EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Exceptions and endorsements
Journalism is like the English language in that for all of the sometimes-cumbersome rules, there are exceptions. It’s one of the things that infuriates some and it’s why journalism is as much art as science, and it’s why that one practices journalism as opposed to really mastering it.
During this election season, there is a good example here in the Minot Daily News Opinion page.
Several times now in this column, I’ve solicited letters to the editor. I’ve done the same whenever speaking to a group or just socializing in a community setting. When someone calls to complain about something in the paper, I have asked for a letter to the editor. When someone calls to hail something in the paper, I have asked for a letter to the editor. Agree? Letter. Disagree? Letter. The philosophy is to get as many ideas and opinions out there, and let the marketplace of ideas do its thing. Let readers decide.
Of course, there are exceptions to the open forum for letters. Some are obvious. We aren’t going to publish something that would violate the law, like something libelous or a letter from a writer offering to sell his liver. I’m going to go out on a short limb here and suggest that most people probably know this through common sense.
On occasion, there are judgment calls and I would not run something that I consider devoid of content and, instead, just utterly hateful or inflammatory. It would not be illegal to run a letter from a writer insulting an entire group of people in general. But in the absence of any context, of any principle, of any point being made except that the writer is hateful, that letter would never be printed. Note that when I say hateful, I am not referring to some idiotic micro-aggression. That’s political correctness, which I despise every bit as much as I despise bigotry. I am referring to the true hate rhetoric that would shock a roomful of regular folks. If a writer is only capable of spewing hatred and demeaning people based on identity, then he should join his pathetic peers, hide behind an internet handle and ruin the comment pages of news entities’ comments pages.
But I digress.
Most importantly, you won’t see individual’s political endorsements in Minot Daily News in the election cycle. That’s a decision made internally and it is certainly not universal. So, if you have written me a letter supporting a political contender and offering no other real content, that’s why it hasn’t appeared and why it won’t.
There are several reasons why I decided to take this position. One, who you want to vote for might mean a lot to you, but it’s not terribly interesting to other readers. What would be more dull than a letters page with nothing but people alerting neighbors who their favorite candidate is. Two, why should candidates be able to campaign that way? Let candidates reach out to you. Let them work to earn their vote. Let them answer questions from reporters, who then share information with readers. Letter campaigns seek to employ pack thinking to get voter support and we feel that candidates should have to work harder than that.
Now, there are plenty of things we welcome you to write about candidates. If you want to compare and contrast their positions, even if that concludes favoring one or the other? Fine. That’s issue-based. Want to criticize someone running for office for some action he has taken? Fine, that’s issue-based. Believe me, for every letter critical along these lines, there will come a letter clarifying the issue or rebutting the reasoning. That’s fine that’s a marketplace of ideas. You can’t rebut an endorsement. An endorsement doesn’t stir debate.
This might feel like a slight difference and as if there is a fine line. Most the time, it’s a pretty easy call. Other times, it takes some discussion in the newsroom to differentiate between a blanket endorsement and a letter that meets the criteria of being issue-based, being able to foster debate and being fair.
So, skip your endorsement letters. We want to foster a meeting place of ideas, and candidates are not ideas.