About tone, atonement

Write enough columns and you’ll find that readers often aren’t sponges but mirrors.

The same column can provoke feedback from just as many readers who agree with your argument as those who think you’re off your rocker.

So I was taken aback when a recent column provoked an overwhelmingly negative reaction. E-mails, typed letters, voice-mail messages - people registered their strong disagreement with what I thought was my point.

In a column that ran April 10, I questioned why a public company should financially support a personal charitable donation made by its chief executive officer.

It involved Alan B. Miller, founder and CEO of Universal Health Services Inc., who agreed three years ago to make a sizable donation to his alma mater, the College of William and Mary, to fund construction of a new business-school building. The board of the King of Prussia hospital company subsequently approved what it called a “special bonus” of $5 million to support his gift.

The bonus has been disclosed properly in the company’s proxy statement ever since, and the compensation committee provides several reasons for its paying the bonus.

In my opinion, the bonus was unnecessary. But in trying to make that point, I not only wasn’t clear, some of the language I used created impressions among readers that I didn’t intend.

First off, the headline was “Philanthropy using OPM.” I winced when I saw the headline the next morning, because the acronym for “other people’s money” was a staple of The Inquirer’s coverage of the corruption trial of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.

In Philadelphia, the phrase OPM now equals felonious behavior, even though business and government would grind to a halt without access to other people’s money.

It’s standard journalistic practice that reporters don’t write their own headlines. I didn’t write that one, but headline writers take their cues from the actual words of the column. And I’d created the environment for it to be written.

Several readers cited Fumo’s name in their messages to me. They believed I was equating Miller’s donation to the ones made by Peco Energy and Verizon to Fumo’s nonprofit Citizen’s Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. I had no such intention. Fumo’s name doesn’t appear in the column at all.

A couple of readers wondered why I was questioning Miller’s generosity. If you knew him, one said, you’d change your tune.

Well, I don’t know Alan Miller. I only know of him. He started Universal Health Services in 1978 and has been its only CEO ever since. In an era when CEOs last about as long as NFL running backs, that’s unheard of.

Under Miller, Universal Health Services has grown into one of the nation’s biggest for-profit hospital corporations with 127 hospitals and behavioral health centers. For-profit hospital companies come and go, but Miller’s has not only endured but thrived.

It was ranked No. 467 on this year’s Fortune 500 list. Only 13 other local companies that file their financials with the Securities and Exchange Commission are bigger.

But bigger doesn’t mean much without profits. Universal Health Services generated net income of $199.4 million, or $3.93 a share, on revenue of $5.02 billion in 2008.

Over the last decade, Universal Health Services’ shares have risen 61 percent, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index has declined 36 percent. Miller, who’s a major stockholder in his company, has built a fortune. And I applaud any entrepreneur who can turn his start-up into a giant.

However, I questioned (and still do) the wisdom of the board of directors in approving a special bonus of $5 million to support Miller’s gift to his alma mater.

Unfortunately, readers tended to interpret my complaint as a comment on Miller’s apparent lack of philanthropy. That was not my intent.

When I talked with Alan Miller on the phone 10 days after the column ran, it was clear that my words had hurt him. He was uncomfortable having to defend his personal contributions when he makes little effort to publicize them in the first place. (The amount of his donation to William and Mary hasn’t been disclosed.)

Besides supporting various local cultural organizations, Miller said he made a point of paying back those institutions in his background that helped him become the success he is today. He got a scholarship to attend William and Mary, a college that he says he never could have afforded.

Now that he can afford much in life, he’s been giving back. My column indelicately implied that he was doing so only with help from the company he runs.

I was trying to make a point about executive pay and corporate governance. I made it badly.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is all well and good as a journalistic mantra. But I employed the literary skills of a logger rather than a surgeon.