RM Issue #040315
WANTED: COMMITTED WORD WARRIORS
by Murray Dobbin
I am starting a national list of people who are willing to commit to writing at least one letter-to-the editor every two weeks. I will commit to sending out at least one suggested topic plus analysis and writing points every week to make it as easy as possible. If you are at least interested, read on. If not, sorry to bother you. - Murray Dobbin
The election campaign, though not officially called, is already underway. And Paul Martin is counting on two things: that people will forget who he is and what he did as finance minister, and that they will be fooled by a few “progressive” policy morsels tossed out in a thrown speech and ultimately in the campaign itself.
The ghost of Mr. Martin’s 1993 election Red Book is whispering: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.
The battle for the hearts and minds of Canadians is now engaged. The question is: how can we engage when we don’t own our own media?
One way is to use the few egalitarian parts of the media that we have: letters to the editor, call in shows, op eds, and the right to complain to reporters and news assignment editors about biassed stories or those that aren’t even covered.
It is an enormous opportunity for activists to be effective in countering the Liberal government’s spin. It is an opportunity that has always been there but rarely used.
But there is a problem. All of us have pledged to write a letter on some important issue at least once - and probably dozens of times. But the follow-through on our pledges (I am just as guilty) runs about 10%. Writing a letter seems like a big deal. Where do you start? What if you get a fact wrong and look stupid? And most importantly - what difference is one letter going to make anyway?
And if it was just one letter, we would be right. But what if it was hundreds of letters? Or thousands, all across the country, to every daily and weekly newspaper that sees the light of day?
WHY LETTER WRITING AND TALK SHOWS?
First, let me say why I think letter writing and talk show calling is so important. First, the talk shows. Every right wing lobby group and political party use this form of communicating with citizens to incredible advantage. The republican Party in the US is putting huge resources into every talk show in America - even those with small audiences. Because people listen to them and gradually adopt the ideas they hear expressed.
We have simply ceded this communications tool to the right, often out of our own intellectual snobbery and our wish to avoid the unpleasantness of being confronted by a right-wing radio host. We need to get over it and take back the radio waves for our values and issues.
And letters to the editor? They are a primary tool for challenging one of the right’s biggest advantages - people’s isolation from each other. Values polling and testing in Canada show that citizens in this country are more progressive minded than they have been in fifteen years. Sixty percent of people - minimally - are at odds with virtually every policy value expressed by the Liberal government. But most of us believe we are alone; that we are completely out of synch with the majority. And what else would they believe if they just listen to the TV news and read the daily newspapers?
The letters-to-the editor are amongst the most read parts of any newspaper. If people see their values expressed in those letters they are suddenly not alone. Their values are reinforced; their gut sense that things are terribly wrong is given a voice, the built in barriers to criticizing the status-quo are weakened. In short, people’s values start to become part of a collective consciousness.
Most reporters, contrary to the overall impression we get of the newspapers we read and the news we watch, are in the centre or left of the political spectrum. Much of the time they are simply not permitted to write what they want to or cover the issues they want to cover. The news gatekeepers, assignment editors, news editors, editors in chief, etc. intervene. Often the story ideas of reporters are rejected with the claim that “No one cares about [poverty] [P3s] [pollution]...” What evidence is the reporter going to use to contradict their boss? One source is a constant stream of letters to the editor - and equally important, calls to the assignment editor him/herself - demonstrating that people do care, and care passionately.
So, with all that in mind I am proposing to start a new “movement.” I want 200 people - as a short term objective - to commit to writing at least two letters a month to their local newspaper(s) and to making at least one call to a news gatekeeper to lodge a complaint about the coverage of important community issues. The amount of time this will take can be measured in minutes - a half an hour at the most. Letters can be two paragraphs (and have a better chance of being printed if they are). A phone call need take only a couple of minutes. Keep the key objectives in mind: you are writing to those people out there who share your values - you want to connect with them at that level and at the same time provide them with some information that they can use. Withe the reporter or news editor you want to simply let them know that there are people out there who care about social issues. Keep in mind that the reporter’s story may have been changed or politically edited by his superior. If you complain about the bias - he can complain to the person who made it biassed.
If you are prepared to write one letter to the editor every two weeks I am asking that you email me back (RM: click on Murray's byline up top for his email address) - include your location so over time I can let you know who else is in your area - and I will put your name on the list of word warriors. I will then send out occasional (but at least weekly, when I am in town) suggestions for letters based on the political moment, what Paul Martin and the government are doing/saying, and what national issues are currently being debated. The idea for this project has been inspired by my work exposing Paul Martin and his agenda but the material I send out won’t be limited to Martin stuff.
What I will try to do is send out issue-related emails that will include a brief analysis of the issue and a few bullet points containing either facts, stats, or analytical points that I think we need to make to counter what Martin and the corporate elite are saying.
Of course, you may not agree with my choice of issues or even the analysis I provide but despite this obvious flaw in the plan, I hope that most of the time the issue will be an obvious one for progressives to speak out on. As for analysis, you are of course free to make your own adjustments and add your own arguments. My objective is to get, eventually, a couple of thousand people into the habit of writing letters, calling talk shows and lobbying news editors on a weekly basis.
1) Talk shows.... This one is a bit tricky and is really best organized locally by a few people willing to monitor talk shows so they know what topics will be discussed when and then letting local ‘word warriors’ know about them. Some shows, of course, have open topic periods when you can talk about anything you choose. The best way to ensure you get on these shows (so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing!) Is to phone a few minutes before the show starts or before they start taking calls - they will usually put you on hold.
2) News editors. This requires simply that you find out who the individuals are and getting their direct lines so you can call them. Often you will just get a voice mail box but that’s fine - leaving a message is just as good. Calling reporters to complain about bias is easy enough as most of the time their names will appear. Sometimes they have their email addresses at the end of their stories.
3) Letters to the editor. These do not need to be essays! Many people make the mistake of writing 400-500 word letters and then are disappointed when they aren’t published. BE DISCIPLINED! This is a political project. Two or three short paragraphs are not only much more likely to get published, they are more likely to be read by those you want to reach. Also, remember the objectives: getting useful information into people’s hands (and heads) and reinforcing their progressive values. A few paragraphs is all you need. Of course, there is a lot of variation - some papers are more tolerant of long letters than others and your own judgment on this question is obviously best.
Also, it is a good habit to call up the person in charge of the letters to the editor to ask if they got your letter - and use the opportunity to pitch why you think your letter deserves to be published. They get dozens a day so you are competing with a lot of others - by phoning, you make yours stand out from the rest and gradually develop a relationship with the person with the power to choose your letter.
Lastly, it is also a good idea to find a partner in this project who will commit to reminding you of your commitment - and vice versa.
I look forward to hearing back from you - and please forward this to any lists you think are appropriate.