Between 2007 and 2010, John Hughes published 583 articles as he explored riding Sacramento Regional Transit's buses and trains as a life choice. He even coined a term to describe such transit enthusiasts: transitarian.
After being laid off by The Sacramento Bee (see this June 16, 2008, blog post Between a recession and a depression describing the day), he found work in Oakland that allowed him to commute via the (luxurious by comparison) Capitol Corridor commuter rail line. For examples of his work with Reconnecting America, check out the Print and Web pages on the front of JoMaRiworks.net
Examples of Hughes photographic eye and mad Photoshop skillz can be reviewed at his IpsoSacto blog, where he attempted – without success – to post at least one photo each day for a year. For an explanation of the project, read Blog Blog Blog sounds like blah, blah, blah
Between 1987 and 2008, Hughes was the assistant editorial page editor for The Sacramento Bee. For 17 of those years, he was the editor responsible for selecting, editing and packaging the daily letters to the editor. Below are commentaries, editorial notebooks and editorials written by Hughes and published in The Sacramento Bee. Personal favorite? Chagrin officio comrade inclement adulthood finger
Published: December 13, 2007
On Oct. 4, a jury in Duluth, Minn., found a single mother of two liable for $222,000 in penalties for sharing 24 songs on the KaZaA peer-to-peer network. Last week, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced legislation that would stiffen those draconian penalties.
Current copyright law allows the Recording Industry Association of America to seek damages per album, with a current limit of $30,000 per album. The new law would allow them to seek damages per song. Someone who downloaded all of the tracks from a 12-song album could face a maximum penalty of $360,000.
The bill also would allow a family's home computer to be confiscated and sold at auction if any member of the family were accused – not necessarily convicted – of illegal file sharing. This provision also threatens the forfeiture of any network hardware used to facilitate a copyright crime.
The Prioritizing Resources and Organization for Intellectual Property Act, HR 4279, attacks a number of very real problems. It may be possible to make a case for creating a new White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Representative, as the bill proposes. Improving efforts to crack down on those who profit from pirated merchandise and counterfeit pharmaceuticals may justify the bill's proposal to create an Intellectual Property Enforcement Division in the Department of Justice. But the United States doesn't need to sweep up noncommercial copyright violators in the same dragnet. It's unnecessary.
As Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, said about the proposal, "Instead of following the course of this bill, the committee should look to the future, to a more realistic and rational copyright regime that can adapt pre-VCR copyright laws to a post YouTube world."
In the end, the bill's focus on consumer violations does little more than try to protect the entertainment industry's business model, a model that the YouTube age has rendered obsolete. Going after single moms with an even larger hammer targets the wrong nail.
Published: December 3, 2007
So I was wandering around maps.google.com, looking for a business that recycles computer printers and monitors. I was looking at the intersection of Fulton Avenue and Arden Way when I noticed little blue bus stop icons.
Huh? Bus stop icons? OK. The location of bus stops is an interesting map feature. But the real magic comes when you click on the icon. Up pops a list of departure times for that location.
I found this fascinating, and so I went over to Watt and El Camino to see what Google maps can do with a stop served by three buses. And, sure enough, when you click on the icon you get the times for all three buses that stop there. After a little checking I discovered that even at transit centers such as 65th Street, where many buses stop, the map offers times for each bus serving that station. The map even shows light-rail stops, and clicking on those brings up the train schedule at that stop.
Since December 2005, Sacramento Regional Transit has offered a trip-planning service at infoweb.sacrt.com that allows transit riders to enter a starting point and a destination to find which combination of buses and trains are available. You can even specify starting times or look based on the arrival times.
Now, RT is working with programmers at Google to marry Google's mapping technology with RT's route information. This all comes together at www.google.com/transit, where you can do everything as at RT's Web site, but now you get a visual representation of your route.
Sacramento is on the leading edge of this effort, which includes a growing list of California, U.S. and international transit agencies. Roger Thorn, Regional Transit's information technology director, says his staff has devoted a significant amount of work coordinating with Google to make this happen.
And the future looks even brighter. Thorn says RT, in coordination with the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, is working with Roseville Transit, YoloBus, UniTrans and Elk Grove Transit to get their data up on Google Transit as well. RT will be the trip planning service aggregator for all of the agencies in the Sacramento area.
This is precisely the sort of work – making it easier to find information about transit options and to visualize the choices – needed to get more people to choose to ride transit.
Published: November 30, 2007
The phrase SNAFU was created by GIs in World War II, and it never seems to go out of fashion in military circles. Just ask Jordan Fox of Mt. Lebanon, Pa.
Fox enlisted in the Army and agreed to serve three years as a sniper. In exchange, the Army paid him an enlistment bonus of $7,500. But in May, while he was patrolling Baquba, Iraq, a roadside bomb exploded and left Fox partially blind. Partial blindness is a job-killer for snipers, and so Fox was discharged.
Then in late October, the Army sent him a letter demanding that he repay $2,800 of his bonus. He received a second letter telling him the Army would charge interest if he didn't make a payment in 30 days.
After a couple of days of national media attention, the Defense Department looked into Fox's case and discovered it was all a mistake.
"Department policy prohibits recoupment when it would be contrary to equity and good conscience, or would be contrary to the nation's interests," a Defense Department policy statement said. "Those circumstances include, for example, an inability to complete a service agreement because of illness, injury, disability or other impairment that did not clearly result from misconduct."
Department policy also establishes that, to the maximum extent permitted by law, the secretaries of the military departments shall cancel theater debt incurred by military members who were evacuated from a combat zone due to injury or illness.
Army officials say Fox's case is an isolated one, but in April 2006, the Government Accountability Office found that hundreds of battle-injured soldiers were victimized by mistakes made by the Defense Department.
The study of Army soldiers injured and killed in battle since 2001 found 1,300 soldiers who were killed or discharged as a result of their injuries owed $1.5 million. Of that debt, 11 percent was for the return of enlistment bonuses.
Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., has introduced the Veterans Guaranteed Bonus Act. If it will prevent similar SNAFUs, then we wish it speedy passage.
Published: November 25, 2007
Sacramento Regional Transit is right to think about the link between parking costs and transit ridership. But its proposal to charge for parking in light-rail lots would penalize the wrong commuters and do nothing to encourage ridership.
RT interim General Manager Mike Wiley told The Bee that RT is considering reducing student discounts and charging commuters a fee – possibly $1 a day – to use its park-and-ride lots.
RT does need financial help. The transit system has slipped into a spiral of declining ridership that cuts revenue, which forces service cuts, which in turn causes more people to shun transit.
So it is understandable RT would focus on fee options. They are easy. They hold the promise of bringing in more money. They don't require anyone's permission.
But doing what's easy isn't the answer. Doing what's easy is the worst thing RT could do.
The solution for Regional Transit is to attract more riders. Increasing the cost of transit by charging for parking will do the opposite. It would drive riders away, just as the recent fare hikes did.
Instead, Regional Transit needs to work with local, county and state officials to place a premium on another kind of free and subsidized parking — the kind that employers provide for employees. Exactly how that would be done should be the subject of those discussions.
The state already has a law that requires certain employers who pay for employee parking to provide a cash equivalent to employees who don't use parking, such as transit riders.
Alas, this law applies only to 3 percent of 11 million parking spaces provided by employers statewide, according to a 2002 Legislative Analyst's Office analysis.
Eliminating free or subsidized workplace parking is an important way to encourage people to take transit. A 2000 survey of Bay Area commuters found the price of parking has a significant impact on commuting choices.
The LAO report stated: "The survey found that ... among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commute by transit. By contrast, among commuters without free parking, 42 percent commute by transit.
"While many factors – such as access to reliable transit service and travel time – influence a person's commute decision, the magnitude of these differences suggests that the presence of free parking plays an important role."
The city and county have a vested interest here. Getting people to carpool, use transit, bike and walk to work helps ameliorate traffic congestion and improve air quality.
RT is in the midst of a review of its plans for the next 30 years, which is expected to include its financing options by experts in the field. Here's hoping those experts will bring better ideas to the table than increasing costs for people who already ride transit.
Published: November 23, 2007
Rancho Cordova Mayor David Sander has the right idea in the discussion of where Sacramento Regional Transit needs to improve its service as it tries to boost ridership: Focus on the job centers outside downtown Sacramento.
"We have a massive job center in my city, and we do nothing to feed it," he told The Bee. But standing in the way is what Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson calls transit's moral obligation to spread buses to where people need help.
The other day The Bee published another in its series of articles looking into Sacramento's transportation future. This article focused on Sacramento Regional Transit and the challenges it faces.
As the article pointed out, RT ridership is down on both light rail and buses. Income from a recent fare increase has failed to raise the anticipated revenue. And now state funding has been reduced. As a result, RT has been forced to trim service on 15 bus routes starting next year. A shrinking transit service is failing to meet a growing region's needs.
Clearly, RT must work on attracting more riders. But RT's future will hold only bleakness and retrenchment if transit devolves into nothing more than an entitlement for the poor and disabled. The outcome will be a vicious cycle of cuts in service followed by declines in ridership that necessitate further cuts in service that prompt more people to abandon transit. How does that help anyone?
If RT is to grow, if the region is to enjoy the benefits that a well-run transit system can bring to the community, then the focus must be on how to make transit an attractive choice for more people. Expanding service to job centers outside downtown is an obvious first step.
Just as a rising tide raises all boats, an improved transit system that pulls people out of their personal cars and onto buses and light rail will benefit everyone, including the poor and disabled.
Only by attracting and retaining more riders who have a choice will RT be able to serve the community. Surely that's part of RT's moral obligation, too.
Published: November 16, 2007
"Pump price near record," declared The Bee in the biggest, blackest headline on the front page of the Nov. 14 business section.
The average price of gasoline has increased 32 cents in the last month and 50 cents over the last two months, according to AAA of Northern California. The U.S. Department of Energy says the price could rise another 20 cents a gallon by December, according to The Bee's Dale Kasler.
That's a hefty increase in the cost of driving to work in Sacramento, where the Census Bureau says the mean travel time to work is 25.7 minutes.
And how much has the skyrocketing price of gas increased my commute cost? Zero. Nada. Zilch.
I ride Sacramento Regional Transit to and from work using a monthly pass.
It's not like I don't know the pain of filling up a car. The other day, I took my 1999 Dodge Caravan to get gas. This is the car I used to drive to work. Total cost to fill the tank: $57.94. Thankfully, I now only do this about once a month instead of once a week.
By car, my commute is more than 22 miles round-trip. If I were to go back to driving, here's what it would cost me: Five days a week of 22 miles round-trip is a total of 110 miles. I get four weeks of vacation and another week's worth of paid holidays, so I'm driving at least 47 weeks a year, or 5,170 miles.
According to the 2007 edition of AAA's Your Driving Costs, a source guaranteed to be friendly to automobile owners, the total cost per mile for owning and operating a minivan and driving less than 10,000 miles is 69.2 cents per mile. This estimate of driving costs is based on what AAA describes as an extensive list of factors that includes the price of gas (and this, remember, doesn't reflect the recent price increases), maintenance, tires, depreciation and insurance. So my commute of 5,170 miles would be expected to cost a minimum of $3,577.64 a year.
Regional Transit monthly passes are $85. I can ride as often as I want – weekends, holidays, when I'm on vacation. Show the pass; get on the bus. It's that easy. The annual cost: $1,020. And many employers, mine included, offer the passes at a discount.
Transit may not be for everyone, but that's not because of the cost.
Published: November 15, 2007
Communities were once physical places marked by signs welcoming visitors, the shared interests displayed with the emblems of local service organizations.
Today, the definition of community has been transformed. For many, the physical world has been replaced with a virtual community where people in far-flung places meet others with shared interests.
Nowhere has this modern phenomenon been better demonstrated than in the case of Pekka-Eric Auvinen and Dillon Cossey. Auvinen was an 18-year-old high school senior who killed six students, the school nurse and the principal at his school near Helsinki before killing himself. Dillon Cossey is a 14-year-old Pennsylvania youth who has admitted to plotting a similar rampage at a school near Philadelphia.
