Jayne: Wealth of letters to the editor a good problem to have

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

As problems go, this is a good one for an editor to have.

Even if some readers are not happy about it. Even if means a little more work for some of our staff. Even if it has me fielding phone calls and emails from upset subscribers.

Those are a small price to pay for having an overflow of letters to the editor at The Columbian — because part of this job requires being a man of letters, so to speak.

A couple weeks ago, we had a backlog of 70 letters from readers who wanted to share their views about the issues. Given that we are able to publish six or seven letters a day, that means many worthy submissions were never printed. Not to mention some unworthy ones.

That was an extreme situation; now we are back to our usual level (so keep writing to us). But if we have an overflow of letters in the future, we will work to get more of them in the paper or at least publish some of the excess online. Our readers deserve to be heard; they’re a smart bunch.

Meanwhile, the issue points out the upsides of living in an age of political polarization and vitriol: People are engaged; people are paying attention; people want to weigh in on important issues, even if it just to complain about those who disagree with them.

As NPR reported last month: “Donald Trump frequently boasts about starting a movement, and sociologists say they are seeing unprecedented grass-roots activism across the country. They credit Trump for inspiring people to become politically engaged on the right — and even more so on the left. And many of those activists are brand new to the scene.”

This is a good thing. Say what you will about President Trump, the thought that this nation elected an unhinged, unqualified, unscrupulous charlatan as president has people thinking and speaking out. That’s just my assessment; many readers disagree with it, and that is OK. That is why newspapers publish letters to the editor, which The Columbian calls Our Readers’ Views.

Not that all readers believe their views are being heard. “I’ve noticed a lot of ‘letters to the editor’ the past couple months are liberal slanted. By comparison, very few that slant right have been printed,” one recent email read. When considering which letters to publish, we first look for ones that are well-written and make a coherent argument while enhancing the discussion. We do give some weight to the slant of the letter; if we receive 30 letters saying that Trump is a chowderhead and two claiming that he is a genius, it would be disingenuous to publish two anti-Trump letters and both pro-Trump letters. We don’t have quotas, but we try to reflect the general sentiment of our readers.

A matter of free speech?

All of which brings up the notion of free speech. Being strong defenders of the First Amendment — our careers depend upon it, after all — we are fairly certain that letters to the editor are not what James Madison had in mind. You are free to stand on a street corner and declare your opinion of Trump as loudly as you like, but that does not mean you have an inalienable right to be published in the newspaper.

Meanwhile, if you threaten to sue The Columbian and start calling me names, you can bet that I will ignore your subsequent emails.

Most people don’t do that. Most of our readers are well-reasoned and intelligent, and we frequently learn something new or reconsider a position thanks to writers from one side or the other of the political spectrum. As Ronald D. Clark, former Editorial page editor of the St. Paul Pioneer Press once wrote, “Consider letters as a barometer of how well you are engaging readers or viewers. The more you receive, the more you’re connecting.”

There probably is some truth to that, although the guess here is that the current political climate has more to do with generating letters than does the newspaper. Readers are paying attention and are engaged in political process — and that creates one of those problems that we don’t mind having.