Week after week, each issue of the Independent begins with a package of letters to the editor, usually about eight to 10 offerings from all over the political and ideological map.
That's the way it should be. By reading those letters, you should find some that match your own sentiments as well as some from the opposite perspective.
As a regular letter contributor (and avid reader) once told me a few years ago while I was working in Florida, "It gives me the chance to know what the other side is thinking, even if I disagree. It's like listening to conversations in a restaurant. And the best part is that I don't have to meet them or hear it in person."
We do have a few ground rules for letters: With extremely rare exceptions, they can't go longer than 300 words. And unlike many other newspapers, we check facts to avoid printing wrong statistics or details. Conclusions might be questionable, but we're not into passing judgments. Opinions can go to every extreme, but we always are on the lookout for those form letters that are "suggested" by Web sites, and those go straight to the trash bin. Also, we prefer not to use letters from the same person on consecutive weeks, unless the points are compelling.
Almost every week, except for a few times in a given year, I'm the one who chooses and edits the letters. That's in no small part an effort to be consistent in the approach. My goal is to pick letters that are as timely as possible, and if we can have pro and con opinions on the same point, all the better. If not, our hope is that the letters package each week actually can be an ongoing conversation, with responses that refer back to earlier letters and stories.
All that said, sometimes we do receive letters that seriously push our limits, usually because they are totally opposite from our basic tenets. We strive as a newspaper to be tolerant and open-minded, allowing everyone his or her own views even if we are fully and passionately opposed. I always want to run the most strident letters, mainly to see what kind of response they inspire.
Such was the case last week with a submission from Joan Christensen of Fountain, who had authored an earlier piece against health care reform that attracted several comments from others. This missive from Christensen took on a darker tone, jumping on the "birther" bandwagon and accusing Barack Obama of being an illegal president. Even before it went to print, I was asked internally if we really had to include that letter. I said yes, for the usual reasons, wanting to see if it would strike a nerve.
Needless to say, it did, but some of the pushback we encountered came as a surprise to me. A few of our online commenters wondered why we would run such a letter. KyleJS wrote that he's disappointed in the Independent, adding, "Of the dozens of letters the editors must sort every day, to put in the rantings of a disgruntled loon is remarkable. I don't sit on the street corners listening to the crazy people preach. I'd like to not see it in what was once a respectable newspaper." Dominic wrote: "I agree with KyleS too about the quality of letters. If I wanted to read tea-bagger crap and such, I would be subscribing to the Gazette."
Sorry, but that's not how journalism works. Some in this community might view the Indy as insufferably leftist, though in some parts of the country we'd be considered very moderate. Regardless, if we don't listen to both sides of any issue or debate, then we're no different from those who are intolerant and won't listen to us.
So this week you'll find another batch of letters, including one that challenges Christensen. The pendulum will swing again, and we'll hear more comments. We realize that some (many?) of our readers don't always agree with us, but if they care enough to read the Indy and send us a letter, we'll give them a chance.
Anything less would be ... intolerable.