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Matthew Von Pinnon, Published June 13 2010

Von Pinnon: Is there value in knowing who files for bankruptcy?

‘The purpose of this letter is to plead with you not to print the notice of our bankruptcy.”

So started a typed note I received a few weeks ago. The letter went on to describe in some detail how this married couple ended up in bankruptcy.

He was afflicted with a disease that prevented him from working. She was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and had to take a lot of time off from work for surgeries and chemotherapy, resulting in lost wages.

They used their credit cards to keep their heads above water while she was sick, intending to sell their home once she was better to pay off their debts.

Then, the housing crisis hit, and they couldn’t sell. They even tried to auction the property, to no success.

The couple attempted to negotiate a modest re-payment plan with the credit card companies (two of which received federal bailouts), but the companies wouldn’t have it and began filing judgments.

“We do not live a lavish lifestyle, and we drive old vehicles,” the writer said.

“Now we are half-sick at the thought that your paper will print our names under the bankruptcies filed.” They asked us to omit their names.

Those kinds of letters and calls stick with me. They are not uncommon, mind you – people who know their names will appear in print for negative reasons often plead with us to make exceptions, which we don’t do.

Sometimes, teens or college kids caught for underage drinking call, concerned their parents or employers will learn of their indiscretions.

Some people say they will hurt themselves if we publish their names.

I used to dismiss that as an overwrought attempt to sway us until one day a few years ago:

A man called to say his elderly mother loaned him her life savings to start a business, that the business had failed, she was now near death, and he couldn’t bear for her to learn of his bankruptcy.

He cried as I told him I couldn’t make an exception.

I learned the next day he killed himself shortly after our call.

I don’t think realizing his name would be in the paper was the biggest problem in his life, but it might have been the final blow to an otherwise fragile man.

I brought the recent letter to our last Readers Board meeting, looking for feedback on whether they saw value in us publishing the names of those who file for bankruptcies.

Newspapers for years and years have done it. It was intended to alert people and businesses to those who may not be able to pay their debts. I suppose it was also a deterrent, an established community standard.

Members of our Readers Board made good cases for and against continuing this practice in The Forum.

I’d like to know how our wider audience sees it. Is there value in publishing bankruptcy filings? Why or why not? I’ll include some community thoughts in a follow-up column in a few weeks.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Write him at mvonpinnon@forumcomm.com or at 101 5th St. N., Fargo, ND 58102.