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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Is it over now? Do you know how to pick up the pieces and go home?

Reader-submitted question: How is a newspaper supposed to know what's in the public interest?

Good question. This is part of having an unregulated industry like a free press.

This question came up in the context of publishing racist letters to the editor. I could argue this one either way, to be honest. Canada's increasingly multicultural, but since 2000 I've been living in a region where I'm a "minority". That sounds a bit weird, and I'm not a minority in Name of Town Withheld itself, but I am in the territory and I was when I lived Up There. In fact, it was a bit of a shock to move here and NOT be a minority everywhere I went.

Publishing those letters could normalize racism, and we don't need any more of that in our society. In fact, when reporting on racism, most newspapers won't publish the details, they'll simply report that someone used racist slurs. (Remember how "nappy-headed hos" turned into "racist and sexist language".)

On the other hand, publishing the letters reveals the racism that some people feel. It encourages people to speak up and denounce the behaviour. People like me, Way Way Up, Kara and probably lots of others.

In general, I believe in encouraging more speech instead of suppressing speech I don't like, on the theory that the good drives out the bad. Naturally, there are some problems with this theory, namely that people can become irrational and whip up a whole lot of bad before anything good can even get started. And of course, they never think they're "bad". They usually see themselves as crusaders, fighting The Man. (I, of course, am usually The Man.)

Newspapers are under no obligation to provide space to these guys. Universities aren't required to allow them to be guest speakers, either, which is why you'll usually hear an outcry when one of them is invited to speak. (I am not linking to any of their material. You know the type of people I'm talking about.) Whenever this happens, the same arguments will be dredged up: It legitimizes hatred! It's important to hear them and dispute them!

I don't know what's right in this case, and it's not my place to decide what should be in Nunatsiaq News. However, I'm certain that once this sort of thing has been published, everyday folks need to respond to it.


-R- said...

Interesting! I could go both ways on this issue too.

When I was in college, the KKK got a permit to do some kind of rally on a Saturday on the courthouse steps. Local leaders went on the news and said that the KKK had the right to do this, but instead of showing up to protest, the leaders asked everyone to stay away and ignore it. And everyone did. Only about 10 people showed up at the rally, and it was just ignored. I thought that was great.