This is the final issue of Seven Days before the November 8 general election, so you'll notice plenty of letters to the editor, starting on page 6. Some are related to the candidates running for office, but most concern a question that Vermont voters will decide next Tuesday: whether to amend the state constitution to guarantee "personal reproductive liberty."
Those in favor believe it's a way to protect a woman's right to get a safe abortion in Vermont, at a time when so many other states in the country are trending in the opposite direction. Those against worry that approval of the amendment, also known as Proposal 5 and Article 22, might have unintended consequences or lead the way to grotesque interpretations of that liberty, including scenarios involving legalized infanticide and pedophilia.
On that and other issues, the Seven Days Feedback section represents a wide range of opinion and interpretation, which admittedly sometimes veers into the realm of organized advocacy and propaganda. Recognizing the power of the press, our newspaper has always tried to give readers the last word — as long as they're willing to claim it with a real name and town of residence. We work hard to help readers express themselves, sometimes typing up handwritten snail-mail letters, such as this week's "Perfect 100," or suggesting edits to articulate an idea more clearly.
I've been in charge of letters since we started Seven Days. It gives me great pleasure to work with all kinds of people to get their voices into the paper. I'm the rare publisher who personally calls the author of every one — almost always over the weekend — to verify their authenticity and hear what they have to say, about the paper and the state of the world.
At the start of the pandemic, when we decided to shut off anonymous online comments, I was overjoyed to see them go. Our print letters were so much more thoughtful and better crafted than what online readers would dash off, often with no civility or basis in fact. Screen names definitely don't bring out the best in people.
Perhaps as a result of eliminating that virtual outlet, though, I've noticed that our Feedback section, like the country, is getting increasingly polarized. Last week I got a letter suggesting we impose stricter guidelines on the signed, verified letters. The writer, a Burlington resident who did not want to be publicly named, wrote: "...in the current political climate and [given] how easily disinformation spreads, I really wish Seven Days would correct a letter like Bob Devost's, which is rife with accusations and talking points from the established conservative media outlets."
The missive in question, in which Jericho resident Devost attempted to explain why he "cannot vote" for U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Peter Welch, was not exactly an endorsement of the Republican in the race, Gerald Malloy. Devost's critic did not like the way he characterized the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as "abrupt" and suggested the U.S.-Mexico border is insecure. He said the first claim was factually incorrect and the second had "racist implications."
"These are lies," he wrote. "Call them out." It would have been a good debate to have in the letters section — if he'd been interested in participating.
Although we vigorously fact-check the stories published in Seven Days, and let sources respond to potentially damaging claims contained in them, Feedback presents a unique challenge. Case in point: A few weeks ago, we received a well-reasoned letter calling critical attention to Malloy's military rank. The writer, Tom Wagner of Charleston, who identified himself as "a former military officer," claimed that with Malloy's background, the candidate should have retired as either a lieutenant colonel or a colonel. That he never rose above a major suggests he must have been "passed over" for promotion — potentially a bad sign.
News editor Matthew Roy offered to research the claim. He called Norwich University and the Vermont Air National Guard in hopes of testing Wagner's allegation. Neither provided a definitive answer, so we held the letter for further fact-checking. It might never have seen the page if Roy hadn't run into Malloy at the Vermont Tech Jam and put the question to him directly. Last week, the Feedback section included the thoroughly vetted missive, "'Passed Over' for a Reason?" — one of the most interesting, informative letters of this political season, from a Vermonter offering expertise and insight many of us don't have.
Ideally, that's what letters to the editor should be — valuable feedback from local folks whose knowledge or experience qualifies them to comment on our work. Astute readers pose questions that our coverage has left unanswered. It's also OK to criticize other letters writers, as long as your point is civil and sound — not personal.
A growing number of well-informed readers email me directly with comments that should really be letters to the editor. For whatever reason — their job makes it risky, fear of social media backlash — they are reluctant to make their views public. Their lack of participation diminishes Seven Days — and, ultimately, our democracy.
If you know something that would enlighten your fellow citizens, please muster the courage to say, sign and send it. This local newspaper aims to amplify all reasonable voices in Vermont. With respect to our reluctant, anonymous letter writer, we believe that's the best way to combat disinformation.