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Editors divided about what's racist and when to run bigoted letters.

Editors across the country express a broad spectrum of views about whether to publish racist or bigoted letters.

Some pointedly note that it's not always easy to decide whether a letter is bigoted, much less whether it's worth publishing anyway.

Some do. Some don't.

Many decide case by case.

Some recurring reasons they give, paraphrasing alternately pro and con:

* Readers need to know

* We must keep the page civil

* Our page is an inclusive forum

* We don't give jerks a soap box

* Hate mail elicits strong responses

* We might look racist ourselves

* Who are we to censor?

* We have a duty to lead

* What's in the gray area?

* We try to elevate the debate

* What's racist now, anyhow?

* I know it when I see it?

On-the-record answers had largely the same diverse flavors as anonymous ones in a small poll--but not always.

One letters editor said, "The publisher does not want to upset readers. After I published the letters, the ... editor's phone was ringing off the hook. That's a good indication the paper is being read. I almost got fired, though." An editorial writer wondered why the paper runs "such garbage."

The poll asked participants if they agree with the paper's policy. Predictably, several said, "Yes; I made it" but some disagreed.

Many emphasized case-by-case judgment, to consider "a bigoted spin on a public policy issue," as Jack Wilson of The Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, wrote.

Mark Mahoney, editorial page editor of The Post-Star in Glens Falls, New York, said, "If they're expressing their own racist attitudes, why should we provide a soapbox for it?"

Several echoed Doug Floyd of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington: "Yeah, there's a fuzzy middle ground ... but we willingly accept the gatekeeper's burden."

The discussion arose in a May 23 online list query by Brian Lewis of the News-Leader in Springfield, Missouri. He did a column. Richard Prince did an online column. My class did a small project.

Lewis asked: "Do you run letters that are clearly racist ...?"

Some said, "Yes, because ...," others said, "No way, because ...," and a lot said, "It depends."

Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, wrote a lyrical essay on racist letters. Each paragraph began, "We print them because ...." He said it's the readers' column, and the newspaper doesn't want to start as censors. Such letters create wholesome reactions "against this kind of poison" and "hate needs to be exposed."

Karl Seitz, editorial page editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama, excludes hate-mongering, but runs letters that "address legitimate public issues through a racist filter." Since Alabama's church bombing in 1963, he said, "The hatred has different targets these days, but readers need to know it still exists."

Kay Semion, associate editorial page editor of The Daytona Beach News-Journal, pleaded for decency: "When we work so hard to increase diversity on our editorial pages and to increase readership among minority groups, why would we consider publishing a letter ... that is an insult?"

Pete Wasson, opinion editor of the Wausau Daily Herald in Wisconsin, told in detail about a letter on Asian immigrants: "'Us whites have done more for Hmong than any city in the country.'" Response was twenty-five to two against the bigot. Wasson added that Hmong later told him two years of reporting on the subject and the response to that letter had helped dispel racism.

Barb Mantz Drake, recently retired as the editorial page editor of the Peoria Journal Star in Illinois, told of running nonviolent racist letters, especially ones about the paper's criticism of local white supremacist Matt Hale.

Chicago's main letters editors, interviewed in person, differed in part on running such letters. Said the Chicago Tribune's Dodie Hofstetter: "No! We have an obligation to keep the discussion civil." On the other hand, the Sun Times' Michelle Stevens had this to say: "It depends. We have run some we knew would provoke people, but not offensive words."

Several editorial page editors said readers can disagree with the editor's perception of what's merely disagreeable debate and what's over-the-line offensive.

Others' wording echoed Wilson's idea about exposing "slime beneath some rocks."

But he also paraphrased Gresham's Law: "Bad letters drive out good. If we publish invective, we invite more of the same, while discouraging more thoughtful letters."

Others said, as one in the poll wrote, such mail elicits "a deluge of ... articulate, heart-felt responses. It does the community proud."

How this project happened

It started with an editor's query to the NCEW online listserv.

About twenty members' responses helped him with his column. Another member did an online column as well.

This intrigued my class at Roosevelt College in Chicago. As a result, my students sent e-mail inquiries to editors at sixty dailies across the country. We invited them to answer by quotable e-mail or anonymously via an online poll. We got twenty-three valid online responses, a handful more by e-mail.

The poll is not statistically sound, but some of the results may be interesting anyway. Numbers are based on those who answered that question.

Has your paper published racist mail? Yes, 21 (84%)

Does it have a policy regarding the publication of racist letters? Yes, 14 (56%)

Do you agree with the policy? Yes 8, No 3, Partly 4.

The participants include nine newspapers with weekday circulation under 50,000, five under 100,000, two under 200,000, and seven papers with more than 200,000 weekday subscribers.

The Midwest and Plains states dominated the participants list at 10 (42%).

There were seven editorial page editors who responded, as well as four letters editors, and twelve journalists who held a variety of other positions.

In terms of experience, forty-two percent had at least twelve years in the business, and none less than four years.

The survey questions, extensive excerpts from the responses, and more can be found online at faculty.roosevelt.edu/mcclelland/letters

John McClelland teaches at Roosevelt University, Chicago. Master's degree candidates who contributed include Sharnell Berry, Brandon Bomis, Sylvia Daniels, Talia Pennington, and Matt Reynolds.

John McClelland is an associate professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. E-mail JmcClell@roosevelt.edu
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Title Annotation:letters to the editor
Author:McClelland, John
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2005
Words:1020
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