Live like a referee

You’re welcome for that earworm, by the way. 😉 It’s been in my head for a month.

We have some of the most creative and funny letter-writers here in Arkansas, and they make this job a lot easier.

And then there are the others.

Time out, people! Settle down! Image from

Time out, people! Settle down!
Image from

Running the Voices page can often feel like being a referee at a no-holds-barred wrestling match, with the bruises to show for it. The overwhelming bulk of the people we deal with here are kind, funny and understanding, and realize the realities that a statewide daily with hundreds of submissions and a limited news hole cannot possibly print all of their letters, and that there is no agenda or conspiracy in how letters are chosen or edited.

And then … there are the others.

Which brings me to those who write … and write … and write. Some letter-writers send us multiple letters over the course of a week (sometimes over a day), or they send a letter immediately after they’ve been published, and then are upset that the subsequent letters aren’t printed immediately, sometimes complaining that I’m censoring them and demanding that their letters be published ASAP, unedited.

I’m obviously seriously evil.

Sigh. That policy box on the bottom of the page isn’t there just to fill space, but it might as well be, considering how few of the troublesome writers read it or believe those and other policies apply to them.

Our rules for everyone allow one letter per writer in a 30-day period. Pretty simple, that. Yet …

I have a stack of letters on my desk that are too early, and the aim is always to try to keep track of those that can hold till their 30 days are up. Human memory failure and events beyond our control, though, sometimes mean that those letters hold even longer or are forgotten entirely when onslaughts come.

Sometimes the letters just jump off the desk and attack me.  Image from SAFE California.

Sometimes the letters just jump off the desk and attack me.
Image from SAFE California.

The simplest fix? Be more aware of the rules everyone must follow, including that thing about 30 days. Besides, my eyes could use a break from rolling every time I get a new, completely different letter from the same person every other day … or hour.

As for bullying, yep, it happens—to other letter-writers and to staff. (By the way, Mr. Reddoch, I hope you don’t mind that I edited your letter, as I was referring to bullying in the column you cited, not “bulling,” which is something else entirely. I try to avoid writing about sexual behavior of cattle as a rule.)

I don’t like acting as a referee, but it sometimes is necessary, and I’m not the only editor who must do so. For example, this week, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., changed its online comment system. Editor Gary Graham noted that “online commenters often provide new context to our stories, point out questions that we should ask, and debate the pros and cons of a variety of issues. Online commenting has provided the newsroom new ways to get constructive feedback.”

However, he noted, the staff spends an inordinate amount of time moderating the comments, many of which are anonymous (a job I’m thrilled to leave to our online staff here), therefore the paper would allow comments only on local stories, and discontinue allowing comments on letters to the editor.

The goals, Graham said, are to encourage more constructive and civil discourse on local issues, and to reduce the amount of time the paper’s journalists have to spend monitoring comments rather than reporting … which is kinda in the job description of a “reporter.”

On those letters comments, Graham said:

“Eliminating comments on letters to the editor is long overdue. We print many letters to the editor. We require the writers to identify themselves by name, as well as provide an address and phone number. We call them to verify that they wrote and submitted the letters. On the other hand, online readers always have been able to comment anonymously on the letters, often attacking the writers. Such a system is inherently unfair because the online commenters aren’t required to attach their names to their often critical comments. Besides, there is a perfectly reasonable alternative: Submit your own letters to the editor.”

What he said. We’re not eliminating those comments, but I would encourage our online commenters to write a letter for the print edition as well. Unless they’re afraid to stand behind their words in their real identity.

Surely that’s not it.

I know, I know. It's much easier to troll if you don't have to actually identify yourself. Image from ComicVine.

I know, I know. It’s much easier to troll if you don’t have to actually identify yourself.
Image from ComicVine.


I wish I could take credit for finding this letter, but it was one of our page designers who spotted it and sent the link to me, from Deadspin. Here’s what I have to say to the writer to the Washington Post letters page: Well-played, sir.

You tell 'em, buddy!

You tell ’em, buddy!


I sometimes note letter-writers who’ve passed on, especially when I remind people why I’ve opened the page up to wider points of view, including those that many don’t agree with (it is an opinion page, after all). Writers like Kermit Moss and Richard Dixon left far too soon, and many others are aging and ailing.

Rest in peace, Jerry.

Rest in peace, Jerry.

One I didn’t realize was ailing was Dr. Jerry Kahler, who died last month at the age of 79.

I always enjoyed letters from this kind and funny man, but didn’t know until receiving a letter from Fleming Stockton that he had passed. According to the memorial one of his sons wrote (link above), he had endured bipolar disorder and other issues, including leukemia, for years, but didn’t let that stop him from living life to the fullest.

In reading his obituary in the paper, I was in awe of the life he lived as a world traveler and educator. I was especially touched by the request that, “In lieu of flowers, the family suggests letters to the editor.”

So c’mon, send a letter.

We’ll miss you, Dr. Kahler.


4 thoughts on “Live like a referee

  1. I have been out of town since last Thursday, and I’m glad I can read your Wednesday column on your blog. Today’s post is one of my favorites since I started following your blog. I can’t even imagine the online comments that come to the Dem Gaz daily. I’m also amazed that people still mail letters to the editor. I submitted four letters to the editor online in the six years I lived in Belton, TX (three were published!). Temple Daily Telegram staff always called me to verify my submission. My name and home town were always printed, and I got my first “hate mail” in response to one of my letters. The “hate mail” was typed on a postcard and anonymous. I still have it, I think.

    My favorite part of today’s blog post is the obituary that requested letters to the editor instead of flowers. I love that! Do you remember the date the obit was printed? I’ll ask my husband to save a copy for me. I enjoy reading unusual obituaries, and I think you paid a great tribute to the late Mr. Stockton. The only bad thing about finding a good obituary is knowing that I’ll never get to meet this fascinating person.


    • I’m pretty sure none of the commenters like Pobucker and DontDrinkDatKoolaid will take up my challenge to send in letters. It’s so much easier to comment when people don’t know who you are so can’t send you actual hate mail (even though that’d be stooping to their level). A couple of years ago, we had several people tell us that they’d been getting hate mail at home postmarked from Alabama, and some others who started writing again told us that they’d been so bullied by some of the more strident writers that they stopped writing since it wasn’t worth that abuse. I can’t blame ’em.

      I loved the obit for Dr Kahler (Stockton was who wrote the letter), and the memorial his son wrote on his site was even more touching, and I LOVED that his family requested letters. His obit ran in the paper on July 27th; I can email it to you if you’d like.

      Many obits make me smile, but quite a few for the wrong reasons, like misplaced modifiers or awkward phrasing (He went to be with the Lord and his lovely wife). 😀 Some are just sweet, and Dr. Kahler’s falls in that category for me.


      • I’d love for you to email a copy of the obit for Dr. Kahler. I’ve been reading obituaries since I was in middle school. In Topeka, KS, the cause of death used to be listed. I remember reading about someone dying from an abscessed tooth and someone else who died after falling down the stairs while sleepwalking.


      • You should have it in your email. Let me know if you don’t get it.

        I love the obits that are funny for the right reasons; too many are unintentionally funny (won’t stop me laughing at them, though). And there are some that just are so touching it’s hard to get past them.

        When I was writing my grandma’s obit, I just had in the back of my mind what she would always tell us: “If you put my first name in my obit, I’ll come back and haunt you.” Don’t know if the people at the funeral home have been haunted, though … they put her first name on the program.


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