When one of the candidates running for Westminster Town Council uttered — uddered? — the line, “I like cows” at the Westminster forum Wednesday, I wanted to look into the camera and affirm, “I like cows, too!”
After all, when our family drove across the country a few years ago, I excitedly pointed out cows so often, my kids started making fun of my bovine “fascination.” The last time I put on a costume for a Halloween party I went as a cow. And I’m not sure any family in Carroll drinks more milk than mine.
So when angry farmers came after me this week — not with pitchforks, but, rather, via email — I was not only confused, I worried I’d see my picture with an “X” through it at local farmers markets and other stores, preventing me from buying meat or produce or, worst of all, milk.
Angry readers are part of the deal. I’ve gotten plenty of unhappy correspondence on everything from columns I’ve written to stories our reporters have done to soggy newspapers. Our Opinion page generates the most.
Our columnists, particularly the ones on the left side of the aisle, get so many venomous comments online, I feel like giving them a hug. Our political cartoons are analyzed so much that I’ve started a chart, indicating Right, Left or Neutral for each day. And, as I found this week, even our letters to the editor can be an issue.
I’ve been thrilled by the number of letters we’ve been receiving, showing an engaged readership commenting on elections, stories, national political drama and, often, reacting to previous letters. It’s a forum for people to express their views.
This week, though, one particular letter — headlined “Think of the cows this Mother’s Day,” on May 7 — set off a firestorm, mostly from farmers, the likes of which I hadn’t seen in 28 years in this business.
The letter-writer used provocative imagery, extreme examples and cherry-picked “facts” to illustrate why, in his opinion, people shouldn’t eat meat or drink milk. We couldn’t have upset more people by misspelling Fuchs North America on the front page in 100-point type.
I was confused because many of those angry with us — with me — thought we had written this piece, referring to it as an “article” or done by our writer or as substandard journalism or as being our opinion. (The only opinion of the Times is the editorial on the Opinion page, labeled “Our View.” A commentary piece, such as this one, is the opinion of the columnist. And letters are solely the opinion of the letter-writer. Reported “articles” are not opinion pieces).
Those who understood this opinion was not ours but a letter-writer’s, were still angry, saying we should never have published it. This confused me, too. And I argued righteously, via email, with everyone who made this case.
I explained that we provide a forum that gives voice to a wide variety of opinions. If it’s not libelous, a personal attack or a dangerous view, I want people to have their say. A diversity of opinions, a chance to think about a topic from another angle, is a great thing, I told them. You want an echo chamber? That’s what your Facebook feed is for. And if you disagree with something, by all means, compose a rebuttal. Several people did that this week, writing eloquent letters on the topic.
But nothing slowed my inbox onslaught. I spent the better part of the week responding to angry emailers, churning out enough words to write a novel, staunchly defending the right of our readers to express their views and our decision to publish this letter.
And then I realized I was wrong. Oh, I still believe everyone is entitled to their opinion and we will run letters by readers who take the time to write us with their thoughts. Problem is, this letter wasn’t the writer’s thoughts. Or at least not his words.
If you take a line from the letter and do a Google search, you’ll find the exact same letter appeared in newspapers all over the country this week with different writers’ names. It’s a form letter created by a strident anti-dairy, anti-meat organization.
We were duped. And I spent all week defending the rights of a reader to express his views who hadn’t actually done that at all. So we needlessly angered the farm community — possibly putting my future milk purchases in jeopardy. It shouldn’t have been printed.
We’ll do our best not to let any more of these slip through. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear from you. We are a forum. We want your voice.