Rules of Engagement
I have often thought that our editorial staff meetings could be live-streamed. I find the conversations stimulating.
Yesterday we were talking about a letter that arrived via the mail humorously responding to the Adolph Hitler quote that we ran on August 16.
The paper was answering the Boston Globe’s call to the nation’s press to respond in their own way, in their own communities, and connect with readers about the dangers to our democracy with the news being unilaterally called “fake news” and the name-calling of the media as the enemy of the people. In an editorial entitled “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” the paper called for dialog between people with differing views. (“We don’t just make community with people we get along with. We have to make community with people we don’t agree with,” I am oft to say when out and about.)
The letter arrived, complete with name, and return address printed on the outside. The letter inside was unsigned. Clearly, the letter writer was not trying to conceal who they were – they were offering a witty response to the August 16th editorial pages. They signed it “Name withheld for fear of presidential retalliation.”
I gave it to Managing Editor Anne Willard. “Too bad we don’t print unsigned letters,” I said.
At that, I went back to my Acting Sales Manager desk.
Days passed. Perhaps even a week. A call was received, “Why wasn’t my letter printed?”
We get those calls sometimes. As we print pretty much all letters, a letter not printed could be because an email wasn’t received. Sometimes it’s because the letter writer still had the said letter in their drafts folder. Sometimes it’s because there is a queue of letters waiting for space in the paper.
As I’m not the person who gets the bulk of the letters via email, I wasn’t sure that I could answer the caller’s question.
“Doesn’t the paper have a sense of humor,” the letter writer wanted to know. And then I understood. It was the writer of the unsigned letter.
“Of course, we do,” I said. “We just don’t publish anonymous letters. I know you weren’t hiding who you were. I thought it was funny. Give me your number and I’ll have Managing Editor Anne Willard, who takes care of that section, call you.”
When Anne called, she explained that this was the first week that she had room to print the letter, as she was prioritizing letters about the upcoming September 13 primary. She then told the writer that we needed a name for the letter to be published. The writer did not want that and Anne said that she would bring it up at the editorial meeting on Wednesday.
And so she did.
At the meeting, Anne was emphatic about our policy of not printing anonymous letters. While I agreed, I offered that historically there had been a few times that the paper has printed letters with “Name withheld upon request,” as long as we knew who the writer was. This was a way to allow for victims of crimes, particularly rape, to have access to express to the community their thoughts or issues, while maintaining anonymity.
We talked about how important it is to have criteria that the paper can use diligently and equally to ascertain under what circumstances the paper would withhold a name. And that now was a time to revisit those criteria. Anne, who is retiring on December 1, said she hoped the process would be completed by her successor.
(Yepper, we’re interviewing candidates interested in being the next Managing Editor of The River Reporter. The job is listed here.)
And we agreed: this particular letter did not rise to the occasion of withholding someone’s name due to reprisals or repercussions. Without a name, the letter would not be printed. We are sorry to disappoint the letter writer.
Discussions like this are happening in newsrooms across the country. (Indeed, the New York Times just published an anonymous op-ed piece from a senior offical in the White House; I would have loved to have that conversation live-streamed or been a fly on that wall.)
Discussions like this remind me how important the newspaper is in the facilitation of civic and civil dialogue.
Dialogue like this happens when people have a forum to show up to, complete with their very closely held opinions, and offer them to the community in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
Oh, if that were so, in all our interactions.