We learned the other day that Auvinen and Cossey shared a morbid fascination with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. According to Cossey's attorney, J. David Farrell, Auvinen and Cossey met through the YouTube video-sharing site. He said they also exchanged posts on a Web site dedicated to the Columbine killers, traded e-mail and likely chatted on certain Web sites.
The same worldwide web of communications that allows gardeners with a passion for succulents to share information, where a virtual kitchen allows cooks with a taste for Sichuan to trade recipes, creates the opportunity for troubled youths to find kindred spirits.
As with any tool, it is the way it is put to use by the individual that matters. A world without modern search engines would not be a better place. Nor would it be helpful to prevent schoolteachers in developing countries from enriching their instruction with the wealth of information on the World Wide Web.
The sadness we feel is for the social outcasts bullied at school who fled their community – reality – to a virtual world inhabited by people just like them. Perhaps with stronger real communities the need for virtual worlds could be reduced.
Published: November 9, 2007
I wonder sometimes about the operators of the light-rail trains, isolated in their cabs, separated from the people they are transporting. Are some of them deliberately mean, or just uncaring?
Recently, the No. 82 bus pulled into the 65th Street transit center just as the light-rail train headed toward downtown was entering the station. It was 6:32 p.m.
I could see two people on the bus standing at the doorway. I've been there. You are on the bus and you see the train pulling into the station, and you wonder if you will have time to run from the bus and across Q Street to the train before it departs.
Only these two anxious bus riders couldn't see the train. They were blind.
When the bus came to a stop and the front door opened, I immediately recognized the blind, twenty-something, blonde, woman wearing a gray Sacramento State sweatshirt. I've seen her several times on the bus between Sacramento State and light rail.
The woman bounded from the bus in a remarkable display of sightless prowess. She quickly negotiated the step off the curb onto Q Street and then raced across the street, waving her cane to warn when she reached the other curb.
I watched in amazement as she flew through the station to the train in time to open the car door. Only then did I realize that there was a young blind man following her. He was clearly not as sure of himself as he cautiously made his way tapping with his cane.
As I boarded the bus, I heard the woman yell for the man to hurry. Everyone on the bus stopped to watch what was happening at the train.
Just as the man reached the woman, the train doors closed. The woman pushed the unresponsive door button several times.
The mechanical voice of the train announced the train was departing. Bells chimed, and the running lights flashed. Then the train rolled away, leaving the blind woman and the blind man behind.
Later, as our bus was about to head onto 65th Street, we crossed paths with the blind couple. They were walking together away from the station.
"Man, I got them there in time, but they missed the train," the driver lamented out loud.
The driver wasn't the only person on the bus disappointed by Sacramento Regional Transit that night.
Published: October 30, 2007
How will the Sacramento region cope with the growing population, and what role will transit play? Those are questions two sets of planners are studying.
Yesterday, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments board released a draft of its Metropolitan Transit Plan for 2035, opening a 45-day comment period. This is the transportation component of SACOG's Blueprint project, which seeks to guide future growth in ways that minimize the problems and maximize the opportunities. And today, Sacramento Regional Transit begins a major review of its Transit Master Plan, the first update since 1993.
The problems the region faces are obvious. SACOG projects that by 2035 the region will add 525,000 homes and 535,000 jobs as the population grows by an additional 1 million residents. More traffic congestion, dirtier air and longer commutes will be inevitable if nothing is done.
The Metropolitan Transportation Plan for 2035 will invest $42 billion in the six-county Sacramento region over the next 28 years. Using land-use and transportation planning, SACOG seeks to reduce time spent commuting, protect air quality and improve the quality of life in the region.
RT hopes to build upon the SACOG plan with an extensive review of its options. The problems for RT are clear: Only 1.1 percent of all trips in its service area are on buses or light rail, and bus ridership has been declining 1 percent per year. More people walk and bike than use RT. If RT is going to increase its minuscule share of daily trips, it will need to attract "lifestyle users," people who have other options.
Where to focus its efforts and how to pay for its projects will be a major part of coming discussions.
RT is calling this "The People's Plan," and it promises that this review will involve significant public input. Today, RT launches the process with a meeting with stakeholders. In the future, RT will launch a Web site that will include interactive opportunities.
Now is the time for people in the region to help RT make the right choices.
Published: September 17, 2007
Hey, RT. Over here. I'm the customer you need. I have a car. I could drive to work, but I choose not to. I am willing to trade the often nerve-wracking, daily solo commute for a reliable and less stressful, albeit longer, transit trip.
For years, my wife and I have paid to maintain two vehicles. Now that I'm riding transit daily to and from work, we have been able to abandon one car, leaving our newer hybrid vehicle for my wife's commute and those errands that don't fit the current transit system.
Last week, Sacramento Regional Transit celebrated the 20th birthday of light-rail service in Sacramento. But that celebration was tempered with the knowledge that ridership is down in the wake of fare increases and service cutbacks. RT must find a way to pull out of this spiral of decline, and I'm the answer – or, more to the point, "choice riders" among my neighbors are.
It's not as if this is news to transit planners. The Sacramento Council of Governments has been working on the transit component of its Blueprint project, attempting to craft an outline for the six-county region that will meet the needs of residents through 2035. It is known as MTP2035.
An MTP2035 issue paper on transit expansion offers several salient points:
For RT to prosper, more people need to be in my situation. I have a bus stop a short walk from my front porch. This bus route, which serves American River College at one end and Sacramento State at the other, operates every half-hour from morning until late at night on weekdays. The bus delivers me to the 65th Street light-rail station. From there, I take a train that drops me off at my office. As an added incentive to use transit, my employer offers half-price monthly bus passes.
RT will soon hire a new general manager. That person will need to be able to see me and my neighbors.
Published: August 11, 2007
Recently, a woman contacted me, concerned with the service reductions forced on Sacramento Regional Transit by expected state cutbacks in transit funding. She wrote, "The proposed changes will impact the poor and disabled communities in traumatic ways."
I realized why legislators felt they could cut transit: As long as transit is viewed solely as an entitlement of the poor and disabled, it will never be safe.
The focus needs to shift from the role – and, yes, it is an important one – transit plays in providing mobility to those who can't afford or can't operate personal vehicles to the more important role transit can play in reducing traffic congestion that clogs surface arteries while threatening everyone's health.
Look at the region served by Watt Avenue between Highway 50 on the south and North Highlands on the north. This is a six-lane artery that becomes a sluggish sea of cars during commute hours. Drivers seek alternative routes, turning residential streets into noisy thoroughfares.
The solution? On May 21, 2004, The Bee reported: "Sacramento County planners have come up with a dramatic idea to bury one of their biggest traffic headaches and link Highway 50 to Interstate 80 – a tunnel dipping under the American River and burrowing through the heart of the county."
The cost guesstimate: $1.25 billion.
Care to hold your breath waiting for the day construction starts?
Today, two buses serve Watt Avenue between the Watt/Manlove light-rail station and North Highlands. They run once each hour, creating half-hour service in the overlap area.
By expanding those two lines to half-hour service, the commercial section of Watt Avenue could have 15-minute interval service and residents in North Highlands would benefit from the more attractive half-hour schedule. In addition, bus connections at Watt would be more reliable.
But such improvements have become as likely as the tunnel. Instead, RT has been forced to absorb state cutbacks "which will result in a $14 million annual loss to RT and a $1.6 million reduction of bus service," according to RT's press release.
Transit needs more money, not less.
Published: June 21, 2007
Today is Dump the Pump Day, a national invitation to commuters to park their cars and discover the value of using transit. Sacramento Regional Transit is even offering "I Dumped the Pump" buttons to bus riders today. Certainly worth the $2 price of admission. (In the central city, you can hop on for $1.)
Back in February, I parked my Dodge Caravan, which on a good day gets less than 20 mpg in freeway driving, and purchased a monthly RT pass. I haven't driven to work since.
The American Public Transit Association estimates that using public transit saves 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline a year. When I drove to work I would fill the Caravan with gas at least once a week. In today's $3-plus per gallon world, that's $200 a month. Compare that with the $85 monthly RT pass.
But beyond the economics, there's a social responsibility, a responsibility to the planet. Keeping that car parked reduces smog-producing pollutants and lessens my contribution to the causes of global warming
In my newfound enthusiasm for transit, I've even created a word to describe people like myself who volunteer to leave their cars at home: transitarian. (Not to be confused with the Spanish third-person plural of transitar in the conditional.)
Life as a transitarian has been an entertaining adventure. As Richard Brautigan wrote in his short story, "The Old Bus": "There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing."
Local transportation agencies and others who seek to "reduce, re-use and recycle our national resources" will be hosting a transportation fair at the Capitol from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. today.
Save the planet. Be a transitarian.
Published: March 12, 2006
By John Hughes
The Sacramento Bee has a long-standing policy of not accepting letters from letter-writing campaigns. I last wrote on the topic on Oct. 2, 2004, in a short article headlined “Resisting the flood of letter campaigns.”
We are still resisting that flood and that resistance has prompted The Bee to change its policy on letters.
We no longer accept letters sent as e-mail directly to [email protected] We now require that readers who wish to have a letter considered for publication visit The Bee’s Web site and use a form found at www.sacbee.com/sendletter.
The reason for the change was aptly illustrated this week when I started getting e-mails with the subject line “subject64.” A quick check of the e-mails showed they were all generated by bluestatedigital.com.
Former U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, is credited with first applying the term “AstroTurf” to describe artificially grown grass-roots campaigns.
While we are no longer talking about the 1980s clip-and-send advocacy efforts, today’s digitally grown campaigns are just as fake.
Here’s how Blue State Digital describes its service:
“With Blue State Digital’s Legislative and Media Contact System, your supporters will be able to talk about your programs and push your issues with elected officials and media leaders fast, effiecent [sic] and independently of your staff trying to help them. You can start single issue campaigns and provide your supporters with talking points, and track how many letters have been sent and to whom.”
The Bee has a fixed amount of space for letters. We get many more letters than will fit in that space. This supply-and-demand imbalance makes that space very valuable.
The Bee doesn’t want to waste it on talking points provided by advocacy groups.
Last week, bluestatedigital.com was added to a filter list that includes pirg.org, democrats.org, dnc.org, mailmanager.net, missiledefenseadvocacy.org, moveon.org, saveroe.com and usalone.com, among others.
Next week, bluestatedigital.com might change the name of its server, and after the AstroTurf starts to grow I would have to cut it off again.
By moving everyone to the form at www.sacbee.com/sendletter, the advocacy groups will have to work harder. They will have to motivate people enough to do more than just click on a button to send a canned message posing as a letter to the editor.
Yes, it is more work for everyone, but by making that effort writers show they value their words. The Bee wants to publish the letters writers value, not the cheap knockoffs.
* * *
John Hughes has been The Sacramento Bee’s letters editor since 1987.
Published: December 25, 2005
By John Hughes
The letters editor silences more than half the population by refusing to print letters from women.
That was the gist of the call I received Dec. 5. The woman had been studiously counting letters and taking note of the number written by women. On the day she called, The Bee had published 28 letters under the headline "Debating when to leave Iraq." Just one was signed by a woman.
The caller could not be swayed from her opinion that The Bee was simply refusing to publish letters from women.
She took her complaint to the publisher, and the whole issue rolled back down to my office, where I've been working for the better part of December to clear my name. (I'm not a sexist pig; some of my best friends are women.)
To gauge the male-female split, I separated letters considered for publication from Dec. 1 through Dec. 16. Obviously, I had to guess on some. I assumed there is no boy named Sue and decided every Pat, Terry, Chris, Robby, Mel, Jesse and Sydney were men.
After the letters from outside The Bee's circulation area were tossed (and letters related to articles in Sports, Business and features sections were redirected), I considered 520 letters for publication. Just 139 could be identified as having come from women. That's 26.7 percent.
In the first 19 days of December, The Bee published 276 letters. With 26.7 percent of the letters in the mailbag from women, it isn't surprising that women represented 26.8 percent (74) of the writers published. When I left work Dec. 16, 68 letters were still waiting to be published. Of those, 26.5 percent (18) were written by women.
