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Public Commentary

Does “Anything Go” in Your Local Paper?

By November 26, 2012February 24th, 2018No Comments

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The following “speak-out” was published last mid-week by The Brookings Register. Unfortunately the editorial staff of the newspaper didn’t respond to my question. I encourage you to use this opinion piece as an opportunity to reflect on the quality of journalism and civic debate in your own community.
A letter to the editor from last week prompts me to ask what, if any, policy the Brookings Register follows in deciding which citizen statements it will publish. Furthermore, what responsibilities does the Registerhave to the community at large?
I’m not going to respond directly to the letter that has provoked me to write this speak-out, because its argument was both irrational and full of hatred. Among other things, it attacked immigrants in our community and our nation, and it advocated civil war. Engaging with the substance of that letter in any reasonable way would be futile. I feel sorrow for its author. But more so, I feel incredulous that it was printed.
When I first read the letter, my 10-year-old son was alongside me, perusing the editorial page over my shoulder. He actually started reading that letter’s contents aloud. I wanted to close the paper to stop him, to protect him. But as it turned out, he didn’t need my protection. Even he could tell that the letter was disturbing. He got up and walked away without finishing it.
I wish the Registerhad done the same thing.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe deeply in the right to free speech. But I won’t tolerate hate speech. And I won’t be silent when someone is inciting violence. And I’m seriously wondering why I’m paying good money to subscribe to a newspaper that is willing to publish hatred of my neighbor.
The line between free speech and hate speech can be very hard to negotiate. That’s why, in the case of newspapers, editorial guidelines are necessary—to help negotiate that line. Otherwise, “anything goes.” But are there any guidelines at the Register?It seems not. The letter to the editor run last week was not a carefully reasoned or creatively presented opinion piece. It was an ugly rant. Why was it published? Simply because it was submitted? Or because space on the editorial page needed to be filled? Is there no editorial standard at the Register that must be met, some line that can’t be crossed? Does it matter that an opinion piece might obviously contribute to someone’s emotional or physical harm?
My personal view of a newspaper, for whatever it’s worth, is that it should contribute to the common good by at least (1) keeping the public well-informed through accurate, timely reporting, and (2) being a platform for thoughtful debate about current events. It should not be a platform for marginalizing or even demonizing members of the community, such as immigrants or homeless people. And it should not be a platform for advocating violence, such as civil war against our fellow citizens or the bombing of another country (read Mr. Curley on Egypt). But the Register has been a platform for all of these.
The questions I’m raising in this speak-out are not rhetorical. Their answers have real-world effects. So I would truly like to know, and am humbly asking, what policy guides the editorial staff of the Brookings Register in choosing which opinion pieces to print or not to print, and what philosophy about the newspaper’s role in the community governs its contents, if not also its very existence.
I thank you in advance for your response.
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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