Columns that drew the most responses.
WHEN COLUMNISTS LOOK back on their careers, many of the pieces they wrote are little more than blurs in their memories.
However, they do have pretty sharp recall of the columns that drew torrents of reader reaction.
When E&P asked William Raspberry which of his columns elicited the most calls and letters, he immediately thought of a 1972 one about discrimination against ugly women.
"It had been a bit of a throwaway," said the Washington Post starlet, "but it wound up generatfng as much comment as I've had on any single piece:'
Raspberry couldn't recall the exact number of reader responses, but he did say that there were many letters from women who agreed that they had experienced discrimination in jobs and other areas because of being perceived as ugly.
"Some very poignant stuff came in;' said Raspberry, who is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.
More recently, he said, hundreds of readers sent letters or "overwhelmed" his voice mail in response to 1992 and 1993 columns about the Rodney King case and gays in the military.
Last year, Raspberry wrote that white leaders and the white community should have expressed more outrage at the verdict clearing the cops who brutally beat King. Numerous white readers contacted Raspberry to say that they were indeed furious about the verdict.
This year, Raspberry wrote about why many people have reacted negatively to President Clinton's efforts to allow gays to serve openly in the military. The columnist stated that he didn't think all of these people were outright homophobes.
Many readers responding to Raspberry were former or current military men who said they did not necessarily mind serving with gays but were still against formaltzing their acceptance in the military.
Raspberry compared this way of looking at the issue to being opposed to discrimination against single mothers but also opposed to any policy that might help to increase the number of single mothers.
For Heloise, one of her most-responded-to columns was a late4980s piece about a deceptive direct-mail campaign.
In the campaign, a company tried to sell vitamins, facial cream, diet herbal tea, and other products and services by sending people what looked like a clip ping from a publication with a personal "post-it" note attached. Heloise noted that the impression the company was trying to create was that people were getting a recommendation from a relative or friend.
The King Features Syndicate writer mentioned the directmail solicitation in a column, and asked readers if they -- like Heloise and a "Hints From Heloise" researcher -- had received it.
"I probably got eight to 10 thousand letters," reported Heloise, who noted that many of them were "heartfelt?'
Some people had thought the "postit" note was from a relative they had not heard from in a long time. Others had been insulted because they had thought a friend was implying, via the material on diet herbal tea, that they needed to lose weight. One man said his ailing wife had wasted about $120 on the vitamins.
The Texas-based Heloise has fonder memories of the response to another column. A reader had written her to request a recipe for chocolate-sauerkraut cake. Heloise was taken aback by the thought of such a concoction, but she did look through scores of recipe books and ask food editors and others if they had ever heard of it. Nobody had.
So Heloise put a note in her column asking if any readers were familiar with this cake -- and about 5,000 recipes poured in. Heloise learned that the sauerkraut cannot really be tasted but helps make the cake moist and chewy.
"The Gadget Guru" writer Andy Pargh of Creators Syndicate received a similar number of responses when he did a 1990 column mentioning the availability of a bread-baking machine for a very low price.
When Pargh wrote the column, the machines were in transit to the United States, so he could not yet mention where they would be sold. Instead, Pargh told readers that he would let them know the retail locales if they sent a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
"1 got about 5,000 inquiries in 10 days," recalled the Tennessee-based Pargh, who discusses, praises, and criticizes various kinds of new products in his column.
Sara Engram writes about topics related to death and dying in "Mortal Matters," which was formerly a regular column and is now an occasional feature for Universal Press Syndicate.
One "Mortal Matters" column that elicited a great deal of response was a piece on unusual and humorous epitaphs. In fact, so many readers wrote in with their own favorites that Engram did a couple more columns on the subject.
Engram said one reader contribution that stuck in her mind was this gravestone inscription: "1 told you I was sick!"
More serious "Mortal Matters" pieces have also drawn high reader response. Engram noted that whenever she discusses the failure of some doctors to adequately treat the pain of terminally ill patients, a number of letters arrive.
"People talk about their own experiences, and some of these letters are tortured," said Engram, citing one about a dying cancer patient whose doctor would not provide enough pain medication because he did not want the patient to become addicted.
Engram, who is editorial page director of the Baltimore Evening Sun, also does op-ed columns for the Sun and Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.
One such piece eliciting an intense response concerned the anti-Semitism of several famous Christian theologians. Engram said she received everything from "long, scholarly" letters taking issue with some of her points to "hate mail from anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork:'
Religion and God can certainly be sensitive subjects. Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star and New York Times News Service recalled getting a great deal of reaction to a column he did about a major plane crash in Iowa several years ago that killed some people and spared others.
Tammeus commented about how some survivors said that God had saved them. The columnist took issue with this, noting that plane crashes are caused by factors such as human error and that God has nothing to do with them. Besides, he added, what kind of God would allow some people to die and others to survive a crash?
The reader response was mostly positive, said Tammeus, although some people "thought I ought to be hung for somehow denigrating God's sovereignty?'
