Keep those letters coming!

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer November 14, 2009 06:00 am

One of the things I like about the Letters to the Editor section is that it is often self-regulating.

Case in point: The Pilot recently published a number of letters containing strong criticism of President Obama that amounted to nothing more than name-calling. I was about to write a column suggesting that people lay off the President and focus on more pressing issues when readers took matters into their own hands: They wrote letters saying they’d had enough of the “Obama bashing.”

I love being the caretaker of such community interchange. It’s never a dull moment!

On any given week here at the Pilot, I receive a dozen or so letters. Like a child on Christmas morning, I eagerly open them, not knowing whether it will contain a thoughtful take on a community issue, a wonderful compliment, or a lump of coal.

Recognizing the name of a regular letter writer on the envelope, fax or e-mail, I often smile, and sometimes groan. Occasionally there is no name signed to the letter, but the Pilot’s policy doesn’t allow me to publish anonymous letters. It’s a rule that was in place long before my time, and one that is practiced at most newspapers. Still, I receive at least one anonymous letter a month.

My first thought about an anonymous letter is that the writer is too cowardly to sign his or her name. If one feels strongly about his or her convictions, then show it by signing it! Without a signature, I can’t help but question the writer’s conviction about the chosen topic, or wonder about the writer’s true intent.

Writing an anonymous letter to the editor is too often an easy way to attack someone and escape the potential backlash. It’s not fighting fair. And such letters don’t get published.

A few letters that are signed can be venomous. Some writers use the “letters to the editor” section to carry out a personal agenda; to lash out at a person rather than an issue of concern to readers.

When I get a particularly cantankerous letter, one in which the sole intent seems to be to attack another’s character, I contact the writer and tell them I don’t like to publish letters that are simply name-calling and make no contribution to an issue at hand. If there is a valid point to be made in the letter, but it is overshadowed by the overall nasty tone of the letter, I share that with the writer. Often, the writer submits one that is less inflammatory.

It’s not that I expect all letters to be sugar and spice, but I expect a certain level of civility. I believe readers feel likewise.

It’s one thing to publicly disagree with another’s actions or philosophy – and, by all means, state your reasons why, but it’s quite another to harass, insult or criticize a person in print simply to do so. There’s enough negativity in the world already.

Overall, the letters to the editor are one of the most enjoyable aspects of being the editor. I appreciate the feedback – good and bad. It’s the one place in the newspaper where the citizens of our wonderful community can share their thoughts with the rest of us.

So keep those letters coming. Just make sure you keep it civil – and that it’s signed.