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Racist letters: to run or not to run?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is from an exchange that took place on NCEW's online mailing list.

Three weeks ago, the following letter was submitted to us:

"I read in the Phoenix on Friday that a group of about 10 people burned several American flags in protest of the treatment of blacks in the United States. Wouldn't it be nice if all these highly paid baseball and football players would help the rest of us raise enough money to rent troop ships to move the blacks back to Africa so everybody would be happy?"

My boss didn't want to run the letter on the grounds it was racist and its publication wouldn't be constructive. The managing editor and I argued that if the letters section was to be a true public forum it couldn't bar opinions we found distasteful. Eventually the decision was made to publish the letter.

We have received several in response condemning the views expressed, which we also published.

In the wake of this, the executive editor wanted to know how other papers handle letters of this type. I thought a discussion on letter guidelines might be interesting. Thank you for your assistance.

- Derek Melot, opinion page editor, Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma

An interesting dilemma. We would not have published such a letter and for the following reasons:

* We do not publish letters, and also refrain in our columns, from taking gratuitous cheap shots at individuals or identifiable groups in society. Our columnists, guest writers, and all readers are entitled to their views in full, but must be attempting to make, or respond WITH SUBSTANCE to, arguments articulated in our news and editorial comments.

* In other words, we avoid statements such as "The Prime Minister is an idiot" when the same point can be made by saying "The Prime Minister's actions, in this instance, can only be termed idiotic." There is a huge difference in this definition between attacking the actions, policies, or statements of an individual or group and attacking the individual him (or her)self.

* We believe this policy in no way restricts free speech but instead helps to elevate arguments. It is not designed to eliminate racist or sexist commentary, but there are few instances in which those holding uninformed views can meet the criteria briefly outlined above.

Also, just FYI, it is a crime in Canada to promote hatred against an identifiable group in our society. Convictions have been extremely difficult to come by, and the judiciary has been strict in its interpretation of the law. Nevertheless, I suspect that someone in Canada who used a public forum, whether it was via the Internet or a newspaper's pages, on a regular basis in calling for the ethnic or racial cleansing of society would be at the very least subject to an investigation.

- Peter Menzies, editorial page editor, Calgary Herald in Alberta, Canada

I am one of the "people" who is always mentioned in the "people's right to know" and I can state that as repulsive as I find this kind of sentiment, I would much rather know a man or woman's politics from their own mouths than guess at them.

However, having said that, I also want to state that the tendency of "controversializing" media to get attention is beginning to backfire. editorials used to exhort people to a higher level to finding the greatness within themselves. . .now they seem to, in many cases, have descended to a level of pettiness that dignifies no one and does little to actually promote educated dialogue.

On that basis, I think that if a letter like this is printed, it should be accompanied by a discussion of the kind of things that cause any person to hate this much.

- Gina deMiranda, freelance writer, Irvine, California

Personally, my response probably would have been to throw the letter in the trash. If someone wants to write in and agree with The Bell Curve or rant about black crime or some other "issue," then I'm willing to print racist comments. But the old "put-them-back-on-the-boat-to-Africa" schtick isn't, in my opinion, worth the ink.

Along those lines, though, how would you have handled the letter if instead of "blacks" the writer had said "niggers"? Do you change the offensive word, and thus make the writer look more reasonable and less bigoted, or do you dash it out (n-----)? Or, do you use the offensive word in full?

Once, not long after I started on editorial pages, I received a letter trashing Representative Barney Frank. It was full of remarks about limp wrists and sissies and other such nonsense. I removed all of that language, and as a result the writer appeared much more intelligent and reasonable than he actually was. I view that now as a mistake. But where do you draw the line?

- Dan Radmacher, editorial page editor, The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia

We have a fairly vague and amorphous prohibition against incivility in the letters we publish. "Nigger" certainly crosses the line and would not be printed.

The blatant racism of the other letter though is another matter. At our paper, I would argue to print it, but I suspect I would lose.

