When letter writing was a genteel, reasoned art

Greg Bean Coda

Greg Bean

When I was a young political reporter out West, I drew the unrestrained ire of a perennial candidate for governor named Al Hamburg.

As it often goes with these things, Al took offense at something I’d written about him (I think it was the article about a lawsuit he filed against a woman to whom he’d sold a car in return for sexual favors, a deal she broke after providing one or two of the dozen or so favors they had agreed upon), and from that point, I couldn’t do right in his book.

And being a prolific letter-to-the-editor writer, it seemed like every week another letter arrived at the newspaper in which Al called me a different name.

We didn’t print those letters, but we did get a good laugh out of them. And right before I left that job to take another in Illinois, a couple of my newsroom friends had some business cards printed up with my name and some of Al’s insults in the line where it usually describes your position at the newspaper. “Gregory Bean,” the card read, “Secular humanist, pervert, little s@#$head q#$%&.”

I was mighty fond of those business cards, and still give one of them out from time to time. They always remind me of Al, the first of many people who would write me nasty letters over the years.

As a columnist and newspaper editor, I hear from readers on a regular basis. Often, I receive nice notes about something I’ve written that touched or interested or amused someone, and I enjoy those. It’s always gratifying to know that someone got a kick out of what I had to say, or has a different point of view to discuss.

I also get a number of the “Dear Sir, You Cur” variety from people whose skin I’ve managed to get under. Those letters are seldom calm or well-reasoned, and go from 0 to Offensive in less than 10 words. Those letters often end up libeling my heritage, my political leanings, my motivation, my integrity, my honesty or my humanity. They often come with dire warnings about legal or marketplace retaliation, although those warnings are seldom followed up with action.

Seems there’s just not much middle ground with letter writers. They either love you or hate you. They seldom feel ambivalent.

What I have noticed over the years is a trend among those who are angry to eschew even the most common courtesies and go straight for the jugular. As a society, we seem to have lost the ability to read someone the riot act in a dignified manner, and that’s too bad. Sometimes, a restrained and understated letter has a more dramatic effect than one that starts out calling the recipient names.

Take the letter my wife (a collector of ephemera) came across recently. Written in 1940, it was addressed to Julius Achs (sic) Adler, General Manager of the New York Times. It seems the Times had printed an article regarding what it called “a wide-spread or serious epidemic of intestinal trouble in Roscoe, New York, and attributing this to the use of raw milk, or the possibility of a faulty water supply.”

“The situation was exaggerated,” the writer claimed. “Admittedly there were a number of such cases. However, the attacks were mild. No one was ‘hospitalized’; although your article gave the impression that the local hospital was filled to more than capacity with these cases.” The writer continues. “We appreciate it is impossible for you to investigate the truth of all news items that come to you. The facts are that a great many people had this complaint who live in near-by hamlets and towns, and who never had occasion to use either the Roscoe Water Supply, or milk from the dairy criticized. It more likely resulted from the extreme hot weather that had prevailed the two weeks previous.

“Your article did achieve the very positive result of turning guests away from this resort area in a season which was not too profitable at best.

“Our organization is curious to learn, and would appreciate any information you can give us as to the source of this news item, whether it came in from a local source, or from some competitive resort area. It was another of those things that a full page of denial would not off-set the damage done.”

Despite the serious nature of the situation and the apparent culpability of the Times for not checking its information, note the genteel phraseology of the letter, note the restrained tone, note the clever remonstrance about “the very positive result of turning guests away … in a season which was not too profitable at best.”

I don’t know how Julius Ochs Adler handled this letter, but that’s a letter I would have read and acted upon. It’s not a great letter, but it’s a darned good one of the variety you almost never see these days. Just once before I retire, I’d like to get a complaint letter like that. I’d like to be dressed down by a polite, educated, literate and restrained man (or woman).

Instead, if we made a mistake like that today, the letter would start, “Sir: Your article of Sept. 10 was ignorant, irresponsible and damaging. We demand a complete retraction or further legal remedies will be contemplated. If no retraction is forthcoming, we will come after you godless liberals like avenging angels. We’ll take your house, your business, and your little dog, too.”

Which of those two approaches is more effective? Which would you respond to? If you’re like me, the first letter would be read and considered, the second wadded up and tossed in the trash. It’s a lost art in this country – letter writing – and one more reason to suspect our society isn’t really improving much with age.

I’ve gotten a number of notes recently from people asking what happened to former Keyport Mayor John Merla’s sentencing for corruption. The writers suspect the sentencing has been swept under the rug for some reason, and want us to write about that travesty. Fact is, Merla’s sentencing was postponed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in late spring and has not been rescheduled. Every time we call for an update, we’re told no new date has been set. As soon as we get one, we’ll let you know. In the meantime, you can call Christopher Christie’s office yourself at (973) 645-6227 for your own update. Maybe if enough of you call, it will motivate those folks to get the Merla show back on the road.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.