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“The North County Times has a unique policy of printing virtually any letter they get, as long as it is 200 words or less and has no profanity or slander,” says Dick Eiden. “After a number of years of reading the North County Times, I realized there was a sort of community of letter writers — some always wrote about taxes, or creationism, or schools. It went back and forth, with liberals and conservatives and everything else.”

In 1997 Eiden founded the North County Forum, which he calls a “liberal-to-progressive organization” whose original members were other letter writers. “We’re pacifists and activists,” explains Eiden. “We’re very active in opposing this war, going to rallies, and having educational events. The main thing is educating ourselves and our community, and our letters try to do that.”

On Saturday, January 26, the North County Forum will present the 11th annual Letters to the Editor Awards Night. Awards are given in several categories of best and worst of the nearly 7000 letters printed in 2007 in the North County Times. Letters that make it into the “worst” category, Eiden explains, must have “entertainment value, even if it’s the most horribly written, with the worst politics in the world or so unbelievable it makes you sick.” Winners in the “worst” categories are not invited to the awards ceremony.

In the “best” categories, judges look for letters that are “well written, informative, and fact filled.” An award is presented to the “most distinctive letter writer,” the “person whose whole body of work for the year” yielded a number of exceptional letters. Other bests include best youth letter, best letter on immigration, best letter on separation of church and state, and best letter on religion.

Each year the ceremony begins with an “overture,” a dramatic reading of around 125 “sound bites” from various letters. For the 2005 awards the overture included sentiments from all sides. One person wrote, “There are 641 [criminals] on death row in California. Give them one appeal and that’s it. Fry them, hang them, inject them or whatever to get rid of them.” The same author penned, “Affirmative action in this day is rather like Rosa Parks not only refusing to move to the back of the bus, but now she wants the bus company to give her the bus.” One citizen opined, “Evolution is evil, along with false gods. Only ignorant or deceived people believe this fairy tale,” which prompted this response from another reader: “Evolution is no more evil than gravity or the speed of light. What is evil is the manipulation of the truth to force one’s beliefs on another.”

Eiden has learned to limit the number of vitriolic letters that are read aloud. “One year we read three bad letters in a row, and it was, like, ‘Oh, my, we might as well have sprayed some skunk into the audience.’” This kind of letter, Eiden explains, expresses “really hateful opinions — not just stuff we don’t agree with, but things expressed in a hateful way with complete disregard and the opposite of compassion.”

Some of the most appalling letters Eiden has seen were written by Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance. “He’s a leading white supremacist, and he lived in Fallbrook and subscribed to the North County Times,” says Eiden. In July 2000 Metzger wrote a letter about immigration that began, “I know how it tears you up to print my racist, bigoted letters, but here we go again.” He went on to recount an incident in the news: “It seems some little darlings from south of the so-called border were chased, roughed up, and shot with BB guns.” The letter incited several weeks’ worth of indignant responses. In January 2003 Metzger wrote, “After over 20 years, millions of people have crossed the border...I am living in a cuckoo’s nest. Stop the world and let me off.” Doug Woelke of Temecula rejoined, “Well, Tom is welcome to leave anytime he wants. Good riddance, and don’t let the door hit you on the backside on your way out.” According to Eiden, Metzger won the “worst letter” award so many times that he was made ineligible.

“When I was a young person living in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara,” remembers Eiden, “I looked at the letters-to-the-editor section to help me make up my own mind about what was right or wrong and where I stood politically. The letters helped me because I could see one point of view presented and the opposite point of view and figure out where I stood. I think letters do influence people. It’s a good public forum, and it’s one of the most popular sections of the paper.”

— Barbarella

North County Forum’s 11th Annual Letters to the Editor Awards Night
Saturday, January 26
6 p.m.
Address provided to those who RSVP
Cost: $20 ($7 for students and low income)
Info: 760-758-2410 or www.northcountyforum.org

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