Having illustrated that I publish what I receive, I will now climb out on a limb and, saw firmly in hand, suggest that this anomaly in women's letters is a product of societal pressures that apply to other forms of expression.
Take as an example female editorial cartoonists. In the first 19 days of December, The Bee published 33 editorial cartoons, not counting Rex Babin's work. Just four were drawn by women.
Signe Wilkinson of the Philadelphia Daily News drew three of those cartoons. (Etta Hulme of the Forth Worth Star-Telegram drew the fourth.)
I e-mailed Wilkinson, explained the disparity I found in both letters and cartoonists and asked her why more women don't speak out.
"It seems to me," she e-mailed back, "men like to mouth off in public more than women do. You can see that either positively (they have so many more brilliant insights to share) or negatively (they have so many more needs that can only be satisfied by public displays of whatever). In either case, it seems to me that on average women take things more personally than men so don't like getting random e-mails from strangers that say, 'You idiot.' I get that and a lot worse from e-mail correspondents, mostly men.
"There is a growing number of women in politics and in political commentary, but it takes a bold, brazen article to weather the backdraft from putting strong opinions out in the public."
At Wilkinson's suggestion, I contacted Michael Schefer, the Philadelphia Daily News editor responsible for letters and Op-Ed page articles.
Schefer estimated that his male-female letters split is similar to The Bee's, although he has never done an audit.
"We run a very free-for-all letters page," Schefer explained, "and I think people like it. But as you know, many women shy away from that. And that's the Op-Ed problem, too – as you saw in the aftermath of Susan Estrich's complaints: Even the Maureen Dowds of the world don't like to be thought ill of for taking a strong public stand."
Estrich's complaint was prompted by a Feb. 13 Los Angeles Times article that had been headlined, in part, "Where are the great women thinkers? Thinking so much about women has shrunk their minds."
On Feb. 18 Estrich wrote, "It has always been my theory that women in America have enormous power, if only we would use it. But it's hard: You have to be willing to stand up, find allies, take the arrows and have people (men) call you names. Usually, it takes an insult – a tough one – to provoke us. But when provoked, watch out."
Maureen Dowd weighed in on the topic in the March 13 New York Times.
"When I need to work up my nerve to write a tough column, I try to think of myself as Emma Peel in a black leather catsuit, giving a kung fu kick to any diabolical mastermind who merits it," she wrote. "I try not to visualize myself as one of the witches in 'Macbeth,' sitting off to the side over a double, double toil and trouble bubbling cauldron, muttering about what is fair or foul in the hurly burly of the royal court." (Dowd's column is reprinted today.)
I contacted two women who write The Bee regularly and asked them to comment on the lack of female letter writers.
"I can't speak for other female readers, but I can give you some of the reasons for my letters," wrote Janet Quesenberry, a retired teacher's aide with a bachelor's degree in English literature. "I am a staunch conservative, and, as such, am in a perpetually contrarian mode vis a vis The Bee. ... I write in the hope that the conservative voice will register at some level with your subscribers."
When pressed to offer a guess why other women don't write, she replied, "I really don't understand why it is important to have proportional representation in letters to the editor. However, since you insist, I will offer the following opinion on why women don't write letters: Perhaps they are too busy. Perhaps they are simply not interested. Perhaps, like some of my conservative friends, they think it is an exercise in futility to try to gain meaningful coverage of conservative positions in The Bee."
Ursula Crabtree, Ph.D., who taught in the English Department at California State University, Sacramento, for 23 years, offered an opinion from the other end of the spectrum:
"Females tend to think more deeply about a matter than males, questioning themselves if what they do think has any merit and then often starting to doubt their own reasoning, especially if they are under the influence of any male who may or may not have led them to believe that they are not approaching the matter scientifically enough. Then, more often than not, they become intimidated and decide to drop their course of action or argument as not being worth the hassle – even if, all along, they felt that they really had control of their argumentative point and have admitted to themselves silently that the male's criticism stopping them from making their point is inferior to them in analytical or psychological astuteness. (That in itself then causes them to feel bad because they seem to be either too critical, too conceited or too contrary to what is expected of their sex.)
"In a nutshell, women in general are not strong enough to stick to a point that will be attacked by their audiences so they often give up, convincing themselves that ladies simply do not make such big waves that other people around them feel uncomfortable."
As The Bee editor responsible for selecting letters to be published, I'm at the mercy of my mailbag.
I asked the woman who called Dec. 5 whether she had written a letter. No, she said. She had never written a letter.
When I explained that I can't publish what I don't receive, she insisted that wasn't the point.
But it is.
I certainly hope to get a lot of letters in response to this column.
John Hughes has been The Sacramento Bee's letters editor since 1987.
Published: April 10, 2005
By John Hughes
Benjamin Franklin, in his "Maxims prefixed to Poor Richard's Almanac," 1757, wrote: "He that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing."
Letter writers do a lot of borrowing.
Writing in response to a Feb. 22 article "Windfall comes with price," Debbie Reynolds of Sacramento wrote: "My most memorable learning experience from grade school was from a social studies teacher who incorporated creative projects into everyday learning. He made school fun and exciting because he chose to think 'outside the box' or for this matter outside the books. As the old Chinese proverb goes, 'Tell me and I may forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I understand.' "
In response to Reynolds' letter, which was published March 11 under the headline, "Smart school choices," Steve Laner of Folsom replied ("Recognizing American culture," letter, March 16): "It's ironic that Debbie Reynolds mistakenly refers to Benjamin Franklin's quote, 'Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn' as a Chinese proverb. Oh well, with the failure of our schools to recognize contributions to our culture by the likes of Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others and the promotion of 'multicultural diversity,' I suppose it's not important as to who said what."
One Bee reader who also believes it's important who said what jumped to the defense of Reynolds.
On March 17, Preston Reese of Gold River wrote (in a letter that hasn't been published): "The proverb originated in China. The public library has no Franklin source for this quote. It is listed only as a Chinese proverb.
"But even if Franklin had placed it among the sayings in his 'Poor Richard's Almanac,' those sayings were often borrowed from the 'wisdom of the ages and nations,' as Franklin himself wrote."
At this point the train of letters flew off the track. Letters about letters get a low priority when deciding what to put in The Bee, and letters about letters about letters sink even further down in the pile of correspondence.
Figuring that perhaps a short correction might be in order, I asked Reese for a citation for his claim.
Reese replied, "I spent several hours on this before submitting my e-mail to you. Before I go further, the Sacto Library found only 'Chinese proverb' but they forwarded my research request further up, to the Mountain Valley library system. That route takes about seven to 14 days to fully vet.
"On my own, however, I have found that the passage in question does not exist under Franklin in any of the major quotations books, including Bartlett's and Oxford. This would be very curious indeed. It also does not appear among the homilies on the official Franklin Web site.
"Before I devote any more time to this, I need to know whether you have asked Steve Laner for his citation for Franklin. The burden of proof is on him."
Fair enough. I asked Laner, and he provided several reasonable looking Web sites that contained the quotation. The problem, though, is that none of the sites Laner referenced or any of the other sites I checked (and, no, I didn't check them all) cited the source of the attribution to Franklin.
A search of Yahoo for "Tell me and I forget" and Franklin returns about 770 matches. A search of Google for the same string returns about 567 matches.
But change the search string to "Tell me and I forget" and Chinese and Google returns about 1,430 links, and Yahoo returns about 526 links.
And that doesn't count the 54 Google links and 37 Yahoo links that attribute the quote to an anonymous Native American.
Use Reynold's phrasing – "Tell me and I may forget" – and Yahoo offers 16 sites that say Franklin said it, 85 that say it's Chinese and 53 attributing it to Native Americans. On Google, you get 1,100 sites that say Chinese, 672 that say Franklin and 31 who offer Native American attribution. (These numbers are for comparison purposes only; your mileage may vary.)
There's a lesson here somewhere about the Internet and about how the measure of accuracy isn't proportional to the number of people who say something is so. Or perhaps it's about disproving the infinite monkey theorem.
In any event, all of this slipped my mind until April 1, when Reese wrote to tell me he finally had his citation.
Great. Now we are not only talking about letters about letters about letters, but we're talking about letters that are weeks old. No one, I reasoned, was going to remember any of the previous letters.
Reese was not to be put off.
"It seems odd that you allowed Laner to publicly humiliate Ms. Reynolds for her 'error' when she wasn't in error at all," he wrote. "You did not require a citation from Laner before you published his letter. But you asked for a citation from me, even though the Public Library had confirmed what I suspected – that the quotation was a Chinese proverb, not Benjamin Franklin."
In a subsequent letter, Reese added: "Just for the record, the following is listed as "Chinese proverb" in the authoritative book, 'Proverb Wit & Wisdom' by Louis A. Berman (1997) on page 219: 'I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.'
"Nowhere does the quotation appear in Benjamin Franklin, and in fact, the quote is not in Bartlett's nor the Oxford, as I have already discussed with you; it would be a curious omission if it were indeed Franklin.
"I have found a passage in Franklin that contradicts what Steve Laner claims Franklin said. Franklin seemingly did not think experience was such an ideal teacher, and its price was dear. He wrote in the 1743 edition of Poor Richard's Almanac, 'Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.' "
And so the idea of sparing readers an is-so, is-not, is-so pitched battle has devolved into not a short correction but a lengthy mea culpa. After all, it's all about me and how I refused to allow Reese, a modern day knight of the round library table, to come to the rescue of the fair lady's reputation.
Among those who say the disputed quotation is Chinese, many say it comes from Confucius. There's another Confucian saying that applies equally here:
"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."
Published: October 2, 2004
By John Hughes
The Bee has a long-standing published policy that the newspaper does not participate in letter-writing campaigns. During an election cycle, letter-writing campaigns become more of a problem, and with the advent of advocacy Web sites, adhering to the policy becomes close to impossible.
Yesterday morning when I checked the in box for [email protected], there were 147 new messages.
Since it was the day after the first presidential debate and I had not finished the letters for Saturday, I searched the e-mail for the word "debate" and found 82 letters.
I started processing the letters, looking first for the required name, full mailing address and daytime phone number. Letters lacking that information are not considered for publication. Letters from outside the home circulation of The Bee – generally Vacaville on the west, Reno on the east, Lodi to the south and the Oregon border to the north – are also rejected. Acceptable letters must also fit within our 200-word limit.
After doing this job for 17 years, I have developed what I call my "spidey sense," after the cartoon character's ability to sense danger. As I read the e-mail I quickly realized something was wrong. The letters were too similar.
The problem at the beginning was an absence of letters supporting the president. Every letter that I read, with the exception of an obvious fake (return address [email protected]), supported Kerry.
I was willing to believe more letter writers believed Sen. John Kerry won the debate, but not every letter writer. So I checked the e-mail a little closer.
Each e-mail contains information about the route taken from sender to recipient. This information is contained in what is called the header of the e-mail. This header is normally hidden when you read an e-mail.
I started examining the headers of the e-mails. The first couple of letters I checked didn't have anything unusual in the headers. But then I found a letter that had been sent from a machine identified as "democrats.org."
When I searched for all headers containing "democrats.org," I found 47 of the 82 debate letters had been sent from that Web site. (The mail came from six specific machines – 192.168.10.21 through 192.168.10.26.)
Further checking revealed that an additional 22 letters had been generated by moveon.org (machine 220.127.116.11). The number of moveon.org mail swelled to 77 pieces by noon.
All of those letters were immediately set aside and any letter that already had been processed was removed from the publishing system computer.
This is not the first time an Internet-generated letter campaign has sought to game the system. When these are identified, e-mail filters are created that automatically discard the mail.
There is even a company that sells its services for running advocacy campaigns. The company is Capitol Advantage (capitoladvantage.com), and mail generated by that company comes from servers identified as capwiz.com.
From the perspective of a letters editor, it is telling that in the time that all mail from capwiz.com has been discarded, and it has been more than a year, not one letter writer has asked why his or her letter wasn't published.
It is as if the writers who use the capwiz.com services to send their comments don't value those comments in the same way that traditional writers do, and that is precisely why The Bee has a policy that rejects letters that can be identified as having been generated by a letter-writing campaign.
