July 30, 2003

The letters to the editor section is the prime forum of democracy in a newspaper, the place where the little guy gets to have his say.

But what if the little guy is a raging anti-Semite?

Is it worth inserting racist, sexist, or otherwise extreme remarks into a newspaper just so all views can be represented? And what is the line between ensuring a diversity of viewpoints and elevating a fringe opinion into the mainstream?

Prompted by a letter from reader Joyce Berman, Dr. Ink takes a stab at these questions in today’s column. I also talked to two Editorial Page Editors about the letters to the editor practices in place at their papers.

John Taylor is the Editorial Page Editor of the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal and President of the National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Jack Wilson is the Editorial Page Editor of the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard, Joyce Berman’s local paper.

Here are some snippets from the three interviews:

Should objectionable letters to the editor be published in the paper?

Dr. Ink:
“By all means, editors should keep a lid on some forms of offensive speech, especially the kinds that might incite violence. In every other case, let’s err on the side of inclusion.”

John Taylor: “I publish it because I think it deserves publication, even though it’s on the edge.” The danger of offending readers, Taylor says, is “far outweighed by the service that you do letting … your reading public and the public at large know that this viewpoint … is a real viewpoint and it exists in the community.”

Jack Wilson: “There’s some value in providing readers with a notion of what people in their community are saying and thinking. … We do our best to maintain a kind of a coarse filter and err on the side of publishing something rather than not publishing it.”

What are the dangers of publishing objectionable letters?

Joyce Berman (via Dr. Ink): “Many of them are hateful, bigoted, extreme viewpoints that seem to exacerbate extreme views in public discourse.”

John Taylor: “The danger, on a practical level, is you’ll offend some of your readers.”

Jack Wilson: “One danger is that you can kind of lower the tone of the whole letters column.”

Should you frame controversial letters in the context of other more mainstream views?

Dr. Ink: “(Controversial viewpoints invite) counterpoint, either from editorialists at the paper, or other potential letter writers.”

John Taylor: “No, not necessarily. … When we organize around a topic, yeah, then we try to balance it out, if that’s possible. But … on a day-to-day basis, it’s what fits, and what’s interesting, and what’s closest to the news. All very practical reasons, and without a lot of thought to making sure that we have one here and then another one there.”

Jack Wilson: “There is a self-correcting nature in any letters column where if someone goes too far out of line, three people will jump in to blow the whistle on them. We generally do not respond to letters with editorials of our own, it seems a little unfair to us to restrict people to 250 words and then the next day go after them with an editorial in larger type and all the authority of the newspaper behind it.”

[ What should newspapers consider when deciding which letters to put in and which to omit? ]

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