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Spectator Needs Higher Standards for Published Letters

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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By (registered) | Posted June 02, 2020 at 11:49:33

The Spec may not have time to fact check every statement submitted, but clearly, ridiculous claims (99.9%) should be supported by some sort of reality check. If someone claimed in a letter (hypothetically speaking of course) that drinking a cleanser was an antidote to Covid, would the Spec print it? Of course not because that would be injurious to your health and might give people crazy ideas that they may decide to act upon. Taking this further, if they publish patently false ideas about a bike share program, and help to kill it, that also could be considered deleterious to the health of citizens who would like to use it, as well as benefits that accrue from reduced air and noise pollution from vehicles, reduced danger to cyclists and pedestrians and other drivers, reduced wear and tear on our roads etc. Requiring silly claims to be backed by evidence would effectively weed out the absurdist, intellectually lazy letters that ultimately have a negative affect on the City and its citizens. Brett, you should actually submit this to the Spec. Editor Paul Berton has a regular column on different facets of the newspaper publishing business (p.2) and this could be fodder for another of his columns. Grant Ranalli

Comment edited by on 2020-06-02 11:51:39

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By sbwoodside (registered) - website | Posted June 02, 2020 at 16:32:06

I do think that they print them for the shock value, to get a reaction.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted June 03, 2020 at 10:05:37

Another point is that SoBi primarily serves adults age 15 to 65 (some older and younger residents use the service, but this is clearly the primary demographic for bike share).

About 68% of the City of Hamilton's population of 520k, or 354k, is in this age group according to statistics Canada. This suggests that about 8% of the demographic is a member of bike share, despite it being based in just wards 1-4! This is extremely good performance for a relatively small system with only 900 bikes.

Or, based on just the 68% of the 142k population of wards 1-4, a whopping 28% of the target demographic are members!

(Note that residents not living in the service area are also members, and are heavy users of bike share at locations like Bayfront Park and the Beach strip.)

By any measure, bike share is extremely popular and successful in Hamilton.

It would be great if it could be extended to other parts of the city, but that would take a major investment (and Councillor support). So far, the support and investment have not been forthcoming.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2020-06-03 10:08:11

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By grok (registered) | Posted June 25, 2020 at 14:19:51

Term after term, the same lot continues to get re-elected to #HamOnt City Council. How many of these sh!#$ simply have to go, for there to be any actual PROGRESS -- as in 'progressive' -- in The Hammer..?? Where are the reformists whose job that would have been: to organize the election of upstart, 'insurgent' popular candidates, to replace these parliamentary cretins..? Why has there never been any truly popular Movement in Hamilton to unseat all these incumbents, all these decades..??

In any case -- I vote for REVOLUTIONARY change, in place of this obvious utter failure. AFAIC, not even 'taking' City Hall will lead to any middle-class 'insurgents' fomenting meaningful, lasting change. They've demonstrated that to-the-hilt, these past FOUR DECADES of Neoliberal capitalist degeneracy.

An utter waste of time and energy (of some. Not others).

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