28 August 2012

“You know what you could write about?…”

There was a stretch there where I never read the op/ed page. Didn’t miss it either.

The opinions of my local newspaper’s editorial board were interesting, and well-informed, but they’d never seek any radical action—it was always about doing the prudent thing instead of the right or generous or inspiring thing. That’s always the catch with editorial boards: They want to reflect everybody’s point of view, so they get a bunch of people with diverse viewpoints. But the extremes balance one another out, so they wind up with the middle-of-the-road view. That’d be fine if it were a radical middle—but it’s not. It’s the milquetoast middle. It’s the “Here’s what we oughta do” that doesn’t make waves, instead of the “Here’s what we really oughta do” that wakes people up and makes ’em move.

The columnists… well, there are two kinds of columnists: Those who are clever, and those who aren’t. I like the clever ones; I don’t care what party they are. Make me think and I’ll like you. Most aren’t clever—or have far too many bad weeks in a row.

And then there are the letters to the editor. I lump them into two categories: Those with legitimate statements and questions; and the cranks. Most letter-writers are cranks. Some of them would really like to be columnists, and for obvious reasons, won’t become one unless they buy a newspaper.

What makes them a “crank”? About 80 percent of it is the non-sequitur nature of their letter. To my mind, the only legitimate letters that you ought to send a newspaper would be the following.

  • Letters of commendation: A local did something good, and you’re publicly acknowledging it.
  • Corrections and clarifications: Something was misreported, and you’re saying so.
  • Contributing information: Something went unreported, or you have a question about something that’s going on, and you want to draw attention to it.
  • Local constructive criticism: Something has gone wrong in the community, and you have a workable solution.

There are crank versions of each of these things. You could go on and on about the valuable contributions of somebody who really doesn’t do much, or want to honor someone solely because they’re nice to you. You could be a conspiracy theorist who’s convinced the city council is covering up what the queers are doing to the soil. You might want to publicize some gossip, or some events that no one but you and your three buddies care about. Your criticism could be unwarranted or useless, or about esthetics only you care about—fr’instance you’re the only one who doesn’t like the new statue in Town Square, and would rather replace it with a plaque of the Ten Commandments or something.

But the usual crank items have nothing to do with such things. They’re rants about the President or the Congress, the Governor or the Legislature, the United Nations or the G8 Summit or Trilateral Commission or anything that has nothing to do with local events. Nothing’s gonna happen as a result of that letter. Nobody from a member of Congress’s staff is gonna come across that piece of nut mail, forward it to the boss, and use it as the catalyst to create a great piece of legislation. It does nothing but fill space in the newspaper, and announce to the world that you have an opinion—but don’t have a clue as to how to productively express it.

We had some ninny in the newspaper today complain that Americans write the date wrong. The rest of the world, he says, writes it year-month-day, but we Americans write it month-day-year. Um… no, the rest of the world doesn’t write it that way. My European, Indian, and South American friends write it day-month-year. As do I; unless I’m using digits, in which case I write it the same way other Americans do. But regardless: What does he expect people to do about it? He offers no solution. He just wants to spout off about something totally useless.

The Vacaville paper has a policy that you can’t contribute a letter any more frequently than two weeks. Likely it’s to keep certain cranks from being daily contributors. So this dude shot his wad on how to write the date properly. Two weeks later he’ll be telling us the 24-hour clock makes more sense than the 12-hour clock.

Most days it feels like all the letters to the editor are nothing but nut mail.

Obviously I’m back to reading the op/ed page of my local paper, for all the good it does me. Most of it is ’cause Doonesbury is on the op/ed page. Some of our local columnists are sometimes clever. Some aren’t; never are.

From time to time, one of those folks who know I can write tells me, “You ought to write a letter to the editor about…” followed by a topic. This’d be a topic they want to rant about. They want me to do the writing ’cause they know I’m a writer; they don’t feel up to it themselves.

I don’t feel up to it either. My most obvious reason is that it’s not my rant they’re talking about. It’s their own. I won’t have the same take on the matter as they do. My politics are so off the beaten path sometimes that they’ll hate my conclusions. They’ll have to write a rebuttal to the very rant they ordered me to write.

Secondly, if I cared enough about the issue, I’d have written on it already. But not necessarily to the newspaper. I believe in going to the source. The newspaper ain’t the source. If I want a streetlight fixed, I’ll contact the city maintenance department. I won’t write the newspaper. What good will that do? Yeah, someone in the city might see it and do something. And if I say something stupid and non-constructive like, “The bums in this city don’t fix anything; they spend all our tax dollars on crap I don’t approve on and can’t even fix the streetlights,” I’ve annoyed them unnecessarily (and untruthfully). In my experience the city is really good about fixing things quickly.

Congress isn’t so quick. But if I want a law changed, I’ll write my congressman. Right now we’re in the same party, but even if he were a Republican I’d write him—that’s his job. If we didn’t see eye-to-eye (same party or not), I might be motivated to stir up some other voters and try to change his vote—or even encourage and support a serious challenger in the next election. But would I write the local newspaper? Again, what good will that do?

The main purpose of a newspaper is to inform the public about stuff they need to know in order to be informed voters and taxpayers. And maybe let them know about community events which their organizers want publicized. Will my letter to the editor contribute to that? If so, I’ll write it. If not, I won’t. Much as I might be tempted to sometimes—every once in a while I really want to answer some fool in his folly. But I won’t. It’s nut mail, and this time I’ll be the nut.