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FCC Editorial Advisory Board: Letters to the editor are one of the last bastions of conversation among those who disagree

Letters to the editor are a form of public dialogue, a true marketplace of ideas, where people of diverse viewpoints bump into each other as they plead their case. There's never been a time when letters to the editor were more important.

Editorial FSA

Let’s face it: We don’t often talk to people we disagree with. Really talk, as in mix it up, with a forceful statement of what we believe and a forceful effort to knock down the opposing view.

But that still happens every day in our letters to the editor section. It’s a venue for strangers to meet to hash out the issues of the day.

Letters to the editor are a time-honored way to give a soapbox to the ordinary person. They range from thoughtful capsule essays to the peevish rambles of cranks. Some letter writers are motivated to inform, others to persuade, and not a few seek simply to vent.

Although letters to the editor are a musty tradition, they’ve taken on added importance in a digitized era when many of us have retreated to our comfortable information silos. People look for views that confirm their own and are less likely than before to mix with those who hold contrary opinions.

Letters to the editor are a form of public dialogue, a true marketplace of ideas, where people of diverse viewpoints bump into each other as they plead their case.

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Newspapers print letters as a public service and also because they can uniquely engage readers. But sometimes editors are accused of bias or censorship in selecting which letters to run.

A recent example involved a letter submission to The Forum by Doug Goehring complaining about employers who require their employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Was this the same Doug Goehring who is the North Dakota agriculture commissioner?

The editor who handles the letter submissions emailed to ask, since it would be germaine to point out to readers that Goehring is a public official. But Goehring never replied, so the letter didn’t appear.

Without ever checking, a conservative Fargo radio talk show host seized upon the unpublished letter as “cancel culture,” a view Goehring seemed to agree with in a recorded interview the host posted online, as pointed out by Forum Communications columnist Rob Port, himself a conservative, who debunked the manufactured “cancel” complaint .

Once The Forum learned that letter writer Goehring was, in fact, the ag commissioner, his letter was promptly published .

Forum Communications newspapers are committed to running letters espousing diverse viewpoints, including those that differ from our own. We believe that’s an important mission of newspapers.

It’s been said that a good newspaper is a community in conversation with itself. We want a lively conversation, spiced with contrary ideas — right, left and in between. We think it’s healthy for readers to be exposed to ideas that they don’t agree with.

We’d like to think, in times that are so polarized and so full of distrust in those whose views don’t align with our own, that our letters section can help in some small way to foster a greater understanding. We’re regularly criticized for running letters that some find objectionable, but we think it’s important for people to know what some of their neighbors believe, even if we ourselves detest that viewpoint.

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Still, we reserve the right not to run all letters. We don’t run letters that are defamatory or otherwise inappropriate.

There simply isn’t room to run all the letters we receive. Some letters are poorly written and don’t merit publication. Others repeat a point already made. With our websites, we sometimes run letters that we don’t have room to print.

So it’s really a golden age for the letter to the editor. And when we decide not to publish a letter, it’s not because of “cancel culture.” It’s because of something called editing.

This editorial is the opinion of the FCC Editorial Advisory Board, an initiative of Forum Communications Co. Its mission is to invite dialogue, support diverse ideologies and solicit smart, engaged opinions and viewpoints. Board members represent FCC news organizations in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

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Paul Marquart has served ably for 35 years as a Dilworth City Council member and mayor as well as a Minnesota House member.