Times Readers Regret This Error

The couple was young, in love and about to formalize their commitment with a wedding. So, like many engaged couples, they sought to participate in the ultimate rite of passage for New Yorkers of a certain background and education, a wedding announcement in The New York Times .

There was just one problem: One of the spouses-to-be had been married before. It had wound up bitterly. Under The Times ‘ antiquated policy, it was either put up that information-or don’t look for an announcement in the Sunday Styles section.

The couple reluctantly agreed. And when the announcement eventually appeared it was exactly what they had hoped for. Until the last paragraph. That said: “The groom’s previous marriage ended in divorce.”

The couple wasn’t trying to keep that a secret from anyone; they just wanted the right to tell whom they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted. The Times took that away from them.

That groom was my son. And his embarrassment over his wedding announcement prompted me to start a one-man drive to get The Times to change its hurtful policy.

It took me 18 months of letter-writing and phone calls. But, in the end, I got The Times to see my point. Or did I?

I started with Robert Woletz, The Times ‘ society news editor. Is this anybody’s business? Is there a reason to intrude on misfortune in the lives of private people to protect the people’s right to know? Mr. Woletz thought there was. “It [listing a previous marriage] is an important part of who they [the bride and groom] are-no less important than if they graduated Phi Beta Kappa.”

Even as an ex-newspaperman, I found it hard to follow his logic. Did he really think having a failed marriage was analogous to graduating from college with honors?

I was not the first to criticize the divorce listing. Mr. Woletz said many brides and grooms protested. But, he said, The Times had reviewed the policy several times. Each time, it decided to retain it.

Mr. Woletz added that he did not think the policy was objectionable. After all, divorce was commonplace today, “a part of the sociology of our times.” As such, its inclusion really does not hurt anyone.

If that is so, I asked, why did so many object? And since divorce happens so often, wasn’t that an argument for its omission? Why not allow its inclusion to be optional?

I wrote to The Times ‘ publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. That was in October 1997. He passed my letter to Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor. Mr. Siegal, known as the custodian of Times style, was not defensive-at first. He said he found my argument “challenging and thought-provoking.” But he wanted to get the reaction of a small group of writers and editors before getting back to me.

Four months passed. I wrote again. To his surprise, Mr. Siegal said, Times people “differed widely, some vehemently.” He would think some more and keep me posted.

Another five months passed. I wrote again. The matter was still under review. “I know you feel strongly on one side of the question,” Mr. Siegal said. “Those on the other side feel equally strongly, and make the point that no one (at least no private personality) is required to have her or his marriage reported in The Times .”

Four more months passed. I wrote once more. This time, Mr. Siegal had news. “Candor compels me to tell you the most surprising thing I discovered. We had reviewed the question quite thoroughly in 1991 and adopted a policy permitting exceptions.”

In a memo, The Times said it would “permit the omission of prior marriages when a couple so insist”-subject to four exceptions. They were: when children are mentioned, if the couple’s ages would be unusual in a first marriage, when the bride’s surname differs from her parents’ and if one or both is a celebrity or public figure.

Mr. Siegal said there had been a succession of personnel changes and the policy dropped through the cracks. “I am sorry this reply was so long in the making,” he said. “… I also regret the discomfort our lapse caused your family.”

I wrote one more letter. Two questions remained. Would The Times make a public apology to other couples similarly situated? And would it “Mirandize” future brides and grooms who went through a divorce by telling them up front of their right to keep the matter private?

I asked the latter question because the memo’s wording made me suspect that The Times did not automatically disclose that a divorced bride or groom had the right to veto mention of a prior marriage. In fact, the policy, I later learned, applied only if the couple spontaneously objected-without knowing their rights-when the question about prior marriage was asked by a fact-checking reporter.

Mr. Siegal replied obliquely to my first question, saying that The Times admits errors “dozens of times each week.” As to the second, Mr. Siegal made it clear this would be his final word. He wrote: “… As a former reporter, you will surely understand that a newspaper retains control over the editing of its news columns. Our wedding announcements are news articles …”

“Until now,” he concluded, “I have tried not to react to your tone because I sympathized with your impatience during my long delay in getting you a reply. But the delay is past, the policy is approximately the one you advocated, and you have had my expression of regret. I think we had both best get on with other work.”

Tell that to Peter M. Schwartz of Washington, D.C. I called him because The Times listed his wife’s divorce in their wedding announcement in May. “I understand the paper looks at it as a news article,” he told me. “But I thought (adding the divorce) was gratuitiously negative. It struck a wooden note.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? A wedding is a cherished moment. Why darken it with a gratuitous peek into a past life that has no business intruding on a bride and groom’s future? Neither should The New York Times .