Published: January 31, 2004
By John Hughes
We get letters. We publish letters. You read them in The Bee seven days a week, every day of the year. Your Views appear right next to Our Views. There should be no surprise in this.
The original poke in the eye that prompted this column came in a phone call from a man who wanted to know why The Bee refuses to publish more letters in support of President Bush.
I told the gentleman that we publish the letters we receive.
He called me a liar.
I asked if he had ever written to The Bee in support of the president. He said he had never written a letter to The Bee. But he also insisted that his failure to write had nothing to do with the issue of The Bee's bias against the president.
When I said I can't publish letters I don't receive, he again called me a liar.
I then suggested he write a letter supporting the president so that he could prove his point. He said he was a busy insurance company executive who didn't have time to write letters. The conversation degenerated from there.
Later in the week, Robert Mott, the associate editor responsible for writing on Mideast topics, said the visiting Israeli consul general had asked him why The Bee published more anti-Israel letters than letters in support of Israel.
My answer was the same: We publish what we get.
So, here I am with a challenge for supporters of President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and anyone else who feels underrepresented in the letters published in The Bee: Write your letters and see what happens.
But first, some rules of the game.
We require that all letters have the writer's name, full mailing address and a daytime phone number. If at all possible, send your letter via e-mail to [email protected] Otherwise, mail it to P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852.
Letters are limited to 200 words. If you send a longer letter by e-mail, we'll return it and ask you to cut it. If you mail a long letter, then you'll be disappointed.
We also require that writers live within the home circulation area of The Bee. That's roughly Lodi to the south and the Oregon border to the north, Reno on the east and Vacaville on the west. We don't require that writers be subscribers.
Up to this point, it's straight forward: Your letter is short enough or not; you live within the boundaries or not. But we still sometimes have more letters on a particular topic than we can use. To winnow the harvest, we have several measures to weigh the relative value of letters. And, no, opposition to the president and support of the Palestinians are not among those values.
For instance, you can add value to your letter by referencing a recent headline in The Bee. Recent means less than a week old. The "in The Bee" part of that is important. Referencing articles published in other papers, on television or on the Web will lower the letter's value.
This is not to say all letters must have a story reference, but when the daily package of letters is put together and there is only space for one more letter, the letter with the story reference will win out over the letter without.
Letters that are focused on a single point are more valuable than letters that try to hit several targets. And between two letters that make the same point, the shorter letter gains value.
There's one other rule that needs to be mentioned. The Bee has a long-standing policy that it will not participate in obvious letter-writing campaigns. Right now, the Public Interest Research Group is running an e-mail letter writing campaign against Bush administration environmental policies. All of the letters are being sent from the same machine (Pirgweb.dedicated.expresstech.net). While some of the content is different, much of it is obviously canned material that has been suggested to the writers. None of those letters will be printed.
We still often find we can't run every letter. The rest of the culling takes place when the daily package of letters is massaged into shape.
The overriding goal is to have the widest possible range of opinion. If we've received 10 letters opposed to President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and two in support, we'll publish the two letters supporting Bush and fill out the package with the best of the rest. If we have 10 letters decrying the building of the Israeli security fence and no letters supporting it, we'll publish a package of anti-fence letters. There's nothing to be done about the fact that no one wrote on the other side of the issue.
If you are a regular reader of letters in The Bee you'll notice that there's nothing new in this column. In the 17 years I have been letters editor, we've reduced the letters size limit from 250 to 200 words. We've also moved the letters from the Op-Ed page to the Editorial page. Today we publish many more letters than we did on average in 1987. But the bottom line – to publish the widest possible range of opinion – remains unchanged.
Published: January 20, 2004
By John Hughes
This was a surprise, but there was no mistaking the message that arrived in my inbox the other day.
fend gasp depressor colorimeter sabbatical.
The battle had been lost. This was the first soldier through the breach. More were sure to follow.
inset expository retard hexagonal.
Years ago, before the war, my inbox had been a treasure chest of correspondence. E-mail promised freedom from pencil and paper. Steps between the arrival and publication of letters to the editor would be leaped in a single bound.
dophin grievous emigrant gustafson.
When the first invaders arrived they were shrugged off. The Internet was a lawless frontier. It would be naive to expect there would be no bad guys. So the invaders were ridiculed and called "spam."
armata cherubim meredith.
But the invasion tide was real and rising and it needed to be resisted. The word spam may have been inspired by a Monty Python Flying Circus shtick, but the humor of saying spam, spam, spam wore thinner and thinner until, finally, war broke out.
brandywine charlemagne greasy cursive.
The first weapons monitored e-mail traffic and picked off the obvious spam – thousands of identical solicitations. But the invaders adapted. Some started adding a few random characters at the end of a subject line. The defenders adjusted.
inferior office retardant acre pinion.
Today the business of fighting spam is growing as fast as the spam itself. The Bee installed anti-spam software. I purchased extra spam protection. This was looking more and more like a war of attrition. Who would be the last spam standing?
And then the spammers let loose Thomas Huxley's monkeys. Only this wasn't just six monkeys pounding on six typewriters for infinity. Thousands of them were working at the speed of the Internet to create random messages.
forsake nicodemus rapid.
The most effective tools in the war on spam depend upon the theory that patterns can be matched to distinguish the spam from real correspondence. Those tools were easily fooled by this monkey business.
prefabricate amarillo culver bahrein romantic.
But that wasn't the worst of it. I discovered I was enjoying this. I sympathized with my captors. I collected their words. Stockholm Syndrome in the Internet age.
peg expenditure haugen afterword emolument.
Maybe these monkeys couldn't write a Shakespearean play or even a sonnet, but I saw poetry.
ostrich cranky meadow punster.
It was a weapon of mass distraction and I its victim. I surrendered.
quarryman cloven fairway functionary hotbox palazzo careful edwardian liquid ratio postmaster annex secondary hosiery gigacycle incomparable lip.
sera bennett cheesecloth colombo osha herein liechtenstein centimeter adolph hackmatack pediatric brand coexist fool mohammedan chimpanzee differentiable nassau award dahomey husky railway.
convergent casual month giraffe rotenone brigantine naiad centrifuge fillet groan cranny brought inherent exclamatory buttercup folklore michelin.
bladder fran heuser image hippy morphophonemic epidemic combustion fcc adrift relaxation adoption scapula illiterate cheap bestowal sedan cosmetic bindweed encumbrance cox dictionary apocrypha asylum.
rattlesnake covet aggregate freetown copperfield diathermy darius rick contrariwise basin hotbox aerobacter athlete idiotic nightcap facade greece marlowe sagging quadrille ideolect cantonese infinitum hoydenish rival ferguson kuhn boucher cellulose consul hex embolden academic.
han libel indecomposable bituminous mixup reap floral proverb amphetamine blissful refereeing emplace brainard crystallographer bennington imp.
chagrin officio comrade inclement aboard rhino adulthood finger complainant aloud flute quietus keyword buried campanile danielson lollipop down golf blest builtin dreamy inaugural grateful adjudicate dispensary rosebud conversation casanova millenarian schmidt centrifugate.
Published: June 7, 2003
By John Hughes
The Sacramento Bee requires that letter writers agree to publish their names with their comments, or at least their first initial and last name. But is that enough?
In the letters office we have a recurring debate over whether we should require letter writers to identify their interest in topics they are writing on.
On May 29, for instance, The Bee published a letter on the topic of water meters and water conservation.
"Because the California Department of Food and Agriculture insists on a standard that is not used in any other state and cannot be met by any manufacturer, multifamily housing units are not metered," wrote Hellan Roth Dowden of Carmichael. "If the state is really interested in conservation, let it allow this technology to be used in California."
That's OK as far as it goes, but it turns out that Dowden isn't just any Carmichael resident concerned about water conservation. No, Dowden is a registered lobbyist for a company named Wellspring International. At www.wellspringinternational.com the company proclaims itself to be the only firm to bring point-of-use water submetering to all building types.
Obviously, Wellspring International has a potentially huge financial interest in having California law changed to require all apartments to purchase the company's product.
When asked whether her letter was solely an effort to lobby on behalf of her client, Dowden replied: "I wrote this letter as a frustrated person who has been trying to get the state to change its policy so it could take advantage of this great new technology. I usually work for nonprofit groups as you can see by my FPPC [Fair Political Practices Commission] registration. A friend of mine told me about Wellspring and I began to work with them because I believe in what they are trying to do. The firm itself is run by a group of what I would call enviros who make money, yes, but are also interested in environmental interests.
"Nothing in the bill we have been trying to get through would say anyone had to buy these meters, but they would be available in [California] as they are available in 49 other states. If they don't work folks won't buy them. There is more than one company that makes these meters, and actually the change contemplated would also help several other companies who use different technology but are also kept by the state from marketing their products here. ... No, I wasn't paid to work on Memorial Day weekend to write this letter at my home computer."
Should The Bee require letter writers to reveal the interest behind their letters? The day Dowden's letter was published, a letter arrived from David I. Winters of Auburn criticizing Rep. John Doolittle's support for a House bill to roll back telephone and Internet access subsidies for schools and hospitals.
Here was someone with an obvious personal interest in an issue, but that interest wasn't revealed in his letter.
Some simple sleuthing revealed that Winters was involved with an Auburn company named WizWire Communication Services, which runs Auburnweb.net. WizWire sells business-class DSL Internet connectivity.
I asked Winters about his interest in the bill and, in particular, his reason for calling for Doolittle to be removed from office.
"About a year ago, I became aware of Mr. Doolittle's positions and voting habits when he voted for the rollback of the Federal Communications Act of 1996 (HR 1542). This was a direct attack against all independent ISP and CLEC (competitive local exchange carriers) that are trying to make a living in a very tight market," Winters wrote. "At the time I was surprised that a fellow Republican would take a swipe at my business. WizWire's ability to survive is threatened by this bill and the FCC's [Federal Communications Commission's] ruling on it.
"Well, I became energized and started calling around. ... Turns out that SBC has much deeper pockets than lots of little ISPs. So I started to work toward making sure that Mr. Doolittle's positions and habits get the widest exposure as possible."
Winters, who has changed his party affiliation to Democrat, said his interest in the Auburn Union School District's budget discussions led to his discovery that Doolittle was "against our schools in a time when he should be helping!"
"I looked at this 'telecommunications bill'(HR 1252) and discovered it was really another SBC-sponsored piece of legislation from Tom DeLay's R-Texas camp," Winters said. "And while it doesn't hurt WizWire, it does hurt our kids. I have two; one 9 and the other 12. Both of them are in the public system here in Auburn. That is why I'm interested."
In cases like these, knowing the writer's interest in the topic clearly adds a special dimension to the letter and provides readers with important information necessary to evaluate what is said. But given the volume of letters we receive, it's simply not practical for us to research the background of every writer whose letter we publish.
We can, of course, ask that letter writers provide such information, but that information can turn out to be more of a distraction than an illumination.
Take the case of Tim Shestek. In his letter in response to The Bee's editorial on recycling plastic beverage bottles, Shestek voluntarily identified himself as the "Director, State & Local Public Affairs, American Plastics Council." He provided an L Street address in Sacramento.
But according to Shestek's own e-mail address and the lobbyist records at the secretary of state's office, Shestek is the lobbyist for the American Chemistry Council. The American Chemistry Council spent more than $74,000 in the first quarter of this year lobbying on a number of bills. The American Plastics Council, on the other hand, hasn't been active in lobbying since December 2001, according to the secretary of state's office.
Shestek offered this explanation: "The American Plastics Council (APC) operates as a business unit under the American Chemistry Council parent organization. At one time, both organizations were independent but merged in 2002 under the Chemistry Council umbrella. APC members are also members of the Chemistry Council. APC still exists, has its own Web site and publishes material, etc., under the APC banner."
And at the letters office the debate continues: Should the spokeswoman for the Sacramento City Unified School District teachers' union be required to identify herself when she writes and criticizes the district's plans for Sacramento High School? Should Assembly and Senate staffers be required to explain their reasons for writing letters? What steps can and should The Bee take to require such information and to verify its accuracy?
