By: Dave Astor
Jeanne Phillips, co-author of “Dear Abby,” isn’t the first advice columnist to alert police to the possible criminality of a letter writer. In fact, Phillips told E&P Online that her mother — the original “Abby” — quietly contacted the police several times when more involved with the 46-year-old column. But Phillips’ recent action received more publicity than other cases.
After a letter writer indicated he had fantasies involving sex with children, Phillips notified Milwaukee police. On Monday, they arrested the man after allegedly finding child pornography on his computer.
“I was shocked the police department kind of betrayed the confidence,” said Phillips, noting that she didn’t expect the Milwaukee authorities to announce to the media that she was the one who notified them. Phillips, who said she didn’t consult her mother before making this month’s decision, previously notified police several years ago after receiving a letter from a man saying he had been hired to do a contract killing.
Everyone queried by E&P Online believes Phillips’ action will have little or no impact on the number of readers seeking advice.
“Most people would still write to an advice columnist,” said Houston Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor Susan Bischoff. “I would be very surprised if this had a chilling effect.”
“If it sparks a trend for the criminal element of America to no longer write advice columnists, we can live with that,” deadpanned Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers Group.
WPWG advice columnist Carolyn Hax added that readers can always write anonymously. The Milwaukee man — 28-year-old Paul Weiser — apparently gave Phillips his name and address.
Phillips said she agonized before alerting police, but now feels “I made the right decision.” She said children could have been in danger, and that Weiser knew he needed help. “He has a conscience,” Phillips said.
Phillips said response to her action has been “overwhelmingly” positive.
“I think she did the right thing,” said Shearer. “I haven’t read the letter she received, but clearly it bothered her.”
“I give her credit for seeing the need for action and taking it,” added Hax.
Bischoff said she understands the right to privacy and confidentiality, but “I would never second-guess someone who thinks she might be protecting a child. For me, the hot button is children and children as victims. Jeanne is a very solid journalist, and I know she didn’t do this lightly.” The former American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors president added that the Chronicle once received an essay-contest entry from a child talking about being abused. “We made the choice to report it,” she said.
Universal Press Syndicate is backing Phillips “100%,” said Director of Communications Kathie Kerr, who added that Universal has received no complaints from the 1,200 “Dear Abby” clients.
Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said an advice columnist and reader have a relationship more akin to therapist/patient than reporter/source. So she noted that it’s difficult to judge what Phillips did in the context of journalism ethics.