Readers respond: Revisiting Spotlight policy on national commentary
There was an immediate, impressive reaction to the change in Spotlight policy to no longer publish commentary focused on national issues. I had requested reader input, and readers delivered.
Since then, in addition to feedback received in the way of letters and other commentary, I've had several conversations with Columbia County newsmakers regarding the policy shift. All told, the response — those in favor and those against the prohibition — was mostly even. There are compelling arguments on both sides.
One correspondence with Greg Pettit, chair of the Democratic Party of Columbia County, veered into questions about civil dialogue and the dire need for our national populace to rediscover the art of vigorous, yet courteous, debate. A conversation with Larry Ericksen, former chair of the Columbia County Republican Party, yielded a similar sentiment: As a society, as a community, we should be held to the standard of civility when discussing differences in political opinion and the perspective of good or bad governance.
A reasonable argument for continuing publication of commentary on national issues is that some Spotlight readers desire a credible platform to express themselves; interactions on social media pages aren't quite the same, it's not so easy to gain traction with the Washington Post or New York Times, and the Spotlight is a time-honored vehicle for expression and influence in Columbia County.
Here are just a few comments received on that front (note: attribution has been omitted considering some responders may not have anticipated having their comments published):
"National issues affect us all directly in one way or the other," wrote one reader. "Since the President of the United States is under investigation, and impeachment is almost certain, I feel that it is important for citizens of this great country to be able to express their concerns. After all the newspaper has always been an important factor in the birth of this nation."
Others, yet from a different political perspective, also referenced the impeachment proceedings and the desire to address them in the Spotlight. "Anytime something like this happens it's going to cause heated arguments between the two parties but, do you really think it's less important than a court case about asbestos or an ethics probe in St. Helens?" another reader responded, adding, "I don't think the Spotlight should decide what I or any other reader should care about or be interested in."
While we agree we shouldn't decide what the reader should read or find of interest, each week we do make many decisions about what to cover — and, hence, what not to cover. All news organizations make decisions about the focus of their coverage. The question here is whether the Spotlight is the appropriate platform for dialogue about national issues.
On the other end of the spectrum, concerns from those who favored halting publication of letters on national topics boiled down to a handful: they distract from local issues, are sometimes misleading and inaccurate, and are mean-spirited.
"I couldn't agree with you more about your new policy regarding topics on the national stage. The discussion has descended into a diatribe, and most of us our SICK of it!" a reader in favor of the policy shift responded. Another wrote, "I am sick and tired of reading about Nationwide letters to the editor in the, Spotlight."
And yet another, received Nov. 16: "I am a democrat and am very anxious to see Trump get impeached. That said I was going to call and cancel my subscription to your paper after reading this weeks letters. Things are only going to get more partisan and nasty as 2020 gets closer. I have no interest in reading letters about political issues that don't concern this county in my local paper."
Therein, as the expression goes, lies the rub. National issues do concern residents in all Columbia County communities — and all communities across this nation, for that matter. We appreciate, and relish, the notion that the Spotlight is the credible outlet Columbia County residents turn to to voice their opinions about whatever is affecting and influencing their lives, and want to be of service in that regard.
Here's the new deal: We'll resume publication of letters about national issues as those issues unquestionably affect our readership, but not all letters. Egocentric name-calling, bullying, mean-spiritedness and the like will be promptly deleted and filed in the trash. So too will any attempt to mislead our readership with false information — we'll do our best to ferret out such nonsense, but our resources are limited and we're not perfect. If false information slips through, we expect some help from our readers to identify those problems and to correct the record. Lastly, as has always been the case, we retain and reserve the right to publish, or not publish, any letter for any reason.
On the flipside, thoughtful letters that provide personal insight into the myriad issues — city, county, state and national — that influence and affect our lives will be published as time and space allow. In fact, they are encouraged.
We, like Pettit and Ericksen, believe there is a dire need in this country to rehabilitate our collective political dialogue. Let's see if we can start right here, in the pages of the Spotlight, with civil and thoughtful commentary that might illuminate and change a few minds rather than alienate and add to the partisan, divisive hate and anger that has become all too common.
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