On letters to the editor

I got a phone call this week complaining about a letter to the editor we recently ran.

The caller, whom I know and respect, said they thought we were supposed to be “different” than some of the other newspapers in the community.

We are “different” in the sense that we run a lot of local news.

We are different in the sense that we strive to be a voice of leadership in the community that pushes Newton forward.

But we’re not different from the newspapers across the country that are willing to run letters to the editor on their opinion page, even if many people in their communities don’t agree with them.

I get these phone calls from conservatives and liberals and the argument is always “Yes, we know you might not feel that way, but you’re giving this person I don’t like a platform.”

And they’re right. If we wished to, we could only publish opinions that don’t offend a specific reader. The question is: which one of the 1,500 readers is it going to be? First one to call me Thursday wins?

Arthur Miller said a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself. And, for us, a good local newspaper is a community talking to itself. That’s a service that’s growing rarer today.

We humans are a tribal bunch. With social media, we only have an easier time removing those who we don’t agree with from our social circle.

So many of my friends spent a good three months dumbfounded when Donald Trump won the election, so well curated were their social media bubbles. And I know people who think the majority of Americans don’t believe in global warming and that Obama was a Kenyan Muslim.

The point is that even on a local level we’re now able to insulate ourselves in our churches, our friend groups, and our Internet usage so we don’t have to come up against opinions we disagree with.

But a newspaper serves a whole community, and all of the sudden, you get to see a whole community’s opinions—without the filter.

I think it’s newsworthy to know what other people are thinking. Those thoughts are not published as fact but as opinion.

We do have rules for letters to the editor. They must not resort to personal attacks. We prohibit offensive language. They must be within a word count. They must be signed. One author can’t submit more than once every few weeks. If a letter makes claims or includes numbers, I often ask the author for the source of those numbers if it didn’t come from something we ourselves reported in the paper.

Outside of that, if they fall into our guidelines, I run them.

And I’ll let you all in on a secret. I agree with perhaps a third of the letters we publish. I hate publishing some of them. I dislike them, because I know I’ll have to make this same spiel to some upset reader who calls. I dislike them, because I know that I might have to work a week later to try to address such a viewpoint in an article or on the editorial page. And I dislike them, because at times they go after people or institutions that I think do a good job. But I’m not the Pope of Newton Opinions, though I do pontificate often.

So I look all the letters over to make sure they fit into our letters policy. And if they don’t, I speak with the author. If they do, I publish them.

And I’m going to stand up for the practice of publishing the opinions of the community. That’s our job.

If you don’t care for an opinion someone presents, or want to make your views heard, I’ll be happy to publish your letter as well. You just have to be willing to write it and put your name on it.

After a conversation with the caller on the phone this week about letters to the editor, I saw their view, and I think at least they saw mine. We had a conversation. That’s how it should work in this country. And as long as we can, we’re going to at least try to facilitate those conversations.