On newspaper balance and writer-to-writer give-and-take

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Dear Former Subscriber: The other day you sent us a tart note. ``I've always enjoyed the reporting found in the Monitor,'' you wrote from your Nevada home. ``But on Aug. 3, you printed an article by Rushworth Kidder in which he advocated gun control as an answer to freeway shoot-outs. This tiresome advocacy of banning gun ownership by law-abiding citizens is journalism that, I thought, was beneath the standards of the Monitor.

``I let the subscription lapse.

``Tell Mr. Kidder to keep his ideas back east where the large cities have no crime problems.''

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Thanks for being so up-front - and for the irony that graces your last sentence. I won't try to persuade you to change your decision. But I'd like to comment on three things that struck me about your letter.

First, your sense of what a newspaper ought to be is intriguing. You're looking for something that hardly exists in American journalism these days: a paper that supports and reinforces opinions you've already formed.

That, of course, is what newspapers once did in this country, and what they occasionally still do overseas. Every major American city had two or more papers - not, as we sometimes imagine, merely to promote competition, but because there were at least two major political parties. Subscribers took the one that suited their ideology - and they would no more dream of reading the tripe printed by the opposition than, these days, a left-wing union member in London would dream of reading the conservative Daily Telegraph.

Nowadays, however, America is littered with one-newspaper towns - the result of circulation wars, bottom-line considerations, and the growth of a form of network news that strives to be all things to all people.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily.

Journalism has been changing over the past century. There's a new standard operating: the desire for balance. The issues facing the nation are too complex for partisan journalism and ideological argument, which tend to oversimplify difficulties and obscure problems. In the long haul, I think, the public would rather have us tell it as it is than tell it the way they want to hear it.

In saying that, of course, I don't mean to suggest that we're always right - especially in our columns.

That leads to the second point: what you expect columns to be. I see them as explorations of a position, probes for a different insights, vehicles for a rethinking. Sometimes they should make you applaud. Occasionally they should annoy. But always they should inform and stimulate.

And they should, when appropriate, take a stand. After all, you are capable of taking strong stands yourself - as your letter clearly demonstrates. Should not others be granted the same privilege? Or is yours the only right stand?

On this issue, in fact, it may be. It's entirely possible that you could be right and I wrong.

And that leads to my third point: the need for reasoned discourse and thoughtful argument. How am I ever to see the wisdom of your views unless you spell them out? Adjectival name-calling won't do it: Blast me with an unsupported assertion like ``tiresome,'' and you leave me free to volley back with an equally unsupported assertion like ``silly.'' We could go on hurling epithets all night. But lay out your position - however simple the language - and I'll be forced to reexamine mine.

How can you do that? Through a time-honored newspaper tradition: the letter to the editor. Any good paper is a two-way street. It speaks, but it also listens. And what it most needs to hear is reason, thought, concern. Not mere gushes of praise or howls of protest, but logic, persuasion, argument. To that, I assure you, we listen closely.

I've said I won't persuade you to change your mind. But I invite you to persuade me. Why? Because I'm convinced that somewhere in the lively give-and-take of writer to writer, the real work of a democracy gets accomplished. And that - more than gun control, more than journalism, more than argumentation - is what we're all after, isn't it?

A Monday column

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