Since 1987, when I first took on the job as The Bee's letters editor, this debate has continued without end. It may be that the only thing I can do is warn readers that there's more at work with some letter writers than a simple desire to make their views known.
Published: April 6, 2002
By John Hughes
There is something to be said for digging through the trash. You can find some really neat stuff. This is particularly true in the age of the Internet.
As letters editor I get a lot of e-mail. Unfortunately, I also get a lot of unsolicited commercial e-mail (popularly known as spam). In an effort to cut down the unwanted noise, I filter out e-mail that isn't addressed either to jhughes or to [email protected] This takes care of about a third of the mail I have to read each day.
When I was cleaning out the trash the other day I discovered I'd received 16 e-mails from someone named Tammy Harper. The subject line said "Hi!" on one message and "Hi! \" on the other 15.
That was unusual enough to get me to open the e-mail.
At the top of the "error" e-mails was this:
"Software Abort: UNSCHEDULED. Failure Mode: MAILMERGE capacity 10,005 e-mail addresses exceeded for single mailing.
"Failure Elimination: Reduce quantity of future mailings to 10,000 or less to eliminate mail-merge overcapacity fatal error."
To get the full effect of the next part you have to read it aloud. When you reach the words between [and] use your best imitation of a computer synthesized voice. Here goes:
Hi! My name is Tammy Harper, and I work in the U.S. Senate Building in Washington, D.C. I was personally given your name and e-mail address by a mutual friend who said you are smart and quite interested in politics (he lives in your town of [auto-insert:member4817:CITYNAME\]). Since we have a few minutes break today from the Senate debates, I wanted to drop you a personal note. How are things in \today? Here in Washington, D.C., the weather is [auto-insert:usweatherservice\washington-dc\today.gov].
"Did you know that I have been able to observe Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle up close and in action, working for the people? He is a strong Democrat, representing South Dakota, and I support all that he is doing!"
I'll admit that for a moment I got caught up in the idea of a massive mail-merge failure spewing tens of thousands of not-quite-personalized messages into cyberspace. I replied to one of the e-mails to ask Tammy about her mass e-mail campaign. I even called the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington, D.C., and the offices of Sen. Daschle.
Alas, a closer examination of the e-mail revealed a more commonplace tale.
The first clue was this paragraph:
"FYI [auto-insert:member4817], I will quickly list off the top of my head some of the more disturbing items that Bush and his closed-minded, bigoted, judgmental, heartless, power-mad, right-wing cronies are up to:"
That was followed by more than 40 examples such as, "Wants to hunt down peaceful communistic and Muslim arms dealers in Russia, China, and Middle East while claiming to be pro-business, a blatantly hyprocrital stand."
By the time you get to, "We care about people and work on the grass-roots level, to get the message out one-on-one, just like this personal e-mail... one person at a time," what had looked like a botched Democratic political spam campaign is revealed to be just another piece of Internet humor.
Feeling cheated and more than a little embarrassed at how gullible I had been, I turned my attention to seeing if I could find out who had sent the e-mail.
All e-mails contain information on the route the message took to get from the sender to the recipient. In this case, the e-mail showed MailCity Service, a subsidiary of Lycos, had delivered the message. Lycos offers Web-based services that allow people to send e-mail using a Web browser.
To get to the next step in the trail you need to understand that when you surf the Net – or mail e-mail using a Web browser – you are identified by what is called an IP address. If you weren't identifiable, there would be no way to maintain the two-way communication necessary to point and click your way around the Web.
All of the major Web-based mail services – Hotmail, MSN, Yahoo!, Excite – record the IP address of the machine that originates e-mail. In the case of Lycos, this is recorded in the e-mail as the "X-Sender-Ip." In all 16 of the e-mails I received from Tammy, the X-Sender-Ip was 18.104.22.168.
I took that information to samspade.org, where you can do some amazing Internet-related sleuthing, and discovered that Tammy isn't in Washington, D.C., after all. She's in Sacramento County.
Samspade.org reports that IP addresses between 22.214.171.124 and 126.96.36.199 have been assigned to Sacramento County government. I called Kurt Scheuerman, who is listed as the coordinator for those numbers, and he confirmed that 188.8.131.52 was one of his computers.
At this point my quest to find Tammy ran into a wall. It's called a firewall, and it is designed to control outside Internet traffic that enters local networks, in this case the county network.
Tammy was somewhere behind 184.108.40.206. While I don't know where she was, the e-mail indicates that she sent the 16 e-mails between 12:21:28 and 12:22:53, which at least puts the deed in the middle of her lunch break and thus, one hopes, didn't interrupt important county business.
In a check of e-mail received in The Bee's letters office over the last two years I found we've received 46 e-mails from people behind the county firewall who used Web-based services to send letters to the editor.
Perhaps Tammy is really Richard or Rob or Milton or Geri or Donald or even Albert.
It's a mystery.
Published: September 28, 2001
By John Hughes
Tom Craig of Rancho Murieta sent in this letter:
I would like to know if the letters editor is intentionally or unintentionally trying to mislead readers. You published 16 letters on [the president's Sept. 20 speech] and as usual had 50 percent praise the president and 50 percent rail against him. This has to be misleading, even in Sacramento, as polls are showing an 80 percent favorable support on his actions, and he did give a terrific speech.
Shouldn't you print a percentage of the total letters received, i.e. for and against, to reflect the people's true feelings? I recognize that the letters section is The Bee's one area where it tries to be balanced, but in this case your selections mislead on America's reaction to this terrible tragedy and even The Bee should be more patriotic than that. I would label the Sept. 22 Your Views section as an example of poor editorial judgment.
Craig is correct that the 50-to-50 ratio Sept. 22 does not represent the split among letters sent to The Bee. We actually received about 4-to-1 against the president and his call to arms. When I went to put together the Sept. 22 batch, I had to pull out some earlier pro-war letters in order to keep the antiwar letters from running into each other.
Where Craig errs is in his expectation that a letters batch is the equivalent of an opinion poll. Pollsters seek out a representative population and then ask their questions. Statisticians then take the answers and create a snapshot of opinion at the moment the survey was taken.
All I get in the letters office is what people send me. When do people feel moved to write? When they are mad – or at least annoyed. That vast silent majority that Craig said agrees with the president simply had no reason to write – until they read The Bee and got upset (see above).
So if I'm not a pollster, what am I doing each day as I package Your Views? Think of me as the moderator of a community conversation.
The goal is to provide a forum for the widest possible range of opinion. As moderator, I censor those people who try to monopolize the conversation: Letters must be fewer than 200 words and no writer is allowed more than one letter in a 30-day period.
The goal in publishing letters pro-con is to allow readers to focus on the conversation. Unfortunately, the conversation can get one-sided if I don't get letters with differing views.
I also readily admit that the batching of the letters can get in the way. My experiment of publishing side-by-side batches Sept. 15 rather than pro-con was not well-received by some readers. This is how Grant Hutchinson of Sacramento explained the problem:
As a long-time subscriber, I have rarely had occasion to fault your coverage or presentation of events. I do, however, wonder about the rationale for placing readers' letters into either "Blast them" or "Turn the other cheek" categories. These categories seem not only arbitrary and prejudicial but also judgmental and predisposed to bias.
When I read the letters individually, I found a great diversity of sentiment and was often puzzled over what standards The Bee staff had used to segregate them into opposing categories. Had I written a letter and found it arbitrarily tagged as "nuke 'em" or "excuse 'em," I would be distressed that someone in the editorial room had summarily judged my feelings, ignored whatever nuances of meaning I intended to convey and possibly biased the public perception of my views with an inflammatory tag.
While not perfect, the alternative to organizing letters would cause far more problems. However, The Bee does offer an opportunity for readers with Internet access to browse the unedited, unpackaged e-mail being considered for publication. From www.sacbee.com/voices, click on the "Letters Mailbag" link.
One last point needs to be addressed from Craig's letter, and that is his questioning of The Bee's patriotism.
I have been The Bee's letters editor since 1987. That's long enough to have witnessed the patriotic fervor associated with a number of invasions, incursions and military adventures. Each time, The Bee allowed the conversation among readers to include dissenting opinion and each time more than one writer challenged The Bee's patriotism. With President Bush promising a drawn out engagement with America's enemies, I suspect there will be many more opportunities to define patriotism.
Paul Kronenberg of Elk Grove sent in a letter that explains what I'm trying to do better than I could. Kronenberg wrote:
One of the bulwarks of American life is our right to publicly voice an opinion no matter how unconventional or repugnant it may be to others. In the wake of the attack on New York and Washington, D.C., The Bee's Opinion pages have been filled with voices offering a multitude of opinions.
My grandfather, dad and I all served in wars to preserve this unique and unruly American cacophony. I don't agree with much of what I read – some of it seems way too sensitive – but I respect the right of others to hold differing opinions and encourage their expression.
As the boomers and subsequent generations attempt the difficult transformation from "me" to "us" in a redefined America, the unabated outpouring of views will allow us to gauge this change. Voices guaranteed by liberty remain an indelible American hallmark.
Published: March 24, 2001
NOTE: The Bee discontinued the "Letters Mailbag" when Howard Weaver left to become VP News at McClatchy and David Holwerk replaced him as the editor of the editorial and opinion pages. Holwerk had concerns about liability.
When I was a child a half-century ago (I've been waiting years to be able to use that line), there were no Pizza Huts or Round Table Pizza chains. Every pizza parlor was owned and operated by a mom and pop – if not Italians, then honorary Italians. Sawdust covered the floor and red-and-white checkered cloth covered the tables. The classy places had Chianti bottles with a candle jammed in the top, dripping wax over the bottle's straw jacket and onto the table.
One other feature was ubiquitous in those pizza parlors: Each had a window that let passersby on the sidewalk look inside and watch the cook toss the pizza dough in the air in an amazing display of the uses of centrifugal force.
I mention this because The Bee has installed a virtual window into the letters-to-the-editor office to allow passersby to peek over my shoulder as I use digital forces to craft the daily batches of letters published in The Bee. And while some people may not like the idea of others looking over their shoulder, I believe it can provide an important check on how I do my job as letters editor, and also underline how important The Bee considers letters from its readers.
The Bee gets lots of letters each day – all of them considered by their authors to be important, well-constructed documents. Only a fraction of those letters ever see ink in the paper, and too many of those that do end up shadows of their original form.
The digital age and, in particular, the growing use of e-mail make it possible today to show off the raw material I work with as letters editor – to open a window on my work.
The Bee's Web site, sacbee.com, is now offering a feature called Letters Mailbag, at www.sacbee.com/voices.
Sacbee visitors can peruse the original, unedited e-mail that has passed the first level of scrutiny and is considered publishable.
This is by no means all the mail considered for publication, and not all of this material will be published. But it does represent more than half of what will be published, and it should provide visitors to sacbee.com a vivid picture of what issues compelled people within The Bee's circulation area to communicate their thoughts.
A number of advantages accrue with this service.
For a number of years, The Bee has kept a computerized database of letter-writer names and the date the writer's last letter was input into our computers or actually published. We keep track of this to prevent the more prolific writers from monopolizing our limited letters space; the rule allows only one letter every 30 days, counting from the date of the previous letter's publication.
The growing use of e-mail has made it feasible to store letters in the database as well as names, thus creating the pool of raw data used by sacbee.com for the Letters Mailbag.
Many arguments can be made for not making this material available. Not all editors would want people to see that "editing" can sometimes involve a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel. But we also hope that readers of both online and printed letters will come to appreciate the effort put into producing the daily letters package, and also to understand the difference between the anarchy of the mailbag and the ordered discussions published in The Bee each day.
I hope you enjoy watching as I toss the letters in the air. Watch them fly.
Published: January 17, 2000
By John L. Hughes
What lesson does a school seek to teach when it asks a child to describe his skin color? The question is prompted by the packet of forms my son, Richard, was required to complete in preparation for his week as classroom "Super Star" at a San Juan Unified School District elementary school.
Each child at my son's school gets to be the star for a week. For the occasion, the Super Stars are asked to answer questions about themselves, ostensibly so that classmates will get to know them better.
