By David Bechtel
As a retirement hobby, I periodically keep track of letters to the editor and political cartoons.
One of the most prolific News-Gazette letter writers (he and five others wrote five letters in five months) observed, "If I worked for the NG, I would dial back the almost daily anti-Republican editorial cartoons and lose the more strident pro-Democrat commentators."
Actually, conservative political cartoons far outnumbered liberal, 57 to 14 (August through December) and the principal caricature was President Obama (44) and the top topic was Obamacare (34). The government shutdown was featured 18 times but, perhaps, he was reacting to the six cartoons about the tea party consuming the Republican Party.
What appears to be at play is a national mood described by CBS News' Bob Schieffer in AARP Magazine: "We're into this era of validation journalism, where people watch a certain channel or listen to a certain show because they are looking not necessarily for the facts but for a news product (or a political cartoon) that validates what they already believe." Indeed, most of the letters in those five months promoted peoples' own political point of view or attacked someone else's and the tone was often nasty.
Liberal/progressive and conservative/tea party letters were about equal, 146 to 142, respectively. Actually, liberal letters outnumbered conservative 101 to 83 before the Obamacare roll out Oct. 1 and the Republican reaction.
Political bent is pretty obvious if a writer refers to the president as "socialist-Marxist-communist" and if another refers to "corporate welfare" and "red state radicals." If somewhere in an Obamacare letter there is reference to a "train wreck," you know it came from a conservative media script.
A September exchange between writers started with a writer asking The News-Gazette to drop a liberal columnist because of his name calling. Another letter followed, "Rubbish! Conservatives not only call people names, they lie to make their ideology." Then, "writers should do more than repeat Rush Limbaugh and Fox News." Several more letters were exchanged, ending with the original author asking for a little respect and civility. The original writer is, of course, right. Each of the responding letters mentioned the original author's name, making it personal and that's not necessary, but done repeatedly. People can make their case without mentioning names or calling names.
President Obama was the target of the most letters (26), one saying, " oppose the charlatan in the White House." Still, the president had six ardent supporters, such as, "He's been extraordinary, given Republican opposition." The next-most mentioned topic was Congressman Rodney Davis and, then, congressional ineptness. There were 22 anti-Davis letters and two pro. Of the 23 letters bemoaning Congress, four were anti-liberal, five were anti-Republican, eight were general disgust, and six were specifically about the shutdown.
If you still believe that the president was born in Kenya, then you're probably not interested in what other people write. For those not so inclined, there were almost always two sides to an issue. While there were 18 letters written in opposition to Obamacare, there were also 12 writers in support of the Affordable Care Act. Opposition to state pension "solutions" by the Legislature and opposition to military involvement in Syria garnered near unanimity. Gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender marriage got significant support after an author attributed the tornados across Illinois as retribution for the state's approval of same-sex marriage. Differences of opinion are the essence of letters to the editor, but calling down the wrath of God to support your position seemed over the top for numerous writers.
There were as many letters in support of the National Rifle Association as there were in support of gun control, many responding to each other. People were very angry over Georgetown's water, supported the teachers during strike negotiations, still mad at the Mass Transit District, generally in favor of food stamps, love the Chief, favor a graduated income tax by 3 to 1, wonder about moving Central High School, are split on climate change and are distressed about state health insurance options.
People have the freedom to express their opinion and convictions, and The News-Gazette provides a wonderful opportunity to do that, but we should be concerned about the tone of political discourse in America. I'm afraid that tone is reflected in letters to the editor. There were uplifting letters supporting a cause, about help during bad weather and natural disasters and thanking people for their kindness.
It would be nice if we could write our letters remembering that it's "better to light a candle than to curse the darkness."
David Bechtel, who earned three degrees from the University of Illinois and retired as director of the Career Center, lives in Champaign.