For the past week or so, I’ve been receiving emails from MoveOn.org requesting that we refuse to run letters to the editor that deny climate change.
When I first saw this request — in the form of an online petition started by a Burbank resident — I was, well, confused. I do not remember running a single letter in my five years at the paper that addressed climate change. I might as well have received a request to refuse to run letters regarding the Detroit Lions and their playoff chances. (They don’t have a prayer, by the way.)
The petition asked the Burbank Leader to follow the lead of our parent company, the Los Angeles Times, and decline to give climate change deniers any ink on the letters page. I suspect another reason was to get the paper to write a story about the request, but that’s neither here nor there.
In terms of their aims, I agree with the spirit. Climate change is real. It was brought about by us, and a failure to reduce human-made emissions will — and has already — created major problems for humankind.
The science behind this is well-established, and the opposition to it has little to back up its shrill claims of denial. At best, the deniers have been duped; at worse they are willfully ignorant, sticking to their nonsensical claims for more venial reasons.
But it also raises an uncomfortable issue in journalism: When do you call B.S.? Journalists often get teased, or worse, due to their almost reflexive tendency to acknowledge the other side in a debate, regardless of how ridiculous. (You say the world is round? We’ll find you seven experts who say it’s flat, and one that claims it’s actually a trapezoid.)
In a word, that’s why The Times decided it would no longer run letters on the subject. Its letters policy, due to its size, is far more closed. They do not run all letters they receive; they don’t even run most of them. In general, if they receive a hundred letters from different people on the same subject, they would probably only run one or two representative missives.
The Leader and News-Press, on the other hand, try to run pretty much everything we receive, with one main caveat. The letters need to be about local issues or written by locals, and preferably both.
I cannot tell you how many “op-eds” I have received over the years from both liberal and conservative groups, urging me to run pieces about “The War on Christmas,” or urging the impeachment of President Obama, or other such tripe. I received no less than 200 oddly similar letters to the editor that urged the immediate release of Pfc. Bradley Manning of WikiLeaks fame.
We ran none of these letters. The mission of this paper is to serve the cities named in the masthead. That’s all.
But back to climate change, and when journalists should use their own judgment to call a spade a spade. To the MoveOn.org petitioners: Sure, you got it. We will not run any letters that deny climate change. But unless there was a strong local angle about the subject, I would be hard pressed to run any letters, with any view, on the subject at all. Until the Verdugos foothills become beachfront property, anyhow. (I kid, I kid.)
I do believe that newspapers and journalists should take a stand on matters of importance. That’s why we have an editorial page, and why we have columnists. But the staff writers need to be seen as fair dealers, as does the paper as a whole. That’s why we run letters that criticize our coverage or ones that directly oppose ideas the editorial board has supported. The letters we ran decrying the board’s support for the comfort-women statue is a prime example of this.
So, in the end, the writers and editors of the Leader and News-Press need to quote and listen and write about people whose views seem out of the mainstream. And we need to print their letters, even when they seem odd or even ridiculous.
But, as the MoveOn.org petition notes, sometimes there is a point where’s it’s too much. That line is a bit squishy, I’m afraid, but the practice of journalism isn’t exactly an exact science.
DAN EVANS is the editor. He can be reached at (818) 627-3234 or email@example.com.