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Media Watch

When Readers Write

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We haven't heard much of late in the local news pages about the Base Realignment and Closure process that allegedly threatened to close Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The committee sent its recommendations to Dubya Sept. 8, and he sent it all along to Congress Sept. 16. They have 45 legislative days to approve the package or send it back for a rewrite.

We mention this, because a couple of interesting things have and haven't happened on the Arizona Daily Star's opinion pages since the BRAC report went to the president's desk. The Star's Sept. 15 letters to the editor included a letter from Marianne Ronquillo addressed to "those who keep whining about the noise from the planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base." Her letter follows the pattern of other pro-D-M letters--pointing out the economic impact, expressing patriotic pride in the men and women who serve there, and urging: If you don't like the noise, leave town. This one ended: "My advice to you is: Get earmuffs, or get out of town."

Five days later, the Star published a reply of sorts. You couldn't tell how the author, Anne Gomez, felt about D-M. Instead, she wrote about remembering when Tucsonans treated each other with decency.

She pointed out that D-M had survived and that Tucson would keep the jobs. Her letter ended: "Why would the author write a letter filled with such hate and nastiness, and why would the Star print such a letter?"

That's a fair question. Yes, Ronquillo was commenting on a news event that affected Tucson. Her letter doesn't quite reach "hate and nastiness" in my view, but the "we won; losers leave town" tone was every bit as pathetic as the winner of a fifth-grade spelling bee giving the other kids the razzberry.

But wait; there's more. If you're someone who only reads the Star's print edition, you didn't see Gomez's letter. It only appeared on StarNet.

And that raises an interesting question about selecting letters to the editor. One of most news organizations' goals is to provide its audience a balanced view of life; we think of news media as trying to provide and protect the public's voice. Newspapers not only pursue that goal through coverage, but through the daily opinion pages.

Part of the newspaper's obligation to vox populi is the letters to the editor, and selecting letters demands a thoughtful balance. It's a tricky process, because in pre-Internet times, you never saw which letters didn't run.

Try this scenario. The newspaper takes a position on a controversial issue. It runs tons of letters agreeing with the paper's position, but none on the other side. Readers wouldn't know if people on the other side of the issue just didn't write, or if anything the opponents wrote went straight into the round file.

People weren't that concerned about the situation 40 or so years ago. They trusted the paper to be balanced and to select letters that spanned the spectrum of opinions.

Well, folks don't trust the media much these days. And decisions such as publishing Gomez' letter only online can be problematic.

Gomez' letter deserved to appear in print. After all, the letter she answered got the full treatment. It's a little like the newspaper doctrine that when you make some huge error in a story, you run the correction at least as prominently as you did the original story.

In this case, the Star put its support behind keeping the base open in print. It's not technically an act of support, but former editor-publisher Jane Amari told the Weekly earlier this year (Media Watch, March 24) that the Star paid for her semi-undisclosed membership in the D-M 50 booster club.

And if you dig through past issues of the Star, you'll find at least one case in which D-M supporters had a chance to shout down the opponents via letters to the editor. The Star ran a Feb. 6 story in which Air Force officials said the jet noise really wasn't louder, but seemed that way because of several heavily cloudy days.

In the days that followed, two letters ran from people who objected to the jet noise, along with six letters from D-M supporters, including a boxed set of four Feb. 25 under a common headline: "Tucson is blessed by D-M noise." A couple came close to the "it's the sound of freedom" cliché that military aviation supporters lean on when noise complaints come up.


SPJ'S LOCAL COMEBACK?

Sarah Bell, a reporter in the Arizona Daily Star's northwest bureau, is trying get a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (known to the ancients as Sigma Delta Chi) started in Tucson.

It will be interesting to see what happens. Alisa Wabnik, a reporter at the Star in the early 1990s, put out some feelers about getting a chapter together. That effort faded quietly.

Actually, it would be a revival. There was a Southern Arizona professional chapter in Tucson from the mid-'60s until about 1980. It faded, in part, because national dues went up faster than most reporters' wages, which made it hard to answer, "What do I get for my national dues?"

Luckily for Bell and the other hopefuls, the organization today has a lot more to offer. When I left, in about 1984, national dues for professionals were $70 a year. Today, professionals (people working halftime or more in the biz) pay $72. The organization now offers a host of discount agreements with auto rental agencies, a cruise line (every journalist's dream), shipping services and a national real estate firm offering a rebate on commissions.

Interested journalists can contact Bell at sbell@azstarnet.com. They need a minimum of 20 members to get things rolling.

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