"Fair" does not mean "equal."
Sometimes, "fair" cannot mean "equal."
I learned that lesson about three decades ago in life, and about five decades ago in work.
Last week, I was reminded of the near-impossibility of treating two distinct people, or two distinct events, in precisely the same way, even though most Americans claim "Unfair!" when that doesn't happen.
The caller, a local businessman, was cordial, courteous and curious, not strident and angry. Why, he wondered, were the details of a news story involving his business considerably different from the details of a similar story a few weeks earlier, involving another business?
He and I discussed the question, and then we discussed it internally.
I came to two conclusions:
He had a point. While nothing we did in that story was "wrong" in the sense of being factually false or clearly not suitable for publication, the tone and tenor of the story would be a bit different if we had it to do over again.
It would have been impossible to treat the two stories equally. They were in the newspaper on different "news" days. There was more other news on the day when one story was published than there was when the other story was published. There was more detail available for one story than there was for the other story.
My own assessment is that we ought to have done a better job - on both stories. One was a bit too detail-rich, and the other was lacking in some basic details. We talked internally, and our intention is to be a bit more consistent from story to story.
But we never can treat two news stories in exactly the same fashion, because no two stories are precisely alike, both in terms of what happened and in terms of what we know, and when. And no two news days are alike.
"Will this story be in tomorrow's newspaper?" is a frequent question.
Sometimes, the answer is a no-brainer: Yes. It is news. We are a newspaper. We will publish the story.
But even then, I usually hedge a bit.
"We should have it in tomorrow's edition ..." I usually say, followed quickly by "But if President Obama quits, all bets are off!"
That's hyperbole, but it reflects the reality that we do not deal in this or that specific news story. We deal with the news of the day.
Even on Sept. 11, 2001, and on Sept. 12, there was other news in our newspaper besides the ghastly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and (heroically aborted) either the Capitol or the White House.
Obituaries, sports news, routine police blotter items all appeared, dwarfed by the overriding shock and tragedy of 9/11, but there nonetheless.
As a young father, I spent quite a few years trying to treat children equally, first "the boys" (Chris, Mike and Matt), and then "the children" when Theresa joined the family.
Along came Greg.
Greg has one head, two arms, two legs ... he was a kid, just as the others were kids.
But Greg has Down syndrome, a genetic abnormality that limits him physically and mentally, but merely "simplifies" him in terms of his delightfully mostly bubbly personality and emotion.
Greg couldn't stay mad. To this day, he can't. When he is mad, he is angry. When it is done, he is not angry. Switch-flipper. Try that with either daughter, Theresa or Natalie. Both still jab me to this day about what they claimed were extremely insensitive decisions on my part.
But Greg can't handle money independently. Oh, he has a rudimentary understanding. "Five dollars" will get him a hot dog, although Dad or a brother might have to help out at PNC Park when he goes for the foot-long variety slathered with "whole lot" of everything. But if he has a $20 bill, or a $50 bill, he doesn't count the change. He knows he should get something back, but he just puts the bills in his wallet and the change in his pocket. It would take him so long to check the accuracy of the transaction that the hot dogs would be cold - and when the choice is between checking and eating, the outcome is foreordained. Chomp.
So the kids got money at a certain age. They even opened bank accounts and eventually had checking accounts. Not Greg.
If Greg likes you and you give him a piece of paper and tell him "Sign here," he prints out: G ... R.... e ... g. Doesn't matter if it's a greeting card or a blank check.
Greg had spending money during his years at home, just as the other kids did. But he didn't get the same amounts. He didn't handle his money in the same ways.
He was treated fairly. He wasn't, and isn't, treated equally, strictly speaking.
In life as in journalism, the equation "fair = equal" is ... fiction.
Denny Bonavita is the editor and publisher of McLean Publishing Co. in west-central Pennsylvania,including the Courier-Express in DuBois.