Richard was introduced to the concept in kindergarten. It was fun to fill out the form asking for his height and weight and favorite color. We measured and weighed, and he painstakingly printed the answers. The lessons were straightforward.
In first and second grade, the questions required progressively more thought. The responses became more detailed. Now, in third grade, there are five pages of forms to fill out, including completion of a self-portrait and a drawing of a favorite toy. Some of the 28 questions on the forms require multiple answers.
As a parent, I appreciate the many levels on which school activities are played out. There are lessons everywhere. And so I wonder why, there between "My eyes are [color]" and "I am [number] inches tall," the Super Star is asked to fill in the blank: "My skin is [color]."
Is skin color no more important than eye color? Is that the lesson to be learned? That seems a particularly disingenuous agenda for the school my son attends, which, according to the 1998-99 School Accountability Report Card, identifies 87.2 percent of its students as "white."
In America, the pigment in the skin does make a difference. Much of our history, especially recent social history, can't be understood without recognizing that skin color matters. That, after all, is why the schools are closed today, a day honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When Richard reviewed the Super Star questions, he stumbled over how to describe his skin color. In our home, we do not identify people by their skin color. We do not distinguish our white friends from our brown friends from our black friends.
We have been very happy to listen as Richard identified kids in a crowd by their distinctive clothing or behavior. Never, to my knowledge, has he resorted to the "black kid" or the "Mexican kid" when explaining one of his adventures. This is a behavior I want my son to value. But I have already had to deal with questions that arose when a classmate said, "Blacks cause crime."
In honoring King today, we pay homage to his dream. As King said on Aug. 28, 1963, in his address at the March on Washington, "It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream."
"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
But more than a quarter-century after King outlined his dream, we still long for the arrival of that day he described: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
How do we reach that day? Is it possible for my son to remain colorblind and still be taught about the prejudice that has colored this nation's history?
Last year, in second grade, Richard and his classmates made clothespin dolls representing family ethnic heritage. This was an excellent example of the multilevel educational effort I expect at his school. As a family, we had fun fashioning clothes to represent Richard's European and Japanese ethnicity.
Richard has also come home telling about having learned the story of Rosa Parks, and how she refused to obey a Montgomery, Ala., law ordering blacks to relinquish their bus seats to whites.
I let Richard decide what to write for his skin color on the Super Star form. He settled on "light tan." Unsettled is how the Super Star's skin color fits into his school's lessons on this day honoring King's work.
Published: April 10, 1999
By John Hughes
When the United States, acting under the auspices of the United Nations, launched the air campaign against Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, letters poured into The Bee. Much the same has happened with the air campaign by NATO in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. But this time there's a twist.
Now we have the Internet.
The mail has been interesting, if often stretching credibility much too far. Typical was a message from Vladimir Djacic of Novi Sad in Serbia, who wrote:
"I wonder will CNN ever report this news.
"A complete brigade of the NATO, composed of 1,500 German soldiers, left their camp in Petrovac, 26 kilometers away from Skoplje, refusing to take part in the war adventures of Bill Clinton and Gerhard Schroeder against Yugoslavia.
"The brigade fled to neighbouring Greece, leaving their arms behind in the empty camp scattered all around the place, sources close to the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Macedonia have been quoted as saying."
Djacic also sent the text of a Greek newspaper article reporting that 88 NATO troops are missing, about half of them Americans.
The efforts of Serbs in Yugoslavia are being helped by people in America. Bob Djukic has been particularly prolific. On just one day he sent The Bee six e-mails. The subject lines ranged from "NATO DELIBERATELY TARGETS CIVILIAN OBJECTS IN YUGOSLAVIA" to "NATO 'HEROES' BOMBING MONASTERIES IN SERBIA."
One Djukic communique provided a different twist on the Greek casualty count, offering this from "Athens magazine Athinaiki, no. 599, page 9, 7th April 1999."
"At the moment NATO is refusing Yugoslav cease-fire proposal, Athinaiki discovers 100% correct information from the NATO HQ resources that current Alliance loses are 88 death and missing soldiers and 32 airplanes and helicopters. In order to punish Yugoslavia, small town of Aleksinac was heavily bombed resulting 7 dead and 30 wounded."
I replied to one of Djukic's e-mails and asked him if he could tell me a little about himself. He wrote, "I myself am a Serbian American who has lived in USA since 1985. I received my BA in Belgrade in 1984, and my MA in Psychology in New York three years ago. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the article you have received is not mine; it comes from my friend, Dejan, a very sophisticated gentleman who lives in Belgrade with his family."
Dejan turns out to be Dejan V. Veselinovic, a 46-year-old senior professor of pharmacology, in the School of Medicine at the University of Belgrade. Veselinovic said he learned English "from American kids of U.S. Air Force staff in Ankara, Turkey, 1964."
Other Belgrade grads living in America have been busy getting the Serb view of the news out.
Bob Djurdjevic of Phoenix, Az., whose bio says he is a "top engineering graduate, University of Belgrade (1968)," has sent out copies of his "Special 'Kosovo Crisis' Truth in Media Global Watch Bulletins" (available online at www.truthinmedia.org).
One Djurdjevic bulletin takes the Greek story of NATO casualties and expands on the theme:
"The 32 aircraft lost figure matches up almost exactly with the 31 shoot-downs claimed by our Serbian sources. ... But NATO's human casualty figure of 88 seems frankly too low. Not only because in one incident alone the Serbs claim to have shot down two American helicopters killing all 50 troops aboard. ... But because we've also received other (unconfirmed) reports that at least one other American and two British helicopters had also been shot down in the first 13 days of the war, each presumably carrying between 12 and 25 troops."
For the most part the e-mail from Serbia and its supporters has been along the same vein. Then people started attaching photos. There were photos of burning buildings and debris-strewn streets and one photo of a dead woman.
The photos were followed by an e-mail from Alexsandar Dekanski of Belgrade with three drawings that were described as being from "Children drawing from Belgrade shelter."
The e-mail had been simultaneously addressed to more than 200 English-language media outlets in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. The American e-mail addresses included everyone from the Express, the newspaper of a school in the Keystone Central School District in Lock Haven, Pa., to ABC News. And, of course, The Bee.
Somebody has gone to a lot of work to round up this address list, and a number of people are using it, or versions of it, to spread the Serb message.
I asked Dekanski for information about the drawings and himself. The drawings are actually from a Web site – www.yutarget.com. (The letters "yu" are the Internet abbreviation for Yugoslavia.)
About himself, he wrote:
"My name is Aleksandar Dekanski. ... Born on September 17, 1958, in Sremska Mitrovica, Yugoslavia. Employed at the Institute for Chemistry, Technology and Metallurgy, Department of Electrochemistry as associate scientist...
"I have wife and 1.5 year old daughter. During last two weeks our town was bombing every night. Almost all of targets in the town was a civilian buildings, and almost all was near the hospitals, including the Mothering Hospital. Our life is not a life, it is horror film in the reality. My daughter must stop all the games and must spent a lot of time in the shelter, asking me way she can not sleep in her bed.
"Here in Belgrade the spring come, but for us, last two weeks are long, very long, cold and dark night. In the name of my daughter and all the children here and anywhere in the world, do your best to stop this bombing of our county, and to prevent any future bombing anywhere in the world. Bombs can not solve anything, just make childrens without parents, mothers without husband, fathers without babies."
At the end, Dekanski attached three more photos. One is of a man seated under a beach umbrella in the sand by a large body of blue water. Another pictures a young woman holding an infant as she lights a candle in a room with ancient religious paintings on the walls. The third is an animated image of a bomb exploding.
I suppose that, with the Internet, we are now guaranteed of getting lots of information – some true, some other. But for now, I'm waiting for the refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia to be completed. No one on the road out of Kosovo seems to have Internet access.
Published: January 22, 1999
By John Hughes
IN THE ANIMAL FARM WORLD of the Information Age, everyone has access to the Internet. But some access is more equal than others.
I came to this conclusion while attempting to answer the complaints generated by my Jan. 8 column on the growing influence of e-mail on the selection of letters to the editor.
More than one person wrote that it was unfair to give preference to the first letters that arrive, a choice that results in the use of more e-mail. As Donald Coberly wrote, "I do not own a computer; therefore I cannot send e-mail."
That's not necessarily true. Most Sacramento library branches provide Internet access. You can even use it for free. But when I set out to demonstrate how easy it is to send a letter to the editor via the Internet, I quickly discovered that the limitations placed on this access put these users at a significant disadvantage.
People with a modem-equipped computer can subscribe to Internet access for less than $100 a year. For everyone else, there are at least two ways in Sacramento County to access the Internet: the library or Kinko's copy centers, which charge by the minute.
To explore the library offering I chose the Arcade branch on Marconi. I knew the library had a computer connected to the Internet, but I'd never used it.
When I arrived at 6:05 p.m. on a Wednesday, I found, to my surprise, that the computer was in use and there was a waiting list with two names. I signed up for a turn and took a seat.
The Sacramento Public Library's Internet access policy limits an individual's use of the computers to 30 minutes per day "at the discretion of library staff." While the limit made my wait more tolerable, it also means that library Internet exploration must be focused on the task. Wandering around the vast reaches of cyberspace could quickly eat up the day's allotted half-hour.
The library makes no effort to censor Internet access. "Parents wishing to control the materials to which their children are exposed are expected to provide sufficient supervision to accomplish this," the library policy states.
The computer at the Arcade library is situated so that it is easy for passersby to see what is displayed on the monitor. It is simply unimaginable that anyone would use the computer to look at pornography. There is no privacy.
One gentleman ahead of me was using the Internet for the first time and needed the help of a librarian. She was happy to assist, but the library warns that staff "are not always available to do extensive training."
The county library system does, however, offer a free class for Internet beginners at the Carmichael Library from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays. The class starts with an introduction to using a computer mouse and goes on to introduce the Netscape browser and the basics of searching the Internet.
Carmichael, which is a regional library, has six Internet-connected computers, when they're all working. Arden, Orangevale and McClatchy are the only branches that lack Internet access, according to the library's Web site at www.sna.com/saclib/. Video teleconferencing systems and services are available at the Central Library.
At 7:10 p.m., it was finally my turn. The e-mail address for letters is [email protected], but library patrons don't have the ability to send e-mail directly. To do so they would need to use one of the many free e-mail services such as hotmail.com or www.sacbeemail.com, which allow users to send and receive e-mail using their Web browsers.
However, sending a letter to The Bee can be done without actually using e-mail at www.sacbee.com. Just find the "Let us hear from you" link at the bottom of any page. Clicking on this link brings up a form that can be used to communicate with different departments in The Bee, including letters to the editor.
The first time I tried this I ran into an unexpected hurdle: The form requires that you enter your e-mail address. It won't accept "none" as an answer. You can, however, get around this by using [email protected]
By 7:20 p.m., an hour and 15 minutes after arriving, I was finished sending my letter. Obviously, this wasn't the most productive use of my time.
Another significant drawback to using the library to access the Internet is the limited hours that branches are open. That's not a problem at Kinko's outlets, which are open 24 hours.
To try out Kinko's service, I picked 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night. When I arrived at the Arden Fair Kinko's, both computers available for Internet use were occupied. A young woman browsing a Spice Girls Web site offered to get off so I could use the computer.
While the library makes no attempt to control what patrons view, Kinko's takes a proactive stand against objectionable content. Filtering software made by Surfwatch is installed and there is no apparent way to choose not to use the filters. In fact, users are "expressly prohibited" from attempting to visit objectionable sites.
Luckily for my experiment, Surfwatch doesn't find The Bee objectionable, and I was able to use the "Let us hear from you" form to send a letter. Kinko's charges 20 cents per minute. Total cost to send my letter: $1.60, a steep premium compared to a first-class letter.
Perhaps in a perfect world, libraries would be open more hours and would have enough computers to meet the needs of patrons without time limits. In that ideal place, commercial enterprises offering pay-as-you-go access wouldn't feel compelled to limit everyone's access to protect the few.
Published: January 8, 1999
By John Hughes
It is the timeliness and interactivity that explain why e-mail's influence on what gets in the paper has grown.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, Janice Fauber watched as the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton. She typed up a letter, dated Sunday, and had it stamped and in the U.S. mail by Monday.
