Our daily paper should turn the letters to the editor into something that can convey the diversity of considered opinion and interpretation of facts in this city.
By Brett Lintott
Published June 02, 2020
The May 30, 2020 opinion pages of The Hamilton Spectator were dominated by discussion of the recent council decision to end the Hamilton Bike Share program. A pleasantly reasonable editorial, and every published letter to the editor, dealt with the subject.
I wish to quote one of these letters at length, not because it has any notable merit, but for two other reasons: it displays the weak civic discourse in Hamilton, and it also demonstrates problems with the key organs through which that discourse takes place, in this case The Spectator.
The letter, published on May 30, is attributed to Paul Castellan of Hannon.
The SoBi program is useless. I do not support the concept of increased taxes to carry it forward because 99.9 per cent of taxpayers do not benefit from it. This is a lower city program. This program, bike lanes and lack of bylaw enforcement to control infractions makes travel in Hamilton undesirable. If somebody wants to bike around then support local business by buying your own bike and stop expecting everybody else to pay for your travel.
I hesitate to respond to this letter as it does feel like attacking a straw-man. However, Mr. Castellan is not my primary concern, and I'll discuss his thoughts as a means to get to a broader point.
What in this letter is demonstrably true? Only the statement that SoBi was a lower city program. There would also be some virtue in, if feasible, supporting local bicycle shops, but we could go on and on ad nauseum about how Mr. Castellan's road travel - no doubt combustion powered - is also supported by taxpayers.
What is verifiably false? Virtually everything else in the letter. The notion that the program was 'useless' is objectively incorrect, as some 27,000 Hamiltonians will attest to, including myself, as I found it incredibly useful for the many one-way trips I took on these bikes.
Second, even if we take Mr. Castellan literally and argue that only those who actually used the bikes benefited from them, then the 99.9 per cent number is inaccurate. We could say, with a smirk, that since approximately 4.5 percent of the population were registered users, it was in fact 95.5 percent of 'taxpayers' who did not benefit.
But there were much broader benefits to having fewer cars on the road than Mr. Castellan would care to accept.
The proposal to extend SoBi past the end of May would not have drawn on the city's general funds, so how this would have directly increased taxes in Hannon in unclear.
Finally, and least clearly, is his point that bike-share, bike lanes, and 'lack of bylaw enforcement' make 'travel in Hamilton undesirable.' This is not as objectively wrong as Mr. Castellan's other points have been, but it is still hard to fathom how SoBi bikes and bike lanes - as few as there are - impeded his travel so severely. One gets the impression that he doesn't make the drive in from Hannon too often.
It is easy to dismiss a letter that is so factually incorrect, clearly written off-the-cuff without much thought to accuracy, evidence, or consistency. Newspapers receive inaccurate, nonsensical, and just plain incoherent letters constantly. But they don't publish them, or at least they should not publish them.
The Letters to the Editor section of the Spectator doesn't aspire to be like those of The Economist or The New Yorker, nor should it. But if it is to be a useful forum for civic discussion, it needs to print letters that have substance and, while still opinion-based, have facts behind them.
The current philosophy behind the selection of letters on controversial subjects appears to have two principles: to provide a forum for venting frustration, and to present 'both sides' of an issue. I am completely in favour of reading a good argument from the other side, but it is a disservice just to print anything so as to appear balanced.
What these letters mimic is something akin to American cable news, in which panel discussions always feature opposite views, no matter how tendentious or ridiculous the views are.
In printing a letter such as the one above, what does the Spectator hope to achieve? Are they merely giving voice to both sides? If so, I fervently hope they received a more substantial letter from those opposed to extending bike-share.
The point is that a letter which is factually inaccurate and provides muddled, unsubstantiated opinion does not belong in the only major newspaper we have in Hamilton. This is not at all a suggestion that there should be censorship of opinion. But there needs to be stronger editorial control on matters of fact.
I know that the concept of journalists as information and opinion 'gatekeepers' has gone out of fashion, but we do have another forum where people can spew falsehoods and shaky opinions: it is called the internet.
The Spectator would be doing a real service to this city if it elevated the standards of what it printed, turning the letters to the editor from the equivalent of an internet bulletin board into something that can convey the diversity of considered opinion and interpretation of facts in this city.
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