All the Rants Are Fit to Print

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:35:00 AM

Few events in recent weeks have produced a flood of letters comparable to the number we received criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns. We agree with the writers: it’s an appalling decision, not only in substance and in likely consequences, but also because of the cavalier way the so-called “conservatives” blithely ignored a century of precedent supporting the government’s right and duty to regulate corporate election spending. Justice Stevens’ dissent amounts to a complete course in constitutional law, and anyone who cares about the Constitution should read it. 

But you won’t read all of these letters on this page. Why? Because we don’t usually print letters obviously generated by a “bot”—a robot-like computer program, where all the writer has to do is type a (usually outraged) sentence or two and it will automatically be sent to a list of newspapers. We get a lot of those lately, from well-meaning people who might not even read the Planet, who think they’re doing their part for political action.  

Folks, it’s going to take more than that to change what’s going on in this country. Another popular topic of bot-letters has been support for decent healthcare legislation, at the same time that polls show that the majority of (ill-informed) citizens are turning against the healthcare concept for largely specious reasons. It’s tempting to think that by registering a counter-opinion via e-mail you might tip the scales of justice in favor of the right answer, but that’s just not enough.  

On the other hand, we appreciate the sizeable number of well-reasoned thoughtful communications we get on controversial topics of all kinds. These don’t have to be long—a couple of paragraphs can suffice to make a point—but they should be more than arm-waving or venting. It is an unfortunate manifestation of the ease of writing letters on the Internet that thoughtless ungrammatical blowhards have come to dominate the comments sections of too many newspapers online. For some reason the possibility that their opinions might be printed on paper seems to restrain Planet readers from such excesses.  

Bot-letters are just too easy. They provide the signers with a comfortable feeling that they’re taking action on political questions, but they’re really just preaching to the choir. Taking the time to develop the kind of arguments that we typically see in our opinion pages educates the writer, and the product, a well-constructed opinion, educates the reader as well. 

Should any topics be out of bounds? Here’s a recent statement by the editorial writer for the local voice of the Bay Area News Group, an arm of the national Media News Corporation:  

“You can criticize a government’s actions, or the people who carry out acts of terror, but any letter that attempts to disparage an individual’s race or religion will not see print in this newspaper.  

“Some will call that censorship, but while the First Amendment allows anyone to say whatever they want, this editorial page will not become a forum for what is essentially hate speech.” 

Sounds good, right? But there’s just one problem: if religion were never allowed to be criticized in the written record, most of human history would have gone unrecorded. Newspapers are the first draft of history. Many if not most of the bad actors in the world in the past have hidden under the cloak of religion, and they still do so today.  

The editor’s case in point: “another unpublished letter quoted several Israeli rabbis who assert that killing one’s enemy and even killing his children is acceptable in war. I will not attempt to take sides in this debate, but I must insist that letters on this subject avoid attacks on religion.” 

Notice that he does not claim that the quoted persons didn’t express the opinions relayed by the letter writer. The Planet did print the letter in question, because the accuracy of the quotes was fully supported by verifiable online sources, primarily from the Israeli press. It makes no sense to give controversial speakers a free pass simply because they are self-identified as religious. If anything, it makes more sense to hold religious people to a higher standard because they make more claims to be speaking truth. 

Much of what’s controversial in the recent news has religious underpinning. In the Chronicle this week there’s a lively dispute about whether an elderly gentleman should have been fired from the Oakland Paramount Theater’s governing board because he was a strong proponent of Proposition 8, consistent with the position of the Mormon Church, of which he is an active member. An editorial said no, letter writers said yes—both sides have their points, and printing them is a good thing. 

The Pope’s—is crusade a loaded word?—campaign to canonize his predecessor Pius XII has been the target of extensive criticism by Jewish leaders, in Italy and elsewhere. The fight has been well reported in the Italian and American press. Would the BANG Voice take a letter on that topic?  

A friend reported indignantly that the priest at her church told worshippers to oppose the healthcare bill. When she complained to him after Mass on Sunday, he said that the bishop (she lives in San Diego) had instructed priests to do this. Should this go unreported and uncriticized on opinion pages? 

Leah Garchik’s column this week outed a nutty group of evangelical Christians from the Midwest who are touring the Bay Area and demonstrating against everything from the Prop. 8 trial to an assortment of synagogues. Should people who want to write letters denouncing these clowns be denied access to opinion pages? 

Race and religion should not be equated. Race is an unavoidable fact of birth, but religion is a matter of personal choice—many thoughtful people have abandoned the religions they were born into.  

But let’s not leave out the religion of anti-religion. Writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who are making a career of attacking religious belief should not be immune from criticism either. Doctrinaire atheists who are unable to recognize the considerable good done by some religious institutions can look just as silly as any other kind of true believer—they’re an easy target for opinion-page satire.  

It all comes down to requiring expressions of opinion to be clearly reasoned and where possible to be supported by cited facts. There’s no good reason to say that religion per se is out of bounds for reader commentary. 

A recent letter writer cogently criticized the Planet’s announced policy of not printing what I characterized as “junk science” even in the opinion section. I’ve thought about what he said, and he might be right. A respectable number of now-recognized scientific premises were once thought to be foolish. Perhaps the opinion pages of papers like this are as good a place as any for airing novel concepts once in while. Peer review should still be the gold standard for scientific journals, but an occasional off-the-wall opinion, clearly labeled as such, won’t do much harm and might even do good. 


And while we’re on the subject of the proper role of the press, we want to express our heartfelt gratitude to Artists for Change, to the many community leaders and organizations who were co-sponsors, to the artists, musicians and others who contributed their services and to a terrific committee of volunteers, for the wonderful benefit last Sunday for the Planet’s Fund for Local Reporting. At last count at least 180 people attended the event, which raised more than $10,000. Into the bargain a good time was had by all.