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If columnists stir up hornet's nests, they're only doing their job

July 28, 2002 1:01 am

IGENERALLY DON'T like to respond to critical letters to the editor about the things I write because it's only fair to let people have their say after I've had mine.

I make an exception in this case because of the importance of the issue and my own desire to set the record straight.

As I said in reply to a few of the readers who sent e-mails, I deeply appreciate it when people take the time to write, whether they agree with me or not. It shows that they are reading, and that they feel strongly enough about something to respond. This is a good thing and what newspapers should be about.

There's nothing wrong with venting, or with anger. They're all a part of life. I'd rather express my feelings in a newspaper column, and have readers respond in kind, than have any of us bottle it up until we explode after being cut off by another driver on the interstate.

One writer who appreciated my column about the death of little Frances Kelly, who died after being left in her large family's van for seven hours, said it should wake people up. Not only did it do that, it stirred up a hornet's nest.

I know from experience that that the No. 1 law in opinion writing is that the people who disagree write, and the people who agree usually just nod as they read.

Another point is that after 26 years in the newspaper business, I tend to question everything. It is second nature. There are no sacred cows. Nothing and no one is beyond reproach.

If we don't ruffle some feathers, we're not doing our job. Certainly on occasion some people will think we've crossed the mental line they've drawn that separates fair comment from irresponsibility or bad taste. When that happens it's likely to spur a dialogue that I think is a healthy experience for all concerned.

But let's direct some anger at the Prince William Department of Social Services, which was told about problems at the Kelly household, but failed to act.

Let's urge the Kevin Kellys of the world to at least oblige their wives' requests to practice natural family planning.

Perhaps I should have said at the outset of the column that I bear no ill will toward Catholics in general. Some of my relatives and best friends are Catholics. The friend who was best man at my wedding is Catholic.

I do question, and I think it's part of my responsibility as a journalist to question, the teachings of any organization and its influence on what people do and how they live. There are things I find distressing about the Catholic church, such as its views toward women, and its unyielding stance on contraception.

I'm certainly not alone in that regard; there are plenty of people--including many Catholics--who are questioning various aspects of their church and its leadership.

Check my archive and you'll find columns about the wonderful church I belong to. The kindness and friendliness of its members is unsurpassed. Its dedication to its mission is proved month after month, year after year. Maybe you'll learn that I was president of my church's youth fellowship during high school, as well as chief acolyte. You'll find columns that I think express compassion as well as any you'll read.

But whatever I write, I try to make it clear where I'm coming from. I'm surprised at times when columns I thought might draw a substantial response register not a peep. That only reminds me to make my point more forth- rightly.

To have an opinion about something is not the same as being bigoted toward something, as some letter-writers would suggest. Let's not confuse and diminish the existence of real bigotry.

And I never said that only the children of large families are left in cars.

One of the most dangerous things about language is that it can be manipulated in an apparently logical fashion to produce any intended result. Politicians do it all the time. People constantly accuse the media of doing it. Even letter-to-the-editor writers do it to make a point.

There were conclusions reached and logic attributed to me that I never intended or considered.

But that's all part of the deal. If a columnist doesn't make people react, then why should he bother?

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.