Letters challenge assumptions of left, right | Columns

 In a letter to the editor published on the following page, James Silver goes to the heart of an editorial page editor’s current dilemma: Don’t we have a responsibility to make certain everything on our opinion pages is factual?

His reference is to a letter published Monday, in which a writer criticizes “the liberal left” for claiming people will die without health insurance: “Hospitals cannot refuse to treat you if you don’t have insurance. So no one dies without insurance.”

“(D)oesn’t the editorial page editor have some responsibility to assure that the page not broadcast these lies? Or do you want to turn the JG editorial page into an unmoderated blog?” Silver asks.

A fair question. Is it our responsibility to shield readers from inaccurate statements? Should we fact-check all assertions and publish them with clarifications or qualifications?

First, let’s dispel any ideas that letters to the editor are unmoderated. While I make an effort to publish every letter, there are standards. Letters must be signed. They must be original, not copied from a special interest group. Letters must not include attacks on individuals, or ethnic or religious groups. 

But factual? This is where it becomes difficult. While there are claims so far outside the mainstream as to be offensive, both ends of the political spectrum now claim as fact points that can’t be easily dismissed as true or false.

In this example, the letter-writer’s reality is that you can’t be turned away from a hospital emergency room if you are without health-care coverage. That narrow view isn’t out of the mainstream – Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador made the same claim in a town hall meeting this month.

Of course, Silver and others see the issue in all its complexity. Lack of health insurance coverage becomes the reason an emergency room visit is necessary if an individual can’t afford preventive care or ignores warning signs for the same reason. 

Yes, I could have rejected the original letter because it oversimplified a complex issue. But rejecting letters from either side of the political spectrum only feeds speculation that letters to the editor are subject to a litmus test. It feeds the view that the media – which somehow has come to encompass both small-town reporters and cable talk-show hosts earning seven figures – are biased. 

I also was confident the original letter wouldn’t go unchallenged. The strongest letters we publish inevitably are written in response to another – correcting a half-truth or offering a fresh perspective, ideally in a respectful manner.

That fact hasn’t changed since I selected letters at another Indiana newspaper 25 years ago. What has changed is the polarization. Our political divide has grown so wide that even an exchange of ideas has become unwelcome to some. Viewpoints once accepted as simple misinformation now are seen as fighting words. A comment about the weather becomes a strike in a climate-change debate.

 Some media outlets have responded to the growing polarization by choosing sides, making their pages or talk-show segments warm and cozy places for audiences on the left or right. You won’t find that here. We’ll continue to demand civility in both op-ed submissions and letters to the editor, but there will be topics and views to challenge readers on both the left and right – informative, lively, thought-provoking. How else will we ever bridge the divide?

And where you disagree or find faulty reasoning, please follow James Silver’s lead – write a letter to the editor. 

Karen Francisco is editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette.