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Our words can be very powerful

By Chuck Hunt - Editor | Feb 7, 2021

The response to a recent incident of a letter sent to KBEW radio concerning some of the programming they air, and the brouhaha it caused, has been interesting to watch, to say the least.

The letter was signed by a group of local folks who wanted a certain program removed from the airways. And they wanted the letter placed in the station’s FCC (Federal Communications Commission) file.

All that sounds pretty reasonable.

The issue arose when the letter was somehow (no one admits to doing it) put on Facebook for everyone to see…and comment on.

The problem was, the letter writers also called for boycotting the station in both listening to, and advertising on, KBEW. And that pretty much caused a public uproar, which spilled out as far as being an hour long topic of discussion at last Monday’s Blue Earth City Council meeting. Those threats to “punish” a local business are what people have perceived as going too far.

Kudos go out to mayor Rick Scholtes for handling the meeting as he did, giving everyone in attendance a chance to speak their mind, express their thoughts and feelings, and yet do it in a reasonable way.

My personal feeling is that the station has a right to air different programs as they see fit. And we, the listeners, have the right to tune to a different station, or turn the radio off, if we don’t like what we hear.

And, on another personal level, this whole incident brought up some thoughts of freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

In America, there is the first amendment and we do have the right to express our opinions both verbally and in print. Whether our opinions are good, bad or ugly.

But when we do express those opinions, we should certainly expect some possible repercussions. And those repercussions might not be exactly what we expected.

The letter writers did not expect the public uproar their letter caused. I am surprised that they were surprised the letter somehow made its way to social media. Everything seems to these days.

Sometimes I warn people who send us letters to the editor that they could, and probably will, get a response to their letter, and it might not be what they were expecting. They are still surprised when they get a negative response.

Of course, these days, everyone on Facebook seems to be expressing their opinions on every topic, from politics to sports. And, often, getting a lot of response. Sometimes those responses get nasty.

Freedom of speech is a powerful thing. And, in the words of Ben Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Words can be wonderful and beautiful, but they can also be hateful and destructive.

Those of us in the newspaper business are well aware of this. We deal in thousands of words every week, and that is not an exaggeration. Staff writer Kevin Mertens and I totaled up the number of words each of us had written the other week, just for fun. He had written just over 8,000 words, I was just under 8,000 – for just the one week. That does not count all the other words in the Register we don’t write ourselves, like those letters to the editor.

Just like the now infamous KBEW letter, we receive plenty of responses to what we write each week. I have two files in my desk, both labeled “Fan Mail.” One is actually called “Fan Mail – Good” and the other one is “Fan Mail – Bad.” In case you wonder, they are about evenly as thick, although the good might have a few more letters in it. Not everyone likes what we print each week.

Some of the “bad” letters have even been printed as letters to the editor, when the writer requests it. We have printed more than a few letters which have “chewed” us out for what we published.

There have been plenty of threats as well, including threats to drop their subscription and urging everyone they know to do the same. Or canceling advertising with us.

Occasionally the threats have been more than that. If I had a nickel for every time I have been threatened to be sued over the past 47 years, I would have a pile of nickels. If I had a nickel for each time there was an actual lawyer involved I would only have five cents.

I have been threatened with bodily harm a few times, as well, and we have felt the need to alert local law enforcement a couple times, even here in Blue Earth. I have only been punched in the face twice, and both of those were long ago, early in my career, when I was new to the weekly newspaper business. And then there was the time I was shot at in North Dakota. Well, to be perfectly honest, it was my office that was shot at, and it was at night when no one was there and I think it was just a BB or pellet gun.

But still, it taught me a lesson very early on, that words are, indeed, very powerful.

And that is my message to you. Words, whether written or spoken, can inspire, be hurtful, hateful, loving or wise. Can’t we all try and be more kind and civil with our words?

Choosing the right words is important. Because, as I have written above, words can be powerful, and with that power comes a need to be responsible.

In case you are still wondering who the heck this wise Ben Parker I quoted earlier in this column is, well, he is Peter Parker’s uncle.

And in case you don’t know, Peter Parker is Spiderman, of course.

One more thing. Yes, I certainly would not be surprised if I get a response to these 900 plus words I just wrote. The question will be whether those responses will go in the “good” or the “bad” file.