Saturday, January 5, 2008

Dead Letter Office

What's up with The Morning News? Is no one writing Letters to the Editor of TMN, have the editors decided that those letters submitted have nothing important to say, do the editors think that syndicated columnists are more valuable than local voices, or do the publisher and editors selectively decide which viewpoints will be approved and allowed to join the public debate?

Whatever is going on, it makes little sense. I have no doubt that Stephens Media, Inc. is aware that WEHCO Media, Inc. is waging a war for circulation and advertising dollars. The inclusion of local letters from the people is one way to overcome the fact that the paper is a small link in a large corporate chain headquartered elsewhere, just as the sports section reports local games and scores instead of those from Las Vegas. The absence of letters from locals might lead to the assumption that either there are few local readers or that the newspaper is not covering anything interesting enough for armchair activists to write about in response.

The opinion page is usually one of the most popular sections of most newspapers, and it reaches some influential people. Many local politicians regularly monitor letters to the editor to get a feel for the views of their constituents. While we hold certain expectations about the media's responsibility to readers, trying to stiffle citizen opinion or impose a false consensus is not one of them. The Columbia Journalism Review examined the media's bandwagon for Bush's rush to war and discovered editorial efforts that distorted public opinion.
The letters editor at The Tennessean said that "letters were running 70 percent against the war, but that the editors were trying to run as many prowar letters as possible lest they be accused of bias." The people had it right, but no one could listen.

The Committee of Concerned Journalists suggest that
journalism should work both ways in a community, and citizens have to do our part in the relationship. We have a responsibility to be engaged, to send e-mails, and letters to the editor, to be part of the public forum and in some cases to initiate it. That only works if newspapers reciprocate, treat us with enough respect to consider our views, and publish our contributions to the dialog about public affairs. Editors and readers can both learn if that happens and both realize
that even the oddballs represent a portion of the community and probably have something interesting (even if not enlightening) to add to the conversation. That's one reason I enjoy the comments section on this blog.

Editorial writers and columnists have informed opinions, but they don't have them all nor do they always know what readers might find most relevant. We would all benefit -- both the media and the reading public -- from a more vigorous discussion and a more robust debate in the Letters to the Editor section of all our local newspapers. To encourage citizen response, however, those letters must be published and in a more timely fashion.

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