On that same Monday, C.E. Hornor looked at the huge color photo on the front page of The Bee and was incensed. There was President Clinton holding a Bible in one hand and the hand of his daughter, Chelsea, in the other. Hornor immediately fired off a letter to the editor. Hornor didn't need a stamp. He sent his letter by e-mail.
The next day, 29 letters related to the House impeachment vote were published, including Hornor's letter criticizing The Bee's pro-Clinton bias.
Fauber's letter hadn't arrived in time to be considered. She was not alone. Many other letters arrived over the next few days that were never published.
She eventually wrote another letter, this time to protest the short shrift her first letter had received.
"Apparently, any writers who sent letters via the U.S. mail were out of luck in having their views even considered for publication, even if they mailed their letters at the earliest possible time after the House vote," she wrote.
In part, Fauber is correct. But other issues also conspired against her letter.
The biggest problem is that space for letters is limited.
In an effort to improve that situation, we moved the letters to the editorial page 18 months ago, guaranteeing them a minimum daily space and allowing for occasions when they could be continued on the next page. Prior to that move, letters had appeared only on the Op-Ed page, here where this column appears. There was no minimum space set aside for letters and maximum space available was the single page.
In 1996, before the move, The Bee published 3,073 letters. The year before, a nonelection year, The Bee published just 2,873. Last year, the first full year with letters starting on the editorial page, The Bee published 3,790 letters, a 23 percent increase over 1996.
But even with additional space, we still receive more letters than we can publish.
Fauber asked in her letter whether writers should forget about writing unless they are writing about less immediate topics.
The answer to that is no.
As letters editor, much of my work involves packaging letters. The goal is to publish the widest possible range of opinion. Letters that express opinions that haven't appeared in the paper often find a home eventually. This is especially true on the bigger issues.
In the month of December, The Bee published 359 letters, a record number. Of those, 114 concerned Clinton and the impeachment debate. While e-mail accounted for most, we printed 32 letters on this subject that didn't arrive by e-mail.
Still, when mail volume is especially high, as it has been with the Clinton impeachment and the renewed bombing of Iraq, only a sampling of all the mail that arrives can be published.
Timeliness is a critical element in deciding which letters to use. Publishing the reaction to the House impeachment vote three days after the fact, as The Bee did, has greater value than having the same opinions appear a full week later.
Two things work against waiting for the U.S. mail before deciding which letters to run. First, events may overrun the earlier letters. Second, if we waited, we'd still be offering pretty much the same opinions, only later. Given the choice, earlier is better.
From a purely production perspective, e-mail has vastly improved the handling of letters to the editor.
When events generate a lot of letters it generally takes three days before the tide of U.S. mail crests. Many letters are overrun by later events while in tzransit and rendered usuable.
The development and eventual spread of fax machines provided an opportunity for instant communication, but a faxed letter is still a paper letter. A faxed letter, like all other paper mail, must be pencil-edited first, then given to a typist to input into the computer. After it is in the computer, the letter must be further edited during the packaging of a batch of letters. This adds at least a day to the production cycle.
The delay caused by the U.S. mail also hinders communication back to the writers. There is simply no time to discuss changes with the writers. Letters that are too long are rejected. The turnaround time to have a letter revised by mail would be more than a week. With e-mail, writers can be notified immediately that their letters are too long or lack other information. Responses can be back in minutes.
It is the timeliness and this interactivity that explain why e-mail's influence on what gets in the paper has grown.
In January 1998, e-mail represented just 16.3 percent of the letters published. By June, the average had risen to 33 percent. In December – something of a special case, given the impeachment vote – 50 percent of the letters published arrived by e-mail.
For readers interested in what others think of current events, the new timeliness of e-mail should be good news. For writers and editors who use it, e-mail provides new interactive opportunities.
While paper mail will always be welcome, the selection and timeliness of opinion we can offer readers are greatly improved with e-mail.
Published: July 31, 1998
By John Hughes
Many topics raised in letters to the editor can't be resolved. Does abortion kill a baby or preserve a woman's right to control her own body? Is homosexuality a choice or a genetic fact? Do guns kill people or do people kill people? Is experimentation on animals in medical research necessary? Each side holds firmly to its view.
As letters editor, I am often presented with the dilemma of deciding when to call an end to these debates. Generally, each side gets a say and then the matter is dropped until the topic returns to the news.
But then there's the recent back-and-forth over what Albert Einstein thought of the Catholic Church. This has been one small point of the larger debate generated by the Catholic Church's muted apology in March for its failure to do more to prevent the death of Jews in the Holocaust.
Did Einstein praise the Catholic Church's role in fighting Adolf Hitler's persecution of Jews? Letter-writer Frank Schmidt of Sacramento said yes; Preston Reese of Gold River said no. Writers responding to Reese say Einstein did praise the church.
Unlike the debate over abortion or gay rights, this dispute begs for a different end. After all, it ought to be possible to pin down exactly what Einstein said.
On June 24, The Bee published Schmidt's letter, in which he wrote: "And it was Albert Einstein, not generally regarded as a man of faith, who after the war said: "Only the Catholic Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had not been interested in the church, but today I feel a great admiration for the church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.' "
Reese's letter, published July 21, denies the authenticity of that quote, suggesting that it came from a 1967 book by Pinchas E. Lapide, "Three Popes and the Jews." Reese said the book lacked a citation for the quote other than to say that it came from 1940, not after the war, as Schmidt's letter had suggested.
Several letter-writers responding to Reese have been able to identify the probable source for the disputed quote. It comes from a Dec. 23, 1940, cover story in Time magazine titled, "Martyr of 1940. In Germany only the cross has not bowed to the swastika."
The complete quote from Einstein reads:
"Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks.
"Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly."
That is very close to the quote that appears on page 251 of Lapide's "Three Popes and the Jews" book, which reads: "Only the Catholic Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty."
While Lapide appears to have limited Einstein's observation to the Catholic Church, the context of the Time article suggests Einstein was referring to the German church leaders who had resisted Hitler's efforts to control religious practice in Germany.
The article opens with the quote, "Not you, Herr Hitler, but God is my Fhrer," from Martin Niemller, founder of the Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church) who after the war served as president of the World Council of Churches.
The Time article in the Christmas week issue of 1940 said, "So this second Christmas of Hitler's war finds Niemller and upwards of 200,000 other Christians (some estimates run as high as 800,000) behind the barbed wire of the frozen Nazi concentration camps. Here men bear mute witness that the Christ – whose birth the outside world celebrates unthinkingly at Christmas – can still inspire a living faith for which men and women even now endure imprisonment, torture and death as bravely as in centuries past."
The Time article amply underlines the Catholic Church's ambivalent role:
"Hitler won his religious Munichs over Germany's 21,000,000 Catholics and 40,000,000 Protestants in the first six months of his power. The Vatican signed a concordat (negotiated by Pope Pius XII, who was then Cardinal Pacelli, Papal Secretary of State) with him on July 20, 1933," the article explains.
But Catholics joined Protestants to protest Hitler's attempts to control religious practices in Germany. As the Time article pointed out, "From Hitler's viewpoint the most dangerous aspect of Christian resistance is the refusal of thousands of churches, both Protestant and Catholic, to pray for a Nazi victory."
The debate over the Catholic Church's role in World War II will be endless. Neither side will be able to demolish the other's claims. But that debate should proceed without Einstein. His words speak for themselves.
Published: December 13, 1996
By John Hughes
THE BEE gets letters, lots of letters. Many of those letters are angry. And so when we don't get letters, or at least not as many letters as we expect, we're left to wonder if people are happy.
The question arises after compiling the statistics on the number of letters to the editor received between January and November this year. We didn't get as many postelection letters as we expected.
People write for many reasons. We get long, thoughtful letters. We get short letters correcting some error – ours or that of someone in the news. We get letters written for no apparent reason other than self-gratification. But mostly people write letters when they are mad.
This rule of letter-writing is one of the first that a letters editor discovers while daily reading the piles of mail considered for publication. People need to be motivated to take the time to write. Most of the best letters, the ones that bite and grab at an issue, the ones that compel you to consider, are the letters obviously written in the heat of the moment.
When The Bee reports something that readers disagree with, the reaction is swift – almost instantaneous with the advent of Internet e-mail and fax machines. Some issues – gun control, child abuse, Social Security – are predictable letter generators; others are a surprise. At times the mail comes in waves in response to something in The Bee.
Indeed, if only letters to the editor were used to gauge public opinion, one would have to conclude that it's mostly angry people who read The Bee – or everyone who reads The Bee becomes angry.
OBVIOUSLY, neither is the case. "Happy" people are just not motivated to write. How do we know there are people "happy" with an event that generates an angry response from others? Because the "happy" people get angry when they read the letters published, and then they write in response.
Given this link between anger and letters and our shortage of postelection mail, we're left to wonder if most people are happy about the election outcome. While the statistics suggest some ambivalence, one thing is certain: They aren't angry.
Statistics on letters are available from 1991 to 1996. As one would expect, the years with major elections are the years when we receive the most mail. In both 1994 and 1992, we got more than 10,000 letters. In comparison, only 8,514 arrived in 1995 and just 8,065 in 1993.
The 1996 election cycle generated the lowest amount of mail of any of the election years, falling 8.6 percent below 1994 and 10 percent behind 1992.
That is not to say, however, that this was simply another example of the voter apathy that kept record numbers of eligible voters away from the polls on Election Day.
If you look at just September and October, the months when voters finally start to focus on the campaign, the statistics show 5 percent more mail arrived in 1996 than in the same period of 1994. That's as expected since presidential elections generate more enthusiasm than gubernatorial elections.
(The September to October 1996 figures don't mean voter enthusiasm was up to par. Even though more mail arrived in 1996 than in 1994, the volume was 9 percent below the amount of mail that arrived in the same period in 1992.)
What's missing in 1996 – and was missing even more in 1992 – are the letters that followed the 1994 vote. November mail this year was 20 percent below 1994.
When one considers that 52 percent more mail arrived in November 1994 than had arrived in 1992, one begins to see the scope of the reaction in 1994.
While November 1996 mail was below 1994 levels, this year was not without its election reaction. We received 22 percent more mail in November than we received in 1992.
Not all the mail generated by an election comes from angry people – admittedly, there are other emotions involved and other reasons to take the time to craft a letter – but the overall conclusion that people are generally satisfied in 1996 but not as contented as they were in 1992 is borne out by exit polling.
THE CNN poll of more than 16,000 voters found the top issue was the economy and jobs, followed by Medicare. Of those polled, 55 percent felt the national economy was in excellent or good health. Only 20 percent said their personal finances had gotten worse since 1992.
And the poll results – just like the letters statistics for November – showed the electorate somewhat ambivalent about the choice made at the polls.
CNN's exit poll found 52 percent of the voters saying they would be "concerned" or "scared" if President Clinton were re-elected. Even among those who voted for Clinton, 53 percent said they cast their ballots for the president "with reservations." (Dole fared even worse on this point; 59 percent of those who cast ballots for him did so "with reservations.")
Of course, this is just one theory. If you don't like it, write a letter. Be sure to include your name, address and a daytime phone number in case we have a question. The postal address is Letters, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, Calif. 95852. If you are really angry, you can send e-mail to [email protected]
Published: November 7, 1992
By John L. Hughes
WAS BILL Clinton's victory inevitable?
In 1986, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. published "The Cycles of American History," a book that contained a 1985 essay entitled, "The Cycles of American Politics."
"At some point, shortly before or after the year 1990," Schlesinger wrote, "there should come a sharp change in the national mood and direction – a change comparable to those bursts of innovation and reform that followed the accessions to office of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and of John Kennedy in 1961. The 1990s should be the turn in the generational succession for the young men and women who came of political age in the Kennedy years."
Schlesinger defined his cycle, which he estimated at roughly 30 years in duration, as "a continuing shift in national involvement, between public purpose and private interest."
The theory evolved from work by his father, historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who identified swings in American history between conservatism and liberalism, "between periods of concern for the rights of the few and periods of concern for the wrongs of the many."
