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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – PUBLIC COMMUNICATION OR ARTIFACT?

December 9, 2014

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR – PUBLIC COMMUNICATION OR ARTIFACT?

Some commentators these days have concluded that the Letters to the Editor page in newspapers has had its day; that such letters amount to artifacts of a bygone age of the pamphleteering days of Thomas Paine during Revolutionary times and socialists during the Great Depression; that give too much public vent to the hoi polloi and minority opinion when editorial viewpoints on issues of the day should better be left to the pros; that freedom of the press includes freedom for the press to be free from uninformed views of those who have their own axes to grind; that we can trust the press to bring us commentary on the issues of the day in a fair, balanced and Pulitzer-approved ethical fashion.

Yes, we have had our bouts with yellow dog journalism and other misuse of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. Yes, we have “Republican” newspapers and “Democratic” newspapers, but abuse of such freedom by a newspaper (like our much abused “freedom of religion” by TV preachers and other save-a-soul con artists along with abusers of other such constitutionally guaranteed “freedoms” have had and are having in their intersection with the public) finally finds equilibrium or appeals only to a limited readership. I think this assertion is especially accurate in these days when newspapers as we know them are challenged to even survive what with competition from the internet and TV. Even with an overall increase in population, subscriptions are hard to come by, as proven by the experience of many newspapers that have gone or are going out of business.

Newspapers don’t start wars anymore. The last claim for that dubious honor was a public statement by the owner of a certain newspaper happily chortling that he “had started the Spanish-American War” with his jaundiced efforts. It is not often that we hear a newspaper owner or executive admit to sponsoring propaganda that brought on a war or a panic or other such potential catastrophe. One is reminded of the braggadocio of Dr. Goebbels and his brainwashing genius in bringing Hitler to power in such a connection. Governments (though perhaps influenced by every point along the peace to war spectrum ranging from neocon warriors to Quaker peaceniks) start and end wars.

So should our remaining newspapers junk their letters to the editor pages and instead sell such space in advertising in order to survive their fierce competition? I think not. We readers would in such a case be getting less for our money and more junk advertising to discard, both precursors to cancellation of our subscriptions. We have options with magazines, the internet, TV and other such organs of communication. I understand that not every subscriber is such an avid reader of these pages as I am, but there are many who share my desire to read what ordinary people are thinking, and newspapers faced with extinction hardly need cancellation or non-renewal of a single subscription.

Another good reason to keep such pages alive in the press (albeit one of political philosophy) is that ours is a representative democracy, one whose freedoms ultimately depend upon the free flow of information and opinion throughout the land. Uninformed and even ignorant letters to the editor for public consumption should enjoy publication for the reading public to dissect and adopt or reject. As an old retired congressman told me one time when I was complaining about how the electorate could elect such a then present day ignoramus to the Congress: “Now, now, Gerald. There are a lot of ignorant people in his congressional district, and they have a right to be represented.” I laughed at his response, but secretly thought he was taking this democratic ideal too far and harbored the view that if I were anti-democratic in even asking such a question and could therefore be described as an “elitist,” that I would bear the title proudly.

I left that bar association restaurant after this memorable encounter with a better understanding of the reach of democracy, though I did not like some of its applications in the real world of the political. On balance, and as Sir Winston Churchill noted: “Democracy is the worst form of government there is, except for all the rest of them.” We are thus called upon to honor the points of view of all citizens in a democracy, however arrived at and however out of kilter they may seem to be with our versions, and I think that letters to the editor pages provide a means to flesh out these disparities for the reading public to read, digest and debate in expanding our participation in the democratic process.

With the foregoing as prelude, and with the claim of some that opinion should be left to the pros, I offer the following letter verbatim printed just today in our local “Republican” newspaper letter to the editor page as proof to the contrary. Without taking a stand on the particular positions taken by its author, I am quite impressed with how he writes so succinctly and with such power of logic.

“There’s a well-known saying: ‘May you live in interesting times.’” “Considering the following political landscape, we are very fortunate. A low number of voters voted in a midterm election for a low-approval-rated Congress and they did it not because of what that party has actually done, but what they are against. Republicans complain about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, despite continued findings of no fault. They complain about Obamacare but offer no alternative. They cite disapproval numbers for Obamacare, neglecting the fact many of those counted as opposed are not affected by it. Those who now have insurance through Obamacare are certainly in favor.”

“Republicans complain about immigration reform, but refuse to vote on anything. They oppose the president using executive order despite the fact he has used it less than any president in the past 100 years. Republicans are opposed to equal rights for women and gays, think those in need are ‘just lazy,’ and want to reduce entitlements and social support.”

“Republicans have no leader, are broken into several conflicting factions and cannot agree how to get in out of the rain. But the party that couldn’t accomplish anything in six years takes control of both houses of Congress, at least until 2016, when the ‘Country for Sale’ signs start going up and the insanity continues no matter who wins.”

Yes, these are interesting times, but it is hard to think of them as much more than that.” (End of letter)

Could a pro have expressed his or her positions better and more forcefully than this amateur? I doubt it, and I think this letter, no matter its content and whether you agree or disagree with his positions taken, is Exhibit Number One in why we should keep our letters to the editor intact in our remaining papers.

Letters such as the one here reproduced are certain to provoke retaliatory responses, and that is a plus for democracy. We need every forum we can find to facilitate such public give and take, and letters to the editor pages afford a potent opportunity for such open interchanges. Let’s keep them.    GERALD   E

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