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Queens Chronicle

The letter writers: What drives them?

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Posted: Thursday, December 9, 2010 12:00 am

As Nicholas Zizelis, 77, a retired architect from Bayside, sits on his couch and ponders the reason why he writes letters to the editor, he declares with passionate energy, “Frustration. Frustration is what makes you get on a stupid computer and let your anger show on screen.” Zizelis is one of many who make their voices heard in the Queens Chronicle and other newspapers.

Letters to the editor have been around just as long as newspapers have. In fact, much of the news that dominated 18th century papers were written in the form of letters. During the Civil War, news writing took a more short, to the point style that letters couldn’t provide. However, they never left the paper and are just as important then as they are now. A few have become ingrained in popular culture including the 1897 letter “Is there a Santa Claus?” (in which the editor of the paper famously replied in an editorial, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”) to the 2009 “Dear IRS.” They allow readers to contribute their own thoughts, opinions or ideas on topical events or news stories. Behind those names that are printed, everyone has their own motivation to write.

Politics is always a hot topic. Ideologies of all kind are trying to get their message across that their plans are the best for the country. Both conservative and liberal ideologies are permeating the letters section of newspaper.

One letter writer Lenny Rodin, 58, is an assistant controller at a manufacturing company. Politically, he calls himself an “independent conservative.” Growing up and living in Forest Hills — a neighborhood that has always leaned liberal in politics — he feels that conservatives have gotten a bad reputation. He sees the letters column as an opportunity to prove the other side wrong in its thinking that conservatives are “idiots” or “stupid.”

“I have seen the contempt the people have here for Republicans and conservatives,” he said. “When they read a smart conservative who brings facts, they go nuts.”

Rodin has been writing for three years on topics ranging from healthcare policy to local government. If there is anything that he hopes his writing accomplishes, it is to contribute his ideas to the overall discussion.

“I just try to add to the debate,” he said. “There is really no need for people to get so hateful.”

Rodin further added that the demonization of opponents isn’t healthy for the debate.

Even with his enjoyment on writing about politics, calling it akin to “a chess match,” he doesn’t see himself making a blog or other full time venture into writing. “I only write if I have something to write,” he said. “If you do a blog, you’re more obligated to write regularly.”

Conservatives had the edge nationally in this year’s election, but not in Queens, and the other side of the political aisle makes frequent contributions to the letters section.

Zizelis identifies as a “left-to-middle-of-the road Democrat.” His letter writing started 10 years ago. He says much of his motivation stems from his humble upbringing in St. Marks Place in Manhattan. He sees writing as an opportunity to “stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves,” saying, “If I could do it by writing a stupid letter to the editor, let that be done.”

However, just like squeezing a ball or punching a pillow, it’s also his way of venting, and correcting what he sees as the other political side’s misuse of facts. “It’s therapeutic,” he said.

Just like his sometime opponent on the letters pages, Rodin, Zizelis doesn’t see a blog in his future. “I’ve gone on some of them,” he said. “If I was younger, I might pick up on things like that.”

Those two may not have any interest in delving into the blogosphere, but one frequent letter writer has written so much that he now has one. Frederick Bedell Jr., 61, of Glen Oaks, who works in the shipping and receiving department of Northeast Plumbing, started letter writing when he got his first computer 10 years ago. He has to find something that he believes in to get him typing away. “I’ll see what affects me, or if it affects me emotionally or if it’s downright wrong,” he said. Bedell often writes about personal, non-political matters that hit home, telling tales of Queens in past years and eulogizing friends who have passed on.

But the benefit he sees in the letters section is that it keeps editors and politicians aware. “It gets the editors thinking,” he said. “It’s also good politically because it lets the local politicians know what the people are thinking on those particular issues. It’s a voice and it gets people interested.”

Though advocating a political position for others to consider is a motivation for some letter writers, other contributors use their letters to hold elected officials accountable. Larry Penner, 57, a management supervisor, won a high compliment from gossip website Gawker.com in which he was called “one of the most prolific practitioners of the lost art of the letter to the editor.”