Of course, our volume is low enough that we pretty much print everything we get, barring incomprehensible gibberish, and let the writers respond to each other.

At a larger paper, I am certain, the bar is higher and such vapid argumentation would never appear to begin with.

- John Meunier, editorial page editor, Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky.

I doubt we'd use the letter at Newsday. But then, we get perhaps ten times more letters than we have space for, so we're always looking for the most relevant, interesting, thoughtful, timely, on-topic stuff That means (to me) leaving out those that are simply an expression of unsupported sentiment, or patently unreasonable, or misinformed, or just out in left field somewhere. A "send them back to Africa" letter would fail on several levels before we even got to the racism question.

But then, our letters pages don't fall into the town-meeting, anyone-can-speak category. If yours do, and/or the policy is to publish essentially everything you get (for reasons other than necessity), I don't see anything wrong with publishing an offensive letter, as long as you publish responses (as you did). In fact, letters we publish that don't seem offensive to us may well be offensive to people with stronger feelings (abortion comes to mind) on an issue.

- Phineas Fiske, assistant editor of the editorial page, Newsday in Melville, New York

In my more than 20 years as an editorial page editor, there was a time when I would not have accepted the "send them back to Africa" letter. Today I think I would.

Shortly after I came to Allentown in 1989, we ran a letter expressing similar sentiments. The executive editor, to whom I reported, expressed reservations after the fact. My response was that I thought it was necessary to show what sentiments there were in the community. At that time - and to some extent now - my take was that the leadership in the Lehigh Valley, including the newspaper, was ignoring the fact that there was a growing racial problem caused by a rapid influx of Hispanics. So we do run letters from folks who question why all the Puerto Ricans on our streets left their island paradise.

My short answer is that it depends on the situation and the community.

- Van A. Cavett, comment pages editor, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania

I wouldn't have run the letter advocating shipping blacks back to Africa. I believe that a wide variety of unpopular views should be admissible. But there are a few that are so unfair, bigoted, racist, and unreasonable that they degrade the publication that presents them as serious commentary. Yes, I would run letters with racist comment. But not all of them. And not common, crude re-expressions of ancient slurs and alleged "final solutions."

I wouldn't let the n-word be used casually as a synonym. The easiest way to handle that question is to treat it as you would treat other obscenities. The context demands referring to women with the c-word, perhaps a similarly powerful context could be argued in favor of referring to African Americans with the n-word.

There are, of course, exceptions. Black writers have rights to the n-word that are different from white writers'. (We have a black activist who carefully and deliciously works in "Negro" at unexpected moments - although that is not our style, we would be horribly out of line to conform him to our style.)

We receive about 9,000 letters a year and print about 4,000. But we will go out of our way to publish fresh, with-it, provocative letters, even if they provoke and outrage.

Again, saying that everybody would be happier if all blacks were shipped to Africa is neither fresh nor original nor accurate. Toss it in the bigotry file and spare it no regrets.

- Frank Partsch, editor, editorial pages, Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska


I disagree completely. If the word "nigger" is offensive in our newspapers, it is offensive regardless of the source. I had a black writer try to use the term "house nigger" in a letter, and I told him that wouldn't pass. He also said that black writers had a different right to that word than whites. That's a double standard that I would not feel comfortable trying to defend the next time a Kluxer wanted to use the word and pointed to this guy's letter as justification.

- Dan Radmacher

Maybe I'm just not hip with the political correctness and tolerance and all that, but isn't an offensive word offensive no matter who uses it? Or, at least, shouldn't it be?

- Ryan J. Rusak, assistant editor and opinion editor, The Daily Skiff, Texas Christian University
COPYRIGHT 1996 National Conference of Editorial Writers
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Title Annotation:excerpts of an exchange from the National Conference of Editorial Writer's online mailing list
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Previous Article:NCEW Online makes friends and makes waves in cyberspace.
Next Article:Media pass muster in campaign '96.

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