Tammeus, an active churchgoer himself, also received plenty of calls and letters when he wrote a column about a telephone prayer line set up during the Persian Gulf war. The Star staffer labeled this "goofy theology" because it was people, not God, who caused the war by selling weapons, invading Kuwait, and so on.
Speaking of military matters, Tammeus -- like Raspberry -- also commented recently about the issue of gays in the armed forces. "1 wrote that it's time for this nonsense to end;' he said. "Treating homosexuals as less than human diminishes us all.
"One hundred years from now -- or much sooner, I hope -- we will look back on the way we treated homosexuals today the way we look back on the way we treated African-Americans 100 years ago?'
This column was scheduled to appear after Tammeus was interviewed by E&P, so he did not yet know what the reader reaction would be -- but he expected plenty.
Perhaps the most responses Tammeus ever received was to an early1980s column discussing why his two daughters were attending Kansas City public schools when so many other white, middle-class kids were not.
Tammeus wrote that his daughters had mostly positive experiences in the school system, and the many calls and letters he received about the piece were mostly positive as well. People contacting him included parents, teachers, and administrators grateful to hear good things said about the public schools.
For years afterward, added Tammeus, audience members at his public'speaking engagements would mention the column.
Tammeus writes both an editorialpage column and the "Starbeams" humor feature and is also president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
Former NSNC president Mary Ann Lindley, a columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, said a piece she wrote in the mid-l980's caused the biggest stir of her career "hands down:'
In the column, Lindley criticized the Tallahassee area's annual spring festival for making such a hero out of Andrew Jackson, the first territorial governor of Florida (and the seventh U.S. president), despite his record of slaughtering Native Americans. She also wrote that the event's antebellum trappings were disrespectful toward blacks.
"I thought the festival was insulting and divisive" said Lindley.
Reader response was about twothirds negative and one-third positive, although Lindley noted that people who are angry with a column are more likely to write than those who are happy with a piece.
Many of the negative letters came from Tallahassee's old-family elite, of which one woman was still known to refer to the Civil War as "that recent unpleasantness." Lindley, who has a Midwest background, was accused of being an "upstart" in the community despite having already lived there for about 10 years.
Yet Lindley noted that her column, along with factors such as Tallahassee's growth and increasing diversity, helped improve the festival by the time the 1990s arrived. The festival now places more emphasis on marking spring and less on celebrating Andrew Jackson and the Old South, said Lindley, who still gets comments about her festival piece during conversations and at speaking engagements.
Lindle also mentioned that columns on abortion tend to elicit a great deal of reader reaction.
Bob Hill of the Louisville CourierJournal and Gannett News Service agreed, but said that his most-responded-to column might have been one in which he sympathized with a couple's desire to withdraw medical treatment from their severely ill and handicapped kid.
Hill subsequently received dozens of letters, with an equal amount of positive and negative reaction.
The columnist had a wonderful response to another piece about a woman with health and money problems who -had lost a $20 apartment deposit to an unscrupulous realtor. Hill told readers they could send the woman $20 if they wanted, and more than 700 responded with various sums. The woman ended up with $20,000, and was able to buy a house.
"That was a feel-good one," said Hill, who has done his commentary/humor column for the Courier-Journal for 15 years. He is also treasurer of the NSNC.
Paula Bern has written "Workstyle;' a column dealing both seriously and humorously with on-the-job issues, for Scripps Howard News Service since 1988.
In 1992, she received a letter about an attorney who had brought her child to work when her babysitter could not make it. This lawyer had to attend a meeting, and ended up nursing her kid (with a cloth covering her chest area) during the gathering. What did Bern think?
Bern replied in her column that breast-feeding at the meeting was "not a businesslike" thing to do, and that it made other people in the room uncomfortable.
"It's one thing to breast-feed behind a closed door in your own office, but another to do it during a meeting," Bern told E&P.
The columnist, who is a mother herself, said she did not expect any more reaction than usual to her answer. Instead, Bern was flooded with 300 letters in two days. "I was placed on the guillotine," she remarked. "I was chastised, maligned, called a prude. La Leche Leagues wrote me from all over. It's been almost a year ago now since I wrote the column, and I just received two more letters!"
Bern, whose mail on the breast-feeding issue also included supportive correspondence, ran a number of the letters in subsequent columns.
The Pennsylvania-based Bern said she still thinks she gave the right advice last year while also emphasizing that she has a great deal of sympathy for women dealing with all kinds of issues as their presence increases in the work force.
Nineteen-ninety-two was also the year when "The Paper PC" writer Robert Anthony, whose computer column is aimed at home users and small business owners, did his most responded-to piece.
Anthony, based at Stadium Circle Features of Brooklyn, said the twoparter about how to build one's own personal computer elicited about three times the amount of letters and electronic mail than he usually receives.
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|Title Annotation:||syndicated columns|
|Publication:||Editor & Publisher|
|Date:||Feb 20, 1993|
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