“Letters, letters and more letters come to the editor of the Baptist Standard … a conservative estimate (of) 60 letters per week (average),” Presnall Wood wrote in his editorial from April 27, 1994.
I don’t receive nearly that many letters these days. In fact, I’m fairly sure I didn’t receive a total of 60 letters in my entire first year as editor. This does not hurt my feelings.
A cartoon by Doug Dillard, appearing on the same page as Wood’s editorial, depicts two men. One man is pointing to a wired chair labeled “Attitude Tester.” The other man is saying: “We already have an attitude tester. It’s that huge mailbag in the editor’s office.”
Journalism is a conversation, and letters to the editor are an important part of that conversation. Most letters are helpful for advancing the conversation. They reveal holes in logic or honest ignorance of another person’s experience and perspective. They help us think better.
I wish more people—especially nice people—wrote letters to the editor to help me think better.
Deciding which letters to publish
One of my roles—perhaps my key role—as executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard Publishing Company is to build and maintain our relationships with Baptists in Texas. To that effect, I have met with groups of people in Abilene, Corpus Christi, Midland, Lubbock and Amarillo to hear their questions, concerns and comments about the Baptist Standard. More of these visits are planned in San Antonio and Houston over the next few weeks.
More than one attendee has asked: “Do you publish every letter to the editor? How do you decide what letters to publish?”
Presnall Wood wrote: “Not all letters can be published. There is just not enough space.”
We don’t have a space problem.
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“A sincere effort is made to select for publication letters that are representative of those received,” he continued.
We continue to make this effort, or more accurately, we want to need to make this effort.
The reality is we receive so few letters that not all of our readers are represented in them.
My response to the questions about letters is: “We do not publish every letter to the editor, but I do respond to every letter writer.”
Something else I do: I ask letter writers for permission to publish their letters. Unfortunately, as many letter writers do not give permission for their letters to be published as those who do give permission. The result has been the appearance of an editorial slant.
I wish more people would give permission to publish their letters. We need to see more sides of ourselves.
The importance of letters to the editor
As Wood points out in his editorial: “ … letters not only reveal opinions concerning actions but serve as a gauge of attitudes. … a barometer of Baptist attitudes can be read in the letters to the editor.”
Periodically, I peruse bound copies of the Baptist Standard from the 1960s and ’70s. E.S. James and John Hurt were editors during those years. Their responses to letter writers often were comical and sometimes were biting.
Wood is correct. Reading published letters to the editor reveals Baptists’ thoughts decades ago about evangelizing Krushchev and Castro, enrollment of African Americans in Baptist colleges, liquor sales, eating in church balconies during sermons and other things concerning Baptists.
We have a record—decades old—of what Baptists in Texas thought about many things. What about now? Letters to the editor have given way to social media posts, where we share what we’re thinking, not just now, but right now. And frankly, it’s not helping us.
When we post our thoughts on social media, too often we fire away without much thought. Even if we delete posts, a whole world already had a chance to gauge our attitudes from them, however poorly stated or reflective they are of who we desire to be—or who we as Christians represent.
By contrast, when we write a letter, we have to slow down, take time and think. We have to formulate our thoughts and polish them before sending them.
When I receive letters, I take time to focus and read them, trying to understand the writer’s intent, trying to hear the writer as a human being instead of a position. By asking permission of the writer to publish the letter, I give the writer another opportunity to rephrase or polish what he or she has written. I give the writer more time.
I wish we took more time to hear one another.
Journalism is a conversation. Letters to the editor are a powerful way to keep the conversation going. They can keep us connected and talking with each other.
Given the current divisive nature of our culture—a divisiveness that can seep even into our churches, denominations and families—we need a place where we can stay connected, where we still can talk with each other … even when, especially when, we disagree.
By voicing different viewpoints and positions, letters to the editor help us see what we may not see otherwise. They help us think better.
At a time when life seems very complex, we need to see all sides, and we need to think as well as we possibly can.
My inbox is open. Write me a letter. Tell me what you’re thinking—nicely, please. Consider letting me publish it, and I will consider it, too.
Because, really, the conversation is not between you and me. The conversation is between all of us.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.