One of the best entertainment sources in The Maui News on a daily basis isn’t the comics, it’s the Letters to the Editor.
In other newspapers, that space is usually filled with fairly earnest discourse. But in The Maui News, civic discussions are amply supplemented by missives on God, the apocalypse, Mauitopia and government cover-ups, thanks to the regular efforts of a dedicated cadre of local writers.
On Oct. 13, the section’s WTF quotient was ratcheted even higher with a letter labeled “More to the Las Vegas Story than What’s Reported.” In it, frequent letter writer and conspiracy theorist Steve Smith reached new rhetorical heights as he proclaimed himself “disturbed” by the paper’s “one-sided coverage of the alleged mass murder in Las Vegas.”
Just 16 days after the nation’s worst shooting massacre, Smith proclaimed the tragedy “a staged propaganda event,” including “a prepared script,” “a dead patsy,” “crisis actors,” and “an army of paid professional debunkers,” among other players.
He went on to accuse the government of staging “hoax events” and “pretend mass shootings.” The letter ran days after the paper had interviewed real Maui residents who were at the attack.
When sent Smith’s letter, Las Vegas Review-Journal editor Keith Moyer pronounced it “outrageous,” and said he was surprised that it had appeared in print.
“I wouldn’t have published that,” said Moyer, a veteran newsman who, prior to his current job, worked as a letters section editor in the opinion section at two newspapers, and publisher (which oversees a paper’s opinion section) at three others, including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Editorial pages that want to be taken seriously have to avoid putting in letters that are beyond reason and not even believable at a certain point,” he said. “Otherwise you get a reputation as a crackpot paper.”
Maui News managing editor Lee Imada wasn’t happy to hear Moyer’s remarks, and not surprisingly, disagreed. “The letters page is the place where opinions can be made, as opposed to our regular news pages.” Imada said. “I personally feel that Las Vegas was a horrible tragedy. I don’t believe [Smith’s letter] is true, but there are some people who have views that are way out there and many of them are avid letter writers.”
Editor Moyer added, “[The Review-Journal] is a conservative newspaper, and we get a lot of nutty knuckleheads writing in. But I think we’re pretty good about ferreting those letters out and keeping it to civic discussions that are factual and reasonable.”
Imada claimed if a letter contains factual inaccuracies, it is returned to the writer. Yet, a letter published in The Maui News on Oct. 18 quoted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying, “I am standing here today to tell you that I am on the same page as this idiot [President Donald Trump],” a quote that Tillerson never said. We sent the item to Imada, who never responded with a comment. But days later, the paper ran an apology from the letter’s author stating that he had mistaken a satirical quote for a factual one.
Imada did acknowledge that the decision to run the Las Vegas letter was a tough one: “Frankly, I did have some editors in-house who questioned whether we should run this letter or not.
“But I stand by my call,” he added. “I’m sure most of the people who read that section did not believe it and were probably appalled by it. But the letter tells our readers that these [conspiracy theory] people are out there. I think that might have some value as well. Then it’s the beginning of a conversation about people who hold these conspiracy theories.”
Imada added, “The vast majority of our letters are acceptable, but we live in a society where people hold all kinds of views–some really fringe; some more normal. The interpretation of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable is sometimes difficult to make. One might argue that these days, in the political sphere, who knows what is actually the truth, or what the truth is. Unfortunately this is the world we live in.”
Given his philosophy, I asked, if I wrote a letter about extraterrestrial aliens among us, would the News print it? “No, I’m not going to print that,” he replied. “There are levels of acceptable fact.”
“However,” he added, dryly, “I guess it depends on how you would couch that letter about aliens. There may be a context in which it could get in.”
It’s doubtful The Maui News cares much what we think about its editorial letter policy, given the bombshell the paper dropped last week. Starting Nov. 13, the paper will no longer deliver the paper directly to subscribers. Instead, publisher Joe Bradley wrote Friday in a note to readers, the paper will be sent Monday through Saturday via U.S. Mail. In addition, Bradley wrote, the News will abandon the Sunday paper, offering instead, “a new and expanded Weekend Edition” on Saturday, which will include all Sunday features. “Our goal here is to provide dependable delivery to our customers at the most affordable price.”
The news saddened Chris Conybeare, president of the Oahu-based Media Council Hawaii, a nonprofit journalism advocacy group. “The community is going to lose another day’s coverage of news. What if something happens on Saturday? And Sunday is the time when people read the paper.”
Conybeare recalled the period when The Maui News published just three days a week, adding “I’d hate to see it sliding back in that direction. I also feel badly for the people who will be losing work. I’m sad to see more cutbacks in the news business. The Star-Advertiser laid off 25 people in the last year.”
Managing editor Imada was sad, too. “I don’t like it,” he said, “but unfortunately the reality is that it was a financial decision. Our revenues are down in general and there are some pretty stark financial realities that we are facing.” Imada didn’t know whether reader input could force reversal of the decision: “I just try to put the news out with a staff of only 13 people.”