Here in the relatively minute state of Vermont, where it is not uncommon to bump into your local legislator at the hardware store or gynecologist's office, where the first Tuesday in March is reserved for all 251 towns to hold their annual governance meeting, and where, arguably, there are more small, independently owned newspapers per capita than any other state--it is possible to have a voice, and for someone to hear it.
Even though social media increasingly provides an electronic soapbox, among these green mountains and valleys of a state that came late to electrification and still lags behind much of the planet in internet and cellphone service, the good old Letter to the Editor is still the number one place to take a stand.
So who better to speak about the theory and practice of this ancient forum than a veteran editor, especially one who found herself on the receiving end of these missives when she was just 24.
Last night as we walked our dogs along a dirt road in a exceptionally rural province of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom, Bethany Dunbar, whose 35 year career (until recently) was exclusively focused in local journalism, recounted what it was like to take over the helm of a newspaper whose founder was headed off to California on a Knight Fellowship.
She recalled the moment in 1982, just before her boss set off for his year-long departure. Although he'd prepared her, going over the newspaper's procedures and best practices and schedules and policies, right as he was about to leave for the airport, she called out, "Wait, what about the letters to the editor? How do I handle them?"
"You'll figure it out," he replied.
And so each day thereafter, when the mail came, there they were. The Letters. Sometimes typed, sometimes handwritten, sometimes illustrated, sometimes sixty pages, sometimes on index cards in cryptic fragments, sometimes written in four different colored inks--opinions, opinions, opinions.
Calling it "the most challenging and the most fascinating past of my job" she told me, "You never knew what topic was going to spark the imagination."
Whereas one might assume it's going to be a fracas about budget cuts, instead it was the plan to remove sky-lights in the high school that inspired students and teachers to vociferate.
"There's public issues and private concerns, and there's not always a bright line between them," Bethany said. Sometimes people would call her at the newspaper and complain that they couldn't read their electric bill. It was as if her position was a hybrid of 411 and 911, her role as editor sometimes unwittingly turning into arbiter or translator. She used to receive letters from a man with Alzheimer's who sent in his expressions on little scraps of paper. Is it a poem? she wondered.She printed it as a poem and he was pleased.
Another frequent writer was a woman who had relocated to Vermont after become ill working in a factory with formaldehyde. Her multiple chemical sensitivity was so acute she could only write with a pencil. "She was so sick, her ability to express herself was not that good," Bethany said, often working with her to help clarify her letters.
Other times Bethany called the authors to confirm their alleged identity and to ask if they were actually wanted to run their vitriolic piece. Oft times they replied, Nah. Their feelings had cooled, no need to print it.
One policy Bethany invented in the owner's absentia: no hateful language, and no personal attacks.
But as Vermont began engaging the debate over civil unions, (eventually becoming one of the first states to legalize same sex marriage), the letters to the editor she fielded were some of the most difficult she'd ever read and was obliged to publish. People should have a voice and be heard Bethany insists, even if what they think is totally wrong. She stated, "Whether they were crazy or whether I disagreed, I tried hard to appreciate and understand where people were coming from."
Sometimes the letters were decorated. Like the time a plumber who was certain that putting fluoride in the water was a conspiracy to kill us. He illustrated his point with the picture of a rat, flat on its back, dead.
She grins at me, remembering the letter, "It's interesting how people express themselves."