Saturday, July 12, 2014

Letter to the Butcher

Since 1985 I have written roughly three to six letters per year, plus a handful of guest commentaries, to the Monterey Herald. All but one or two have been published. I've also had letters published in the Carmel Pine Cone, Monterey County Weekly, USA Today, and the Christian Science Monitor, so I have a pretty good idea of what I'm doing. In many cases editors have changed a word or phrase here and there, but for the most part my letters have been published pretty much intact, until now. I have never before had a letter so thoroughly butchered in print as the one published in the Herald last Tuesday, July 8th. 

I've been hesitant to submit a letter to the Herald for a few months now. From the day former editor Royal Calkins disappeared I noticed that our local daily had been printing fewer letters than ever before, and much shorter ones, too. I suspected the new editor Don Miller was doing a hatchet job on reader submissions, and I was right. 

Here's the letter I wrote last week:
In the July 4th article about illegal fireworks a Seaside fire official described the problem as “overwhelming.” Every peace-loving Seaside resident would agree. The annual barrage of house-shaking KABOOMS starts around Memorial Day, peaks around Independence Day, then gradually tapers off the rest of the summer. Seaside sounds so much like a war zone that I've dubbed it “Baghdad-By-The-Bay.”
This year has been particularly bad. Every night for the past two weeks rockets approximating professional fireworks have been launched from three locations within a block of our home anywhere from 8:00 PM to 2:00 AM. They BANG so loud it makes us jump out of our skins. Complaining to the police is useless. They've told me that unless they see it happen, there's nothing they can do. But the chances of an officer facing the right property during the 3 seconds it takes to launch and explode a rocket is close to zero.

One officer told me that the city council receives numerous complaints every year, and every year the council does nothing. Their inaction has fostered an environment of tolerance for an illegal activity that disrupts what should be pleasant summer evenings.

Sincerely,
-James B. Toy

I've always been mindful of staying within the Herald's 200 word limit* and this one squeaked in at 199. That's never been a problem before. But for the Hatchet Man it was 75 words too much. This is what he printed, with my name on it:

In the July 4 illegal fireworks article, a Seaside fire official described the problem as "overwhelming." Seaside residents would agree. The annual barrage of house-shaking noise starts around Memorial Day, peaks around Independence Day, then tapers off the rest of summer.

This year has been particularly bad. Every night for the past two weeks fireworks have been launched from three locations within a block of our home between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. Complaining to the police is useless. They told me that unless they see it happen, there's nothing they can do. One officer said the city council receives numerous complaints every year and the council does nothing. Their inaction has fostered an environment for an illegal activity that disrupts pleasant summer evenings.

James B. Toy, Seaside

In three decades I haven't had 75 words cut from all of my letters combined! So this came as quite a shock. Not only did Miller cut out entire sentences, he changed the meaning of two of them. 

I did not write the line "Seaside residents would agree." Don Miller did. It's wrong because it implies that EVERY Seaside resident would agree with me. But I couldn't say that because the Seaside residents who set off these rockets would not agree, right? That's why I qualified it by saying "Every peace-loving Seaside resident would agree." I chose those words carefully to be precise. The Herald made it look like I made a blanket statement I can't substantiate, which reflects on my credibility. No previous Herald editor (including some truly awful ones) ever did that to me. 

Miller's version of “my” letter ended with "Their inaction has fostered an environment for an illegal activity that disrupts pleasant summer evenings." But I wrote: "...an environment of tolerance for an illegal activity...." My intent was to emphasize official tolerance of illegal activity - basically the council looks the other way. But the Herald took that meaning away and changed the emphasis. If Miller had changed it to "fostered tolerance for an illegal activity" I would have been OK with that because it would have retained my original intent. 

I was also dismayed that he sucked the humor out of my letter by removing the sentence where I labeled Seaside as “Baghdad-By-The-Bay.” That was not just meant to be a joke, but also to publicly put city leaders on notice that the nightly noisemakers were damaging Seaside's image. 

So what I intended to convey and what actually appeared in print were not exactly the same, yet my name accompanied the mangled message anyway. I have informed the editor, who is actually the editor of the Santa Cruz paper now doing double-duty, that I will not be contributing any further letters to the Herald until he has been replaced by a truly local editor who knows the Herald's readership, the Herald's letter writers, and the Herald's territory. I added that I will have trouble taking seriously any letters he publishes, knowing first hand that what gets written and what gets printed can be entirely different things. As of Friday he had not responded. 

A friend of mine who saw both the original and edited letters aptly described the problem on Facebook saying "I like the original MUCH better than the edited one. Your original piece lets us feel the pain your community suffers, and that is the point. Edited, you just sound whiny. I can see why you wont be contributing until there is a change at the Herald." 

She's right.

This is just the latest frustration I've had with the Herald in the past four or five months since Digital First Media started consolidating its operations, taking much of the “local” out of the local paper. I'll get into the rest of my complaints another day.

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*In the 1980s the limit was a more generous 250 words, and during the brief period of Reg Henry's stewardship he allowed letters up to 300 words.

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