Getting too hot in the opinion kitchen?
People are often upset at The Union’s Opinion Page because our readers are not shy about sharing strong views.
Lately, however, there have been complaints that we should not have printed some opinions at all. Recent examples: a criticism of homosexual lifestyles, a local cartoonist’s jab at county employees, an invitation for socialists to leave the country, and a suggestion that liberals were happy about the recent Iraq prison abuses.
So maybe it’s time to reopen the issue of The Union’s letter policy.
Longtime readers may recall that when I arrived in 2002, in the middle of a fractious political campaign, the newspaper was receiving way too many letters to fit, partly because of a 350-word limit. The reaction was to do what almost every other paper in the country does under the same circumstances: pick and choose the best letters for variety and clarity, and perhaps trim them to fit the space allotted.
After about one day of that, the firestorm of calls and e-mails alerted me that this was not going down well with readers. Seems they expected their letters to be published without question.
This launched a dialogue through this column where I explained the problems of lack of space, as well as an obvious need to rein in writers who had turned personal attacks and insults into a form of entertainment and even competition.
In the end, we came out with the Solomonic policy that stands today. All letters to the editor that hold to a 200-word limit, refrain from personal attacks, do not address other letter-writers by name, and do not include anything potentially libelous will be published.
Generally, that policy has worked fairly well until the recent spate of hypersensitivity. Of course, in times such as these -political campaign, war, social upheaval – there can be a delay of one to two weeks before a letter gets published. We reserve the right to choose when to publish letters, but usually it’s first-in, first-out. There are exceptions, such as this week when we filled up a page with letters about the prison photos.
This delay leads people to call or e-mail and ask where their letters are. Usually, they are polite, and we explain that their letter is coming up in a day or two, or that there are about 40 letters ahead of them.
Some get impatient and send their letter again, which runs the danger of getting a letter in twice. (Although we catch most of these, a duplicate occasionally gets through. If it’s a partisan letter, the other side will accuse us of publishing the letter twice just for spite.)
Other folks get downright insulting, especially via e-mail, which is an interesting tactic if you are trying to persuade somebody to do something for you. Here’s an example of an e-mail I received this week:
“I need an explanation. I wrote a letter awhile ago, expressing an opinion that I thought was timely and much needed to compliment [sic] the same old drivel that had been flooding the opinion section as of late. I mailed it to you and it was mailed back with the response that it was too long. I shortened my letter and had it back in the mail to you promptly.
“I have not received a response from you or your staff, nor has my letter been published. I’d like to know why. . . . Get on the ball with it or I’ll be forced to write yet another letter, this time announcing to the public that you refused to print it because my views don’t support your own liberal opinions. *sticking my tongue out in your direction*”
The digital sticking out of the tongue was an interesting new twist. Just to show there are no hard feelings, this person’s letter is printed today. But the anger shown prompts me to ask readers – especially those who contribute to or read this page regularly – whether we need to change the rules again.
Do you want the editors to pick and choose which topics should be verboten and which should not? If so, could we ever agree on what a list of those topics would look like? If we had such a list, and whitewashed all letters and columns, would anyone ever be interested enough in this page to read it? Or would a letter’s unprintability be like the Supreme Court justice’s comment about pornography: “I can’t explain what it is, but I know it when I see it”?
I had a discussion the other day with a friend in the arts and broadcast fields, who asked whether The Union would have run an Other Voices such as the homosexual lifestyles column if it had to do with, say, African Americans. My reply was, not if it was a gratuitous slur. But if it were a discussion of a public issue such as affirmative action, as the gay column was linked to the same-sex marriage debate, the answer probably would be yes.
For one, if we are to have an opinion page is a public sphere for debate by all people in Nevada County, then there will be views that are abhorrent to some even though they may be ascribed to by thousands. And second, no view is ever changed by hiding it away in the dark. Better open the taboo topic to the light of day for discussion and debate.
Is there racism in Nevada County? Are there gay-bashers? Is rampant methamphetamine abuse threatening our public safety? No doubt. And protecting some peoples’ sensitive feelings will not make that go away.
What do you think? Do you want to be protected from yourselves? E-mail email@example.com, or write in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, CA 95945. We’ll share comments in our next column.
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.
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