WHEN THE elder Schlesinger first lectured on his theory in 1924 he predicted that "Coolidge-style conservatism" would end around 1932. In 1939, his first published version suggested that the current liberal mood would expire in 1947.
"When my father brought the argument up to date in "Paths to the Present' in 1949," Schlesinger wrote in 1985, "he wrote, "The recession from liberalism which began in 1947 [with the arrival of what Truman called the "do-nothing, good-for-nothing" Eightieth Congress] was due to end in 1962, with a possible margin of a year of two in either direction. On this basis the next conservative epoch will commence around 1978.' "
Coming as Schlesinger's book did during the height of Ronald Reagan's presidency, it was greeted as a call to the liberals so long in exile from power. The theory was used repeatedly in 1987 and 1988 to predict that Reagan's departure would be marked by the return of the liberals to power.
The clash between these wishful claims and the reality of President Bush's landside victory in 1988 destroyed enthusiasm for the theory. Not a word was heard of Schlesinger's prediction in the 1992 campaign season.
A Washington Post interview with Schlesinger in June of this year, the only story the Post has published this year that refers to Schlesinger's theory, sheds some light on why his cycles have been ignored in 1992.
"For at least the past six years, [Schlesinger has] been saying a new liberal era is nearly at hand. Any day now. If not this year, then next. It's been a constantly moving target. Ruefully, Schlesinger now acknowledges that his predictive powers aren't as precise as he once imagined," wrote John F. Harris.
Schlesinger is quoted in the article as saying, "I should have known better than to ever put a date on it. Still I think the tide is turning. There's no question there's been a revulsion against the ideas and policies of the Reagan era. You can see it on the college campuses, in the theater."
In his 1985 essay, Schlesinger explains the engine driving the cycles in American politics in this way:
"People grow bored with selfish motives and vistas, weary of materialism as the ultimate goal. The vacation from public responsibility replenishes the national energies and recharges the national batteries. People begin to seek meaning in life beyond themselves. They ask not what their country can do for them but what they can do for their country."
SCHLESINGER argued that the cycle was not automatic. "[T]here is no mathematical determinism in history," he explained.
"It takes people to make the cycle work," he wrote. "Those who believe in public purpose must interpret events, press issues and devise remedies. They must rise above those worthy special interests – labor, women, blacks, old folks and the rest – that have become their electoral refuge and regain a commanding national vision of the problems and prospects of the republic."
On Election Day last Tuesday I took the day off from The Bee and did my civic duty as a paid county election worker.
In a small, working-class precinct with a little more than 300 registered voters, it was noteworthy that more than one voter commented that this was the first election since 1960 – 32 years ago – that they had felt they had a real reason to vote.
It was a sentiment that was echoed in polling places across the nation as a record 104 million Americans cast their ballots.
Was the Democratic Party's victory inevitable?
John L. Hughes is the assistant editorial page editor at The Bee.
Published: May 24, 1991
By John Hughes
U.S. REP. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the firebrand House Republican whip, wants to get Congress' wasteful deficit spending and runaway taxes under control.
How? By sending hundreds of thousands of identical letters to newspaper editors.
The flood has already begun, and it comes in response to a fund-raising pitch by Gingrich in behalf of Citizens Against Government Waste. The CAGW stationery lists J. Peter Grace as co-chairman and Ambassador Alan L. Keyes as president.
Gingrich's plan is fairly straightforward:
"With your help," the pitch says, "this very unusual campaign is designed to reach tens of millions of Americans, educate and alert them to the fact that Congress' runaway taxes and wasteful deficit spending are destroying our economy and our future.
"It involves you signing and mailing one of the most important letters you have ever sent to anyone."
On the fund-raising side, Gingrich's strategy to stop Congress' profligate spending is something of a Ponzi scheme.
"The only way CAGW can recruit tens of thousands of individuals who will write their editor is if you send a contribution today," Gingrich warns. "Without your contribution this historic effort will fail and we will face a deteriorating future of more taxes and more wasteful spending."
Letter-writing campaigns are not unusual. Organizations of all persuasions routinely encourage their members to write their local newspapers. It's often apparent that letters have been written using an outline of points that one organization or another wants to make. But CAGW's computer-generated paper work is a labor-saving marvel.
GINGRICH PROVIDES the letter to be mailed, addressed "Dear editor," with the sender's return address typed at the bottom. He even includes an envelope for the letter that's all but addressed. ("You can find the address of the newspaper in your phone book," says the helpful hint printed on the back of the envelope.)
The letter itself begins:
"As one of your readers, I want to urge you in the strongest terms possible to increase your coverage of the fact that for every new dollar that Congress has raised this year in new taxes it has increased spending by $1.78."
And it concludes some 400 words later:
"As Citizens Against Government Waste has pointed out repeatedly, we have this skyrocketing deficit today not because of the recession but because Congress refuses to stop its reckless spending. Unless we get Congress' runaway taxes and wasteful deficit spending under control we will all be in very, very serious trouble very soon. I urge you to give more coverage to this all-important story. Thank you."
Gingrich and the CAGW are not the first to fully automate a letter-writing campaign.
When the Republican National Committee mailed out 500,000 fund-raising solicitations in February, they included a letter to the editor, again complete with the sender's name and address preprinted. The letters supported the troops in the Persian Gulf and denounced anti-war protesters and the media ("It seems that every time a few protesters pick up their signs, the cameras swarm around them, and they end up on the news," the letter said.)
Mark Rhoads, editor of the CAGW publication Wastewatch, said his organization's fund-raising package – one of eight regularly sent each year – went to 410,000 households nationwide, 72,300 in California.
Rhoads said this is the first time his organization has promoted writing letters to newspapers. Traditionally, the CAGW suggests writing members of Congress or the president or it asks people to circulate petitions.
Response to the request to sign and send the CAGW letter has been impressive. The Bee received just 15 of the 500,000 Republican National Committee letters supporting the troops, but in the last two weeks more than 90 of the CAGW letters have arrived.
Rhoads gives credit for developing the fund-raising effort to the direct-mail firm of Griswold and Griswold of Alexandria, Va.
John Griswold said he was familiar with the Republican National Committee's effort but that the inspiration for his letter-writing campaign had come from discussions with CAGW on how to get the word out that "the people were taken in by Congress" in the budget compromise last year.
As the CAGW letter to the editor explains, "In the name of deficit reduction, [Congress] enacted the second largest tax increase ever and then turned right around and increased spending by $111 billion – pushing the deficit to a new record."
RHOADS CALLED the letter campaign response phenomenal, but admitted that he had naively expected most people would use the letter as background material for a letter they would write themselves.
Griswold was less naive. "Writing a letter is such a big step," he said. "We were just putting this out there" for the people to use as they wished.
A couple of people typed verbatim copies of the letter to send in to The Bee and some sent photocopies. Most people just signed above their names at the bottom of the letter.
A Carmichael man wrote at the top of his letter: "As a longtime subscriber to The Bee, I would like to see something on your editorial page regarding this matter."
This is probably not what he had in mind, but it's more than most papers in California are doing.
"We're throwing them out," said an editor at the Los Angeles Times. The Orange County Register said the same thing.
"A huge stack" has collected on the desks of editors at the San Diego Union and the Fresno Bee, but not one of those letters will be published.
The response of newspapers to the high-tech onslaught has been decidedly low-tech.
Published: February 6,1991
By John Hughes
NOWHERE DOES the ideal of a free press – a marketplace of ideas where everyone is heard and all things are considered – come to life more clearly than in the letters to the editor. And that has been especially true during the Persian Gulf crisis.
Hundreds of letters have flooded into The Bee. Fully twice as many arrived in recent weeks as arrive on average. It has been a massive outpouring.
Together these letters create a compelling picture of America at war. It's a picture very different from quick surveys and telephone polls:
Genuine pacifists, young idealists, grandmothers for peace and mothers who didn't raise their children to die in some far-off land.
Grandfathers who remember the beaches of Normandy. Women who remember the men – and boys – who didn't come home. Young patriots eager to show who's No. 1.
Veterans against all war. Veterans who want America restored. Veterans who wait still to hear, "Thank you."
From the proud mother of a Marine who is "giving 100 percent" for America to the father who wonders if somewhere in Iraq there might not be a parent who is watching a child die, a child who is loved as much as this father loves his sons, Northern California is writing letter upon letter.
Generals are often criticized for fighting the last war rather than the war at hand. And while that may or may not be an issue in the Persian Gulf, it does describe a lot of the people writing today.
For many writers any war is Vietnam all over again.
PROTESTERS SEE American aggression, corporate greed, machismo run amok. They see a president who couldn't wait for peaceful means to resolve the conflict and a Congress sucked into endorsing a war by political expediency after failing to blunt the president's headlong dash. No war is good, they say. This war is bad. Let Bush prove his manhood elsewhere. We have no cause to die here. Not for oil. Nor for Israel.
But even more emotional has been the reaction to the early protests, especially to those protests that generated random violence and vandalism.
Writer after writer decried "the Vietnam protesters" as if not a day had passed since the summer of 1968. These protesters lost Vietnam, they say. They sapped the nation's strength, killed its will to fight. They gave aid and comfort to the enemy in Vietnam and they give aid and comfort to the enemy in Iraq today. They abandoned the soldiers in the field. They did worse when the soldiers came home. Stop the protests. Let's pull together.
Support the troops! Support the troops by bringing them home – now! The words shout from the pages of letters.
Vietnam is not the only war refought in the letters to the editor.
There are the petty wars of Presidents Reagan and Bush. If we are killing people in Iraq to stop naked aggression, what of Grenada? What of Panama? And while we're on the topic, how was it that we came to occupy this land we call America?
And, of course, there was the good war. World War II provides any number of examples for those who seek to generate support for American intervention in the Persian Gulf, from why to start a war – Hitler and genocide, aggression and terror – to how to fight a war – pulling together at home, with all means available, including the weapon that finally put an end to World War II.
Even for those opposed to the war, World War II has its parallels today. Just look, they say, at those flag-waving crowds and the belligerent "pro-war" rowdies harassing protesters. Listen to the patriotic slogans and the demands that all dissent cease. Doesn't all that look a lot like Germany in the '30s?
If there's anything that all sides can agree on it is that they are upset with the media. Since the Cable News Network first announced that the bombs were falling on Baghdad, the media have come under fire from all sides.
Perhaps not since the genteel people of Washington, D.C., rode out to picnic in the Virginia countryside while the Union Army took on the Confederates at Bull Run, has the American public had such an opportunity to witness their troops in action – live and in color. And while live television coverage of the war is safer for those on the sidelines than it was in 1861 when the battle turned against the Union forces, the networks won few friends with their attempts in the early going to manufacture excitement as they frantically scrambled to catch up with CNN's live scoop. After all, it had better be real war and not just air raid alerts when you interrupt a football playoff game.
For CNN, the cheers for its Edward R. Murrow-like reports from Iraq under attack were quickly replaced by jeers about "Baghdad Peter" Arnett's reporting. With Arnett the only Western reporter left in Iraq for a time, it was for one writer as if "Hussein's Dr. Goebbels" was working single-handedly to undermine the war effort.
SOME WHO do not favor the war decried television's focus on military technology and official pronouncements – American propaganda – but more often the complaints were about CNN's "propaganda" and about the media whining that they weren't being provided timely access to the fighting. It was enough to reignite the Vietnam experience for many.
The Bee hasn't fared much better.
The Bee doesn't give enough news space to the protests. The Bee gives too much. What The Bee does deign to publish is buried deep in the paper. The Bee stories glorify protesters. The Bee publishes nothing but Pentagon propaganda. The Bee publishes vital secrets imperiling our sons and daughters on the front.
In a sampling of letters that arrived over a period of several days recently – a poll of letter writers, as it were – 43 percent supported the troops or inveighed against protesters and 6 percent attempted to straddle a neutral line. The remaining 51 percent were opposed to the war.
Not every letter sent to The Bee can be published. But it is hoped that the few that are selected, taken together, give readers an idea of the expanse of opinion held about the war in Iraq. It is an expanse as diverse as this nation.