He’s ready for the editorial body slams

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

Being a newspaper editor in these parts during election season is a little like being the referee in a professional wrestling match. One never knows when one is going to be body slammed by one of the participants.

We are often accused of editing the letters from only one side. It gets a little old after a while, because nobody besides those who work at the newspaper know how much we edit both sides to keep them in conformance with our letter to the editor guidelines.

We try as hard as we can to be fair to all, but, human ingenuity being what it is, inevitably somebody throws a new curve into the equation.

It never ceases to amaze me why some letters get sent at all. All of the negativity that comes spilling out can’t be persuading anybody to change their vote, although I do understand that it helps reconfirm pre-existing beliefs.

The best letters, however, are those that are truly thoughtful and measured in their tone. Instead of suggesting that only an idiot would disagree with the writer or that a candidate hates children, the United States and the state of Minnesota, a few writers actually take the time to counter the arguments made by the other side and suggest that maybe things would work better if we moved in a different direction.

Regardless, we are ready for all submissions, and hope that people understand that space is limited, and we do have a few guidelines.

As always, we have a 200-word limit on letters to the editor, and permit only one letter per writer every five weeks. All letters need to include a name, street address and city as well as a daytime phone number. We publish only the name and city of residence. We verify every letter. Leave any of that information out, and your letter won’t run.

Although just about anything can be said about candidates for public office, we also consider whether letters are libelous. That means that writers need to be careful what they say about individual supporters of candidates.

We are frequently challenged by readers who say that we publish falsehoods about candidates. If we know that a factual error is in a letter, we will call the writer on it or discard the letter. However, we don’t always know if something is blatantly false. Usually the passage is only a gross distortion, and we opt to let it run in the name of robust discussion.

As I said above, I don’t think such letters are persuasive, but I understand how they irritate candidates in the heat of campaigning.

Because of space limitations, and also to spare our readers, we limit the number of letters in any issue to three which support a given candidate or attack his or her opponent.

One quirk of the Record is that we publish thank you letters on our Viewpoint pages. Most newspapers don’t do that. During campaign season, however, if someone writes to “thank” a candidate, those letters don’t run as thank yous, but go with the regular letters and count as one of the three for a candidate.

No letters attacking a candidate will run in the last issue before that candidate’s name appears on the ballot. If the candidate has a primary election contest come Aug. 12, then that means no negative shots can be taken at him or her in the Aug. 10 issue.

We also attempt to protect our letter writers from unnecessary harassment. That means that, while one can disagree with a previously published letter, the criticism needs to deal with the arguments put forth, and not with the letter writer. Don’t mention other letter writers who are non-candidates by name. If you can’t refrain from making a personal attack, your letter won’t run.

If we run a guest column during the election season (and there won’t be as many as normal because of space limits), writers who disagree can identify the guest columnist by name one time to help readers who may want to go back and read what the columnist said. But again, the argument should not be about who wrote it, but about the issues presented.

We do allow more latitude on our website, mcrecord.com. This is principally because of two reasons: First, we have more space, and second, it is the nature of the Internet to allow discussion to be more free wheeling. In fact, we have a greater concern about libel in the newspaper than online because of recent court rulings. Whenever we are in doubt about whether to publish a comment in the paper or online, the first thing we do is contact our attorney.

I have heard from readers who think we are way too restrictive in what we post, and I have also heard from others who can’t understand why we allow posters so much latitude.

Our goal remains to ensure that both sides are heard on any given issue, while maintaining some small smidgen of civility.

Some readers have told me that some of the comments that appear online have hurt the community’s image because they are so spiteful in tone. “Who would want to live here?” they ask, if that is how people treat each other?

Good question. Like that referee, we are caught between the head lock of wanting all views heard, and the arm twisting that determines how much incivility is too much.

All I can say is that most people rarely find insults and accusations persuasive, and urge all letter writers and online contributors to keep that in mind.

Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 616-1932 or by email at [email protected].