Rogers: What is yours and what is ours in commentary
It’s election season, as good a time as any to talk about letters to the editor and column submissions.
First, a word on content. Well, two things here. We want you to see print if writing a letter or column. Writing takes effort — don’t I know — and I want yours rewarded. And your factual assertions and/or insinuations need to be accurate to mainstream sources, ideally primary sources.
A third caution has to do with obscenity, excessive polemics, taking on a private matter instead of a public issue, along with personal redundancy in talking about the same subjects with the same private gripe at the core.
We’re not running BS if we can help it, in short.
This plays out in perhaps differences in approach to commentary from the past, though I don’t know that, beyond submitters who express surprise at editing, deletions and passing up their works of surely pure genius for lack of facts that can be substantiated.
Look, you are going to be edited. Hell, I’m edited, and I supposedly run the newsroom. I don’t always like it, either.
For the conspiracy prone, I run everything I can that criticizes me personally or professionally. I am especially fond of letters and columns that completely disagree with whatever nonsensical take I’ve had on a public issue. Where’s the growth or the fun in everyone agreeing? The whole point in commentary is contrasting opinions.
The extra insults that some feel compelled to hurl is just human nature. I don’t hold that against anyone. I’ve long learned not to take any of it personally. Even when meant personally, maybe especially so. Criticism always reflects more on the person criticizing than those criticized. Which also is a good caution to be mindful about how I criticize in my turn.
I know I’m occasionally sharp, though I try to save blood on my teeth for only rare, special occasions when any half-decent coach would clap back at the lackluster, the dopey, doom, inordinate gloom. We’re not here in life to sadly sink to circumstance.
Chronic scolds lose effect after a while. But you know this already from reading letters and columns in the dailies. If those are yours, consider that the same old thing becomes read as blah, blah, blah. Try to mix it up. People, even politicians and developers, occasionally do something right, after all, even if that seems as likely as the sun rising from the west.
Rest assured, though, if your letter or column submission contains an assertion akin to the sun actually rising in the west, as so many of those COVID letters have, then best include your source. When we vet and find the assertion has been debunked, deemed misleading or cannot be confirmed, there’s no need to be shocked that the line’s not there if we find enough left over that’s reasonable enough to publish.
I want what can be to be published. So if you make crazy or criminal sounding assertions of fact, be sure to include your sources to the side where we can check, if not in the letter or column itself.
There’s the legal side of false or reckless statements, for sure. But I’m thinking more about what is fair to assert and what isn’t if you only suspect or assume but don’t really know. For writers prone to accusing others of malfeasance beyond the more ordinary poor judgment, it’s worth considering your evidence before dashing off and sending us your letter.
I’m thinking about a column submission I read on a plane at the Aspen airport while awaiting takeoff, ignoring the flight attendant droning through the usual required instructions. The piece was loaded with assertions of wrongdoing, line after line. There must have been 60 discrete “facts” that required checking. Worse, always the worst, the piece was very local, which is great except that more global topics can be more easily vetted via google.
So of course I asked the author to provide their sources. Let this be instructive for those of you inclined to tell me to do my own damned research, which is precisely flipped if you seek publication. I’m like the judge in court who lays that on the attorneys making their case, and I will lay it on you, the author, the responsible party. Time is tight, besides.
Anyway, no such issue with this column, to my relief. In reply, every assertion of fact was linked to the evidence — court docs, complaints to and investigative results from authorities, previous stories in the papers. I could match every accusation to actual evidence from a legitimate source.
And let fly with the column, every inch.
We have freedom of speech rights and responsibilities, too, and that includes the right and responsibility not to speak, as well. To edit, to not edit, to not run at all.
When it comes to freedom, responsibility is what weighs by far the most on me. Liberty strays quickly to libertine, to whim, without that flip side. I won’t sue you for libel even if you are dead wrong and fully evil in your criticism of me, so flail away if that’s your bent, but we all have a personal obligation to try to stick with what is true. Ideally to what leads to the greater good, too.
Aspen Times Editor Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.