Opinion Columns & Blogs

June 28, 2014

Mike Dunbar: Letters to The Modesto Bee provide chance for real discussion

We love letters to the editor. They’re often among the highest-rated stories online and many print readers tell us they turn to our letters, even before reading news, sports or the comics.

We love letters to the editor. They’re often among the highest-rated stories online, and many print readers tell us they turn to our letters even before reading news, sports or the comics.

It doesn’t matter if the letter writer disagrees with us or even calls us names; most often we’ve been called worse. We feel that providing differing or divergent viewpoints is an obligation, and we don’t mind when someone challenges our editorial positions. On occasion, a letter writer might even make a point we hadn’t considered. It does not matter if we agree with the letter writers (and we often don’t); it only matters that they are willing to write ... and willing to sign their names.

Why? Because it takes guts to sign your name to a controversial statement or to stand up to someone you believe is wrong. When readers see a name, we believe they respect it – whether they think the writer is right, wrong or has just arrived from a far-distant galaxy.

Journalists know firsthand that putting your name on any kind of story is sometimes an act of courage. So it bothers us when someone attacks a letter writer without having the courage or decency to sign their own name. One of the reasons we abandoned “The Hive” at modbee.com was because so many people were willing to say mean-spirited and ugly things but unwilling to sign their names. Now, if you want to comment on an online letter, you must do it through Facebook and your identity is revealed.

Unfortunately, we can’t stop all anonymous attacks.

In mid-June, Mary Graff of Patterson wrote to tell us ... well, basically to tell us off for refusing to join those calling Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a traitor. We gave her letter prominent display along with another letter that took a different approach.

Someone, we don’t know who, sent a letter to Graff’s home. It was disparaging, snide, rude and cowardly. Whoever sent it (the postmark was from Sacramento) didn’t have the courage to sign his or her name. The writer assumed Graff was religious and then made fun of her beliefs.

We stand with Mary. We don’t agree with her on Bergdahl, but we truly appreciate her willingness to express her opinion – giving voice to a large group who agree with her (and who disagree with us). Further, we welcome more of her letters.

And one more thing. It’s not just conservative people who go to church. And that’s one of the nice things about it, when it comes time to greet each other at the sign of peace or after church, most people don’t really care about your politics; just that you’re there. For that, I am grateful.

The Bee receives 180 to 250 letters a month, and we have room to print about 175, so we have to be at least a little choosy.

One thing that will get a letter thrown out is having a false name. Receiving so many letters, we don’t have time to verify all the senders – though we do verify most. Some names are obvious fakes (one writer signed his name “I.B. Seeinya”; others have been a bit cruder) – those get tossed quickly.

Some writers feel a variation on their real name is appropriate – a maiden name or mother’s last name, for instance. When we catch it, we don’t run those, either.

That happened with a letter last week. The writer didn’t want to expose herself to criticism, so she left out part of her name. We caught it in time to keep it out of print, but it got onto our website. When we realized it, we removed the letter. The writer, though, felt her viewpoint was important. She contacted us, gave us her full name and we re-posted her letter to our website.

As we said, letters are important to us. After all, they come from our readers.

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