I happen to really love letters to the editor. They are part of what makes a local newspaper so delightfully local. They give a sense of what readers are thinking and talking about (albeit not a very scientific one). They offer a window into the minds of quirky characters in our communities and provoke debate, both serious and whimsical. They’re often good for a laugh, and sometimes for a good outraged rant.
Larger newspapers get so many letters that they can be choosy – getting a letter published in the New York Times or Washington Post is a big deal. Here, though, the flow of letters tends to be just about exact the amount of space I have on the opinion page every day.
For the most part, therefore, if you submit a letter, chances are that it will appear in the paper and on the website at some point.
But we don’t, and never have, promised to run every single letter. I do reject letters, or ask for changes, and it’s worth reviewing why.
The most common reason I ask for changes is length. I set a limit of 800 words and very rarely grant exceptions. That’s a lot of words and a piece that long will take up most of the space I have available on the printed page for a day. Plus, reading 800 words is a surprisingly large commitment of time and attention, so going beyond that is, in most cases, trying the patience of readers (in fact, I get occasional complaints from readers even about shorter letters).
I also try, as best I can, to make sure that statements that purport to be factual are in fact true. It’s not a perfect system—I can’t be an expert on everything, and there is only so much time to research the claims of letter writers, so I know things do get into print that are wrong, or at least highly debatable. But generally, I try to make sure to check (or demand evidence) for statements that should be verifiable.
For example, a recent submission asserted that “Napa has more than its share of crime.” But, as I’ve detailed here before, Napa has actually become considerably safer as it has grown, to the point where Santa Rosa has a higher rate of serious crimes (historically the reverse was true – Napa was notably more dangerous than Santa Rosa until the 1990s or so).
That may seem nitpicky, but the author was clearly asserting that crime has gotten worse in Napa, where in fact it has gotten much better.
But that same letter brings me to the other reason why I will reject a letter, and that that is tone and tastefulness. The same author pinned the blame for this supposed surge on crime on homeless people, who he discussed in quite derogatory terms and called “bums” repeatedly. That just struck me as tacky. He declined to fix the misleading statement about crime or tone down his rhetoric about the homeless, so I passed on the letter.
During the heat of the debate over the Napa High symbol, a woman wrote an impassioned letter accusing a school district official of engaging in “genocide” for advocating changing the Indian logo. That would have put him in the company of Hitler and Stalin, which seems unbelievably extreme in this context. She declined to alter the letter, so it never appeared.
Frequent readers of the editorial pages will notice that I do apply somewhat different standards to letters on local issues than on national or state issues. For example, again during the Napa High debate, a letter writer referred to advocates of changing the logo as “idiots.” I declined that letter, but a short time later I ran a letter questioning the mental capacity of the president.
Why the seeming double standard? Mostly it’s because of who we’re talking about. The advocates on both sides of the Napa High debate were, for the most part, just regular people expressing their opinions. They are our neighbors and friends and, were it not for their passion on this topic, their names would never appear in the news.
The president, or any other politician or celebrity, meanwhile, is a public figure who has chosen to live in the glare of the spotlight. These kinds of people should expect rougher treatment in the public sphere than the rest of us.
The question of tastefulness is clearly subjective and people will disagree, but I am more inclined to be sensitive and protective of a local, private person than some distant person who has chosen to seek fame and power.
I’d be happy to hear what you readers think of our letters – and I’d be even more happy if you care to weigh in with your own letter, whether serious or whimsical. You can submit them online, mail them to our office, or email them straight to me. A few technical notes: Remember that we do not publish anonymous letters; please keep the letter under 800 words; and include a phone or email address so I can contact you with questions or concerns.