It takes varied voices to nurture a democracy

The chairwoman of the Altamont Planning Board, Deb Hext, has written a letter to the editor criticizing me for printing a letter last week that lambasted decisions regarding the proposal for the Stewart’s Shop in the village.

Hext says her friends who are equally outraged will be writing letters, too. I will print them. The Enterprise has an open forum so that the community can talk to itself about issues that matter locally.

I draw a clear line on our pages between news and opinion. On our news pages, Enterprise reporters and I strive to be as fair and balanced as we can. We regularly update and correct stories as we learn more.

For the last several years, we have devoted countless column inches and much staff time to tell all sides of the story on the Stewart’s expansion plans, starting with the very first proposal that was thwarted when the village board at the time did not vote in favor of rezoning residential property as commercial.

The Enterprise has also devoted countless column inches on our opinion pages, giving anyone who cared to write about the Stewart’s plans a place to express their views.

I frequently tell letter writers that they are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. I, along with our knowledgeable reporters, check facts in each letter and talk to the letter-writer about correcting things that aren’t true or, alternatively, write an editor’s note. This takes hours of our time but we feel it is important.

Having opinion based on truth distinguishes our forum from many others.

What I don’t do is try to correct a writer’s opinion. I let people speak their own minds. I, personally, do not agree with many of the letters we print.

Even when letters express views that match mine, I often do not like the tone or temperament of the writer’s words. But I believe how a person expresses himself or herself is up to that writer. I believe that people who write in a crude or nasty way end up hurting themselves as their views are dismissed.

In my own opinion writing, which appears on this space every week, I strive to clearly define problems so that they may be solved. I don’t find ridicule to be productive. I have made many calls for civil discourse.

But I feel it’s imperative to give everyone a chance to be heard. Our forum would not be valuable if we printed only the letters we liked.

One of the reasons I believe our nation has become so polarized is that many Americans listen only to views that agree with theirs.

My profound hope is that people with varied views can meet on our opinion pages. They can come to understand another’s viewpoint. That is the way our democracy moves forward.

The four-sentence letter by Ed Cowley that shocked and appalled Hext, I had read as satire. The first sentence lists Stewart’s attributes and says “that’s not good enough.” The second sentence says, “No more Mr. Nice Guy!”

The third sentence takes off from another letter writer’s comparison of Altamont’s comprehensive plan to the United States Constitution and hyperbolically says those who voted against it “should resign in disgrace and be pilloried in a public place.” The fourth and final sentence says, “Bring back historic punishment for their historic defenses and misdeeds.”

“Pilloried” as a modern verb means to expose someone to public ridicule. I thought that Cowley — with a broad stroke, not naming or targeting any one individual — was expressing his displeasure over decisions regarding Stewart’s. He illustrated his words with a cartoon of an 18th-Century man in a pillory.

I did not think it was probable or even possible that Cowley meant an antiquated justice system would be restored and Altamont officials would be subjected to it in a literal sense. I still cannot fathom that.

Hext, however, says she and the many people she’s talked to about it saw it as a call “for outright violence.” She writes that she will ask the Altamont Police Department to set up patrols around her home and the homes of other board members to protect them.

She and her friends will be pillorying me this week on the pages of my own paper. I wonder if any of the letter writers see the irony of expecting me to publish their nasty letters, the subject of which is skewering me for publishing a nasty letter.

But I will willingly stand in the village square where readers can, if they choose, disparage me further or call into question my moral standards as Hext has.

I believe an important role of a newspaper is to let varied voices be heard. And, far from leading to violence, I believe if citizens communicate with one another, problems can be solved.

“In this uneasy time of protests and rallies,” as Hext terms it, I believe it is especially important to have such a forum. If people communicate and understand others’ viewpoints, violence can be avoided.

After World War II, the United Nations was founded to give countries a way to communicate with each other and solve problems rather than to take up arms.

I also believe in these times it is especially important to be clear on what is actual violence as opposed to what is perceived as or construed as violence.

Hext has every right to express her views and to cancel her subscription. We will oblige on both counts.

Hext writes that The Enterprise will do “anything to sell papers.” What we in fact do to sell our paper is report on local news that cannot be found elsewhere.

I am sorry Hext felt threatened. I wish her no harm. Rather, I admire anyone who puts her time and talents into serving on government boards that help our towns and villages function. I know those jobs are often thankless at best and open those who serve to intense scrutiny and even ridicule.

Our legal system allows scrutiny and criticism of public officials at a higher level than for private citizens because they decide on matters of public concern. It comes with the territory of government service.

I’ve endured my share of such reactions, too. I know it hurts. Over the years, as I’ve taken stands on various issues, I’ve been spit at, had my mailbox blown up, and my life threatened. I believe I can distinguish between satire and a violent threat.

I hope, in an era when so many newspapers are closing, that The Enterprise has enough readers who value our reporting and our forum for community sharing to continue to support our efforts.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor


More Editorials

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.