Most newspaper editorial pages have sections set aside to allow readers of the newspaper to vent, to complain, to speak their minds either positively or negatively about issues of the day and the individuals who make that news.
They also present editors of those pages at times with vexing problems. They involve that mysterious line that separates harsh commentary from libel.
I experienced many of those episodes during my 37 years in print journalism.
Here’s how it went … most of the time.
Someone would submit a letter for publication on our page. It might be full of anger at, say, a mayor or a city council member; perhaps the target is a county commissioner or a school board member; or, maybe it’s aimed at public figure not necessarily holding a public office, someone like a prominent businessman or woman.
The letter levels accusations that I cannot substantiate. The rhetoric is harsh, man. I call the author of the letter to confirm its source. I question the assertions made in the letter.
The writer of the letter stands by his or her assertion. He or she says it’s true and he can prove it. I ask the letter writer to provide documented proof. The writer can’t deliver the goods. I tell the writer that I am afraid the letter is libelous, which means it makes statements that could bring harm to the individual being criticized.
The letter writer then says something like this: “It’s my letter. Let ’em sue me!” To which I then say, “Actually, once you turn it in to me, it becomes my letter, too. Moreover, I don’t care if they sue you. I do care that they sue me and my employer. Therefore, I cannot publish this letter. I will not publish it. Thanks and have a great day.”
I had that conversation countless times over the years. It presents a stunning example of the responsibility that newspapers editors have when they go through each day dealing with issues that present themselves, sometimes in unexpected fashion.
There were times when I was less than patient with letter writers. I regret those instances. Then again, my patience occasionally was rubbed away when letter writers presumed to know more about the nuts and bolts of my job than I did.
They were wrong. I never did apologize for telling them so.