The Non-Denial Denial

The Advertiser has, at least online, published Bill Oliver’s letter to Linda Lightfoot as a news article. And it’s an odd little piece that as news, rather than documentation, calls for a different sort of interpretation than regular news articles. You’ve gotta read it as an advocacy piece without even the usual constraints that one would place on an advocacy essay published as an op-ed piece.

What strikes me about it is less what Oliver says and denies than what he doesn’t say and doesn’t deny.

He doesn’t say the reporter lied about his words as quoted. He doesn’t deny saying anything that is attributed to him. He only denies having “threatened” Lafayette. A casual reader might think he was claiming to have been misquoted. But the casual reader would need to read more carefully. He doesn’t. And if he felt he had been misquoted he surely would say so. Of course, were he to do so he might well have to face a transcript or tape or reporter’s notes that would show that he did. You can be sure that he is speaking carefully and walking a thin line. He wants to leave the impression that he has been wronged without actually saying so. Take a look at the article. Most of it reads like an apology. (There’s been a lot of that around lately, but Oliver’s is the self-serving kind.)

So what’s the evidence? Let’s look at both his letter to the Advocate and his undenied words as quoted in the Advocate.

In the letter, Oliver, after he gets through apologizing to the editorial board and his employees, explains:

My objective during the editorial board meeting was to explain the make up of BellSouth Telecommunications and Cingular – our employee structure, the way we provide service in this state, our investment in Louisiana – in an effort to educate the paper about the complexities of the issue of government competing against private enterprise. We talked about a lot of issues, including the general effect that competition by a government entity would have on the operations, employee structures or investments of private companies.

So why include that information in a short letter complaining, apparently, about a headline? It’s basically an admission that he did tell the editorial board a lot about one business that is not a subsidary of BellSouth and which, in fact, his company does not even own a majority share in: Cingular. That discussion about Cingular is interpreted in the letter as being part of just a general background discussion about the effect of “government competing.” His example was not deliberate, it was only used to illustrate the effect that such competition “would have” on “operations, employee structures, and investments of private companies.” So he is not denying (but is trying put his own spin on) the fact that he did talk about Cingular and the effect such competition “would have” on investment, jobs, and the continued operation of the call center.

So when Oliver says he wants to “make it perfectly clear,” you should be aware that what is clear is that he talked about Cingular in terms of the jobs that were there, and the continued operation of the facility, and that he thought the fiber optic plan would have an negative effect on all that. What Oliver apparently wants to say is that when he talked about all that, he didn’t intend to “threaten” Lafayette.

Okay, so now what is the evidence from the quotes he did not deny in the Advocate? I quote:

Oliver said a successful LUS venture could create a monopoly in the parish.

Why would BellSouth want to keep all its operations in a parish where it had no other significant business interest, Oliver asked rhetorically.

The call center, which handles customer service tasks for Cingular, could be located in “Timbuktu” and still perform the same services, Oliver said.

“Would you still keep people there?” Oliver said

That last question has an official name: it’s known as a “rhetorical question.” What that means is that you aren’t supposed to treat it as a real question.

You are already supposed to know the answer. And the obvious answer is “No.”

That is a threat. The Advocate editorial board was supposed to regard it as a credible one and it was intended to change their behavior.

I think, if you go through it and look at it, that the letter (which was produced just in time for it to be distributed before a City-Parish response) was an attempt at damage control on the part of Oliver and BellSouth when a series of comments made by Oliver in what is usually treated as a semi-confidential setting were made public. The Advertiser, in its first write up on the media story which is no longer online, hinted at the same sorts of insinuations during a presentation to its editorial board.

The real loser in this business is the writer, Kevin Blanchard. Oliver’s little bit of damage control, probably without any (additional) malicious attempt, would leave a not-very-careful reader to wonder if the writer had lied about what Oliver said. But Oliver never does deny to have said what Blanchard said he did. That unfair implication is intensified by the Advocate’s decision to say it shouldn’t have said “threatened” in the headline. Very few people will know that writers generally do not write their own headlines. That’s usually done as the paper is dummied up by an entirely different group of people. But it leaves the impression with those who don’t know that such separation is usually the case, that the paper doesn’t fully support its writer in this. Reporters will know differently. But the Advocate should make it clear that it stands by the story and that the words quoted are accurate. The evidence is that the story is accurately and professionally written. The Advocate should be equally professional in protecting its own.

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