Penner has been writing letters for over 40 years. His first was a letter to Newsday about how not all young people were against the Vietnam War. He identifies himself as a “citizens’ activist,” and writes to keep politicians in check. “I believe that elected officials control our destiny. People complain about the state of society but never do anything about it,” he said. “The letters section is the perfect forum for an average citizen to voice their views.”

ýriting hundreds of letters over the years, Penner has covered topics such as taxes, local businesses and gerrymandering. He says you never know who’s reading and is willing to hear new ideas. “I feel it’s my way of trying to influence the process,” he said. “I don’t know if maybe some elected official or some lobbyist says, ‘You know something, he has a good idea in that letter.’ They might actually take my idea and go with it.”

As he has written many letters over the years, he has seen newspapers change. That change hasn’t been good for the dailies, but weeklies like the Chronicle are different.

“Because of the Internet and alternative news sources, more of the dailies have cut down on the space in the letters section,” he said, “whereas the weekly papers still have the ability to let a citizen write a long letter.”

If there is one thing that Penner says he is most proud of in his letters, it is the ability to provoke a response from readers. “I think it’s one thing to write a letter. You know you’ve engaged other readers in a dialogue when they respond,” he said. He cites a critical letter he wrote on the lavish spending for Chelsea Clinton’s July wedding, which prompted responses from people who disagreed with him. “I consider it a badge of honor if someone responds to my letter because it means they’re engaged as much as I am in the civil discourse,” he said.

Keeping with the theme of politics, one frequent writer not only took it upon herself to enter politics, but also started her own newspaper. Joyce Shepard, 68, of Bayside is a retired clinical social worker. She started writing 20 years ago. “It was a way to ventilate my frustrations,” she said. “I thought I could make people aware in politics.”

She mainly writes about local issues, such as the infestation of bed bugs, and politicians. In 2001, she ran for the City Council and started her own newspaper, The Queens Alternative. It folded two years later.

Even though entering politics unsuccessfully might make a citizen cynical of the process, Shepard is hopeful that officials read the letters and consider her thoughts and opinions. And as a former editor herself, she knows the value that the section brings to the table. “It’s important for people to have a voice,” she said. “It’s unfortunate if they do away with letters to editor; then where do people go to ventilate their anger?”

Major political issues are often the dominant subjects, but others want to see change in their immediate community. Charlene Stubbs, 39, an activist in Maspeth, started writing last year when she got involved in the Maspeth West End Block Association. Living in Maspeth her whole life, she uses the letters section to make people aware of the problems that need fixing where she lives. “I write letters to make people aware of things,” she said. “If there are problems here in Maspeth, I write a letter about it.”

Her goal with her letters is to get elected officials and people with power to see the problems that are in Maspeth and get them fixed. “I want to make Maspeth a better place to live,” she said. “It’s becoming very transient. People don’t stay too long here.”

She admits though that the letters she has written haven’t gotten the responses she hopes. She is nonetheless optimistic about the power of the pen. “I feel if you don’t speak up nothing will get done,” she said. “Hopefully people see the letters and they’ll say, ‘Maspeth has the same problems we do.’ Maybe someone will contact us and say this helped us resolve this problem.”

Another writer started when he got little response from public officials on issues. Eugene Forsyth, 76, of Flushing writes mainly on health and environmental matters.

He thinks the letters section should be given more weight by both elected officials, and people working in news. “One of my suggestions is that public officials and the news media pay more attention to the public, what they complain about, what they don’t like, recommendations, etcetera,” he said.

Like Zizelis and Shepard, Forsyth finds writing cathartic. But he says a subject has to distress him and that he has to provide a valid contribution to the discussion to write. “I do it because I get upset or I think I have something valuable to say,” he said.

There may not be one defining characteristic shared by the letter writers, unless it’s the desire for change. They all have different motivations, whether it’s politics, writing out of anger, or defending their community. In a world where it seems people forget that a letter can go a long way, the famous line written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his play “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy” illustrates it best: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

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