouse loose, he wonders, isn't it the guru's responsibility to supply the bell?
Somewhat quirky, but not totally outlandish questions. What follows though is more of a challenge.
"I enclose a check in the amount of $10 as a motivator (some beer money?)." He also encloses two self-addressed, stamped envelopes so I can send him a clipping of the articles in which I respond to his questions.
Granted, 10 bucks would give me enough for three Narragansett beers and cover the tax and tip as well at my neighborhood bar andgrill. But by enclosing the check with his two questions, the letter writer presents me with a bigger question: Should I base the topics I respond to in the column on how much readers are willing to pay me to choose their questions?
There's clearly nothing wrong with paying for advice. Doctors, therapists, lawyers and any number of other professionals are regularly paid for their advice. Why not shoot a reader's issues to the front of the queue if he's willing to pony up 10 or a thousand bucks (just to quibble over price) as a little incentive?
It's not accepting money for advice that would be wrong. It's the lack of transparency.
If other readers are under the assumption that any questions I use in the column are chosen based on merit (albeit my subjective sense of what would make for an interesting column) and not on any compensation aside from what I earn from the publications that carry the column, then it is wrong to take money from readers if I don't disclose that, as we used to say in Boonton, N.J., where I grew up, "Money talks, nobody walks."
The right thing is not to cash the letter writer's check. And so, it's been returned to him in the mail. As for his questions, I may answer them down the road on their own merits. In the meantime, I'll pay for my own beer.