What to do with a troublesome writer: our fight will not end until one of us is vanquished.
My adversary is a shadowy harasser who pesters people with his unsigned mail, spewing bile and contempt and making them wonder if they have a cause of legal action as victims of a hate crime.
Often his targets are writers of letters to newspapers. The harassment of letter writers is one of the things we editors have discussed on the NCEW listserv. We don't like to talk about this publicly. We hate to inform letter writers that there are crazies out there who might harass them if their name appears in the letters column. Not good for the biz, you know.
I know that I am not alone in having my letter writers upset. Other editors have similar harassers in their neighborhoods. Mine seems weirder, though. I want do something about it. I have not yet found a way.
Actually, I know where "he" is lurking. But that's getting ahead of the story.
At some point after taking over the editorial pages of The Omaha World-Herald in 1982, I had my consciousness invaded by this person. The invasion was almost unnoticed. For years he kept a low profile, camouflaged by his remaining amidst the usual contingent, known to all editorial page editors, of poor souls, hopeless ideologues, egocentric pseudo-philosophers, and borderline crazies, all armed with the tools and knowledge to exploit the U.S. mail.
Without remembering specifically when, I started a file on him. It must have been because his trademark was so unusually striking. (It might have been the first time I noticed that he addressed letters to The Public Pulse, the name of our letters column, with "The Pubic Pus.")
At first, he operated only with postcards. He targeted two groups of newspaper letter writers. One group defended Christian ideals. The other advocated Republican policies. The harasser had just a handful of messages, clipped and copied from some weird publication and pasted to the postcards. Usually he added an individual fillip -- lurid yellow and red highlighting, with snide, contemptuous comments scrawled in the margins.
He was never threatening that I could ascertain. Recipients of his postcards told us they went to the FBI and the postal inspectors and were told that he never stepped outside the bounds of constitutionally protected speech. Nonetheless, the rancor of his messages seriously upset people. Some letter writers told our editors that they would never write to a newspaper again. He upset editors, too. One came to me several years ago, urging that we seek a court order to prevent the harasser from communicating with our writers.
A fine thing that would have been. You write the headline. "Newspaper opposes freedom of speech." It would a been big news. But not my cup o'tea.
About a year ago, his activity picked up. We were hearing from more readers. More were demanding to know what we, as their newspaper, would do. More were urging that we condemn his tactics in an editorial or let them condemn him in the letters column.
He also was sending postcards to us to be forwarded to readers whose addresses he could not find in the city directory These, of course, went into the ever-thickening file. Nothing compels us to forward unsigned mail, and we knew it was unsigned because it always came in postcard form.
By chance, one day last summer, I went through the file. Lo and behold. Several times over the years, perhaps not realizing he would get weirder as time went along, I had filed postcards on which my adversary had signed his name and included his address and telephone number.
His telephone number! I dialed it immediately. No answer. After several days of trying, I reached a frightened-sounding woman who said the person in question was not expected back until that night. Over the next few weeks, the occasional times I was able to reach the frightened-sounding woman, she always gave me the same message and then hung up immediately. Eventually, out of sympathy for her, I quit dialing the number.
But I had his name. Now, I thought, at least I can put this Bad Actor on notice. So I addressed a letter to him, making it clear I knew who he was. I informed him that I had a file that contained his signed postcards and that I had no hesitation about turning it over to the authorities if asked.
Suddenly, letter writers stopped calling us. My adversary quit mailing his ugly little postcards to us for forwarding. I was victorious. Oh, yea, celebrate the power of the written word. But my elation was premature. After four or five months, letter writers started to call again. The turkey was back in business.
I wrote him again. This time I informed him that we have not forwarded, nor will we ever forward to our letter writers, unsigned postcards. Instead, we return them to him, after making a photocopy for the file in case the postal inspectors want a complete report. We have done so ever since.
Evidence of his activity slowed again. But it has yet to stop.
He never acknowledges these letters. But surely, he knows he is engaged in a form of combat that will not end until one of us is vanquished. I know it, too. I watch for openings.
He -- or she -- is still Out There. And I'll be damned if I know what to do about it.
NCEW member Frank Partsch is editorial page editor of The Omaha World-Leader. He also chairs the Membership Committee. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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