27 June 2006

Freedom to speak

As the editor of a weekly newspaper that serves an upscale bedroom community full of new McMansions and older, leafy, neighborhoods with human-sized homes, a trendy grocery store and a huge monstrosity of a retail project on the other side of the freeway, I often find myself pondering what question to ask for the paper's “people on the street” feature.

The feature is comprised of five random mugshots of smiling residents, their names and their (generally) brief answers to the week’s question. A previous editor with a sadistic turn of mind and far too much time (and, apparently, a daunting editorial hole) on her hands started it many years ago, and I inherited it.

A question of the week. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Nooooo, grasshopper. You think up a new, random question once a week, 52 weeks a year, that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Sure, there are the old seasonal stand-bys, such as “Where are you going for summer vacation?” or, in honor of Father’s Day, “What’s the most important thing your Dad ever taught you?” Last week it was “How are you staying cool in this scorching hot weather?”

These are innocuous questions that no one feels uncomfortable answering.

We do get the occasional humdinger of an answer. To “What’s the best birthday present you ever got?” one smirking teen told our dutiful (and perhaps credulous) reporter that his best was a gift from his aunt: lunch at the local Hooters.

Yes, I printed it. Yes, I received indignant letters from my previously silent readership. I loved it. I printed them, too.

Then there are the slightly deeper questions. “If you could sit down and talk with a great historical figure, who would it be?” Believe it or not, that one often requires the follow-up question “Why?”

Now, being a newsy sort, I’m always tempted to ask newsy questions. Like “How do you feel about having your phone secretly tapped by the government without a warrant?” or “What are your thoughts regarding the withdrawal of troops from Iraq?” or “What do you think of President Bush adding ‘signing statements’ to the laws he signs?”

You know, those niggly little questions.

But when we ask questions like that, people wave us off. Literally. Some are rude, some are not, but they all walk away. They don’t want to answer or have their names and photos associated with their answers. Sometimes – and this one is a jaw-dropper – they haven’t even heard of the subject.

You think you have to live under a rock not to have heard of the Abramoff scandal or the Plame case? Take it from me – you just have to live in a bedroom community outside a major city. Chances are, if you have heard of the issue, you haven’t paid enough attention to form a coherent opinion one way or another.

Occasionally, though, I’ll attempt one of these hard questions anyway. I’d really like to know what people in the community think about the bigger issues facing us as a nation. There are important concepts of good and bad, of morality, of right and wrong, of freedom of speech, civil rights, the right to privacy and both personal and national security underpinning them. I already know what the politicians and pundits are saying – and I believe that neither really reflect what everyday Americans actually think, even in moneyed, conservative communities like the one my paper serves.

“What do you think about an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage?” That’s a doozy. I always have a back-up question handy, like “Are you a dog-person or a cat-person (and why)?” Because I know even before the intrepid reporter leaves the office (dragging her feet and with a hangdog look on her face as she mutters curses at me under her breath) that the people she approaches will likely scatter like frightened deer the moment the question is out of her mouth.

And yet, they do have opinions, whether they feel comfortable sharing them in print or not.

Today, a letter to the editor ran in the Denver Post. The writer began:

“Why have those who have continually howled at our treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo met the recent kidnapping and sadistic and brutal murders of our two young soldiers with deafening silence?” the writer asked. “Where is your outrage now?”

The writer went on to say that the U.S. “should” behead 100 prisoners in retaliation, as well as “editors, commentators, college professors and left-wing congressmen who would suddenly break their silence to come out in support of these enemy jihadists. We need to stop listening to these sanctimonious hypocrites who apply the rules of war only to our side.”

It seems fairly obvious to me that the writer’s concept of the “rules of war” does not coincide with that followed by the majority of the civilized world, to start. That aside, he (I use “he” for simplicity, not because I know the gender of the writer) most definitely has an opinion – a strong one. And because that person lives in America, he’s free to voice that opinion and even have it printed as a letter to the editor in his local newspaper.

Would I print it? Is refusing to print it a form of censorship?

It’s a tough call. The writer’s opinion is incendiary, ugly and morally beyond the pale. Calling for beheadings of helpless prisoners – violently and savagely ending the lives of 100 people in retaliation for the violent and savage deaths of two of ours – is not the way the vast majority of us think or would behave, as Americans. Extending that extreme violence to others who don’t happen to share the writer’s viewpoint is also repugnant.

And yet, that is the writer’s personal opinion.

Should the Denver Post’s editorial page editor, Jon Wolman, have published the letter? He said, according to Editor & Publisher, that “Clearly, it is an extreme commentary and you might expect it reflects a strain of opinion that is out there ... We make an editorial judgment. Is it too extreme for people to know that there is a strain of that commentary out there? Sadly, some people feel as strongly as the letter-writer.”

Sadly, yes. Is it the duty of a newspaper to print it, though? Who was served as they read that letter? It certainly got the attention of E&P, and since has appeared in a slew of blogs and other publications, with varied reactions. Was the letter published in order to create discussion within the Denver Post’s editorial pages? To get others to write letters agreeing with or refuting the writer’s opinion? To open the eyes of its readers to extreme opinions? Was Wolman having an Ann Coulter moment, hoping to cash in on adverse publicity? Or did he publish it simply to allow the writer to express himself publicly in our free society?

Decency and a certain personal distaste for such a cold, ugly opinion would give me pause, I’ll admit. I’d want to chuck that letter into the round file, fast. I’d prefer not to inflict it on the community of decent, peaceful people my paper serves. And yet, as Wolman said, that “strain of opinion” is out there. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an ignorant, emotional one, not the opinion of someone who has really thought through exactly what he’s advocating. But yes, it’s “out there.”

I’d have to do some real soul-searching. By showing my readers that such opinions may be held by their neighbors, have I helped them? Harmed them?

I don’t know the answer. I hope I never see a letter to the editor like that. But the next time I’m ready to ask a hard question for our “people on the street” feature, maybe I should ask “Should the U.S. meet barbaric savagery with barbaric savagery? Why?”

And the follow-up question, “What does that say about us as Americans?”

Imagine scattering deer.


Jeremy Cherfas said...

I faced similar hard choices on a weekly science magazine; do you publish the nuts and thereby earn the scorn of the vast majority of your readers? Or do you ignore them, adding to their already considerable sense of persecution?

In the end I suspect one does air such views, which as editor you gauge to be repugnant to most of your community, but not as frequently as they arrive. You gently pointed out that views equivalent, locally, to "Behead 100 of 'em" would stand next to no chance in some other countries.

That, to me, is the real strength of democracies such as yours and mine, one being eroded slowly but surely in both places.

roxtar said...

"Should politicians be allowed to receive gifts from lobbyists?"

"What should be the appropriate punishment for war profiteering?"

"Should the government write a prayer for children to use in schools?"

"Which of your rights would you be willing to give up for the War on Terror, and why?"

"Should Congress be allowed to pass laws that benefit the five wealthiest families in your county?"

Gee, I would think you could have tons of fun with this....

"If you had a choice between building a new public school here in Yourtown, or building an Islamic school in Baghdad, which would you choose?"

And just for fun....

"What is your favorite side dish at a picnic?"

Kevin Wolf said...

Isn't it odd - the avoidance of political issues by the majority?

That creates the vacuum in which the pro-beheading guy can sound off.

If more normal folk spoke up he'd get shoved to the